Welcome To The Desert Of The Real

At Edge Online, N'Gai Croal in his blog discusses some interesting issues relating to realism, verisimilitude, and detail, many of which echo some of my own experiences.

Because even those titles which are widely seen as exemplars of game realism, be they Crysis or Mass Effect or Grand Theft Auto, are themselves stylised in some way. So what is it that we mean when we say that a game is realistic? Are we talking about verisimilitude? Detail? Atmosphere?

I tend to think that of all these, "realism" is actually the least important, followed by detail, atmosphere, and verisimilitude. This is the opposite of the order they are usually discussed (perhaps it's a prejudice against long words).

Realism, especially in a combat game, is the last thing you want. You don't want things to be real, just to seem real, or real enough. The exploits most combat games require of their players in order to "win" are ridiculous by their very nature, even for the super-soldiers those games have as protagonists. The last thing they need on top of that are realistic treatments of weapons, damage, fatigue, and the like.

I think that's a big part of the reason that so many very successful franchises (Halo, Mass Effect) largely operate outside those parameters by operating in the future, where unrealistic situations and damage models can be explained away by advanced technologies-- better shields, better weapons, better vehicles.

It is where realism is misapplied, or rather selectively applied, in games like GTA, where I think there's the most dissonance. Things look and seem like they are happening in the real world, but the perception of verisimilitude recedes as more and more unrealistic things happen, or else the fun turns into frustration when the virtual reality restricts the player's actions.

For instance, I'm almost never put off when I hear a Covenant alien utter the same combat phrases over and over again, but when I see the same cookie-cutter girl chatting on her cell phone in Liberty City, saying the same thing that all the other girls on every other street say when they walk by, it calls attention to itself in a negative way. I don't know what the Covenant are like at home. I don't know how varied their lives are. So I allow them more leeway for behavior, and the limits imposed on their behaviors seem less arbitrary to me. But when I'm walking down what looks like a real street in a real city, and what looks like a real person walks by, doing a real thing-- talking on a cell phone-- I don't expect to hear the same phrase dozens of times over, and when I do, it's jarring.

It's another example of how the content treadmill never slows down-- the more content a developer puts into a title to develop more atmosphere, more detail, more verisimilitude, the more is required. It's like the uncanny valley, but for nonvisual details-- the closer you come to things seeming more lifelike, the more glaring every tiny imperfection becomes.

I had a moment like that when I first received my Xbox 360 review unit in 2005 along with a slew of launch titles from various publishers. From Perfect Dark Zero to Condemned, from Project Gotham Racing 3 to Need For Speed: Most Wanted, each game made me feel as though my eyes were being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of onscreen visual detail. It was as if I didn’t know where to look, or even how to look at what I was seeing, so different did those titles seem to me from their last-generation counterparts.

Actually, as a result of being out of console gaming since the 2600, I had this experience on the original Xbox, moving from Halo to Halo 2. Halo's designs seemed clean, crisp, and classical. At first Halo 2 seemed a jumble, a cacophony of competing bump maps. Everything on the screen screamed "look at me", even things that were unimportant and wholly uninteractive, like wall textures and furniture.

Any graphic detail in the original Halo game was usually reserved for an interactive item of some importance, or as accents. A lot of the wall and floor textures were essentially flat, with very little detail. Control panels and other interactive items really stood out, as did doors and windows, and enemies. Contrast that to Halo 2, where at first-- especially in the hangars-- I had trouble identifying targets because they were no longer significantly more detailed than the background they were hiding in.

Cliff Bleszinski described one of Gears Of War’s aesthetic premises as ‘destroyed beauty,’ the way that the environments combine the splendour of Seran architecture with the detritus of the planet’s ruins. Gears 1 and 2 have their share of slimy surfaces and gruesome killings, but the images themselves are by and large appealing to the eye. That’s because for all of the additional graphical details that Gears may have when compared to last generation’s titles, people still expect to derive a certain amount of visual pleasure from the games that they play, whether it’s Halo 3’s gleaming green-purple-chrome colour palette or the saturated deep blues and nightvision greens of COD4.

Killzone 2, by contrast, consistently denies us those pleasures. Yes, its graphics engine is unquestionably stellar. Yet based on the creative and technical art direction for Killzone 2, the guiding principle for Guerilla’s PS3 debut must have been ‘decrepit ugly’. Helghan’s grimy environments clearly weren’t much to look at before the Vektan invasion, but the way that the war has chewed them up further isn’t helping matters. All of this is subtly reinforced by Guerilla’s penchant for supplying a single hint of beauty – lapping waves on a beach; the barest glimmer of sunlight peeking through Helghan’s thick cloud cover – that only serves to augment the game’s overall gloom.

This I think is becoming a real problem. Many games that focus on war and combat create unpleasant situations in unpleasant locales. War, in reality, is neither pretty nor fun for most people compelled to engage in it. Yet games are supposed to be fun, and war simulators are among the more popular genres of game. It's a seeming contradiction.

The Halo series largely avoided this issue by setting its battles away from pitched battlefields most of the time. The environments you fought in, with the exception of a few, were not destroyed. Some were: a Covenant cruiser and the wreck of the Autumn in Halo 1; New Mombassa in Halo 2, arguably High Charity in Halo 2 and 3. This destruction might have been creepy or scary but it was never gray, drab, or depressing. Halo's enemies, vehicles, and weapon effects always made the environments bright and colorful. Halo's environments and structures were designed to be beautiful. War in Halo was like the way they presented joining the Marines in World War II-- you'd get to travel to exotic places, meet interesting people and kill them. There's hardly anything depressing about it, and the things that are intended to be depressing are personal rather than environmental (the deaths of primary characters in the story).

This is in stark contrast to Gears of War, Killzone, Oblivion and Fallout 3. (Of other recent games, Mass Effect's designs clearly owe more to Halo and its ilk than the others above.)

I first noticed this in Oblivion. The game's plot revolves around the opening of Oblivion Gates-- portals into a hellish dimension inhabited by creatures of evil who seek to destroy the beautiful and varied landscape and peoples of Cyrodil. I suspect the designs for that world-- dark, depressing, black and red, smoke-shrouded Oblivion-- were intended to motivate the player to defend the beauty of Cyrodil from this evil ugliness, to close the gates and banish it forever.

Instead if made me want to ignore it. I ran around in the game and did as many side quests as I possibly could, giving a wide berth to any gates I ran across, and entering them only when a main quest required it and I could not put it off any longer. The Oblivion instances were ugly, depressing, and unvarying; the same cookie-cutter lava pools, dark towers cribbed from Tolkien, and pods of blood and gore. It wasn't fun.

Of course it wasn't supposed to be fun. Hell isn't fun. You can't make it fun without making it, somehow, less hellish. Bethesda was a victim of its own success; it did such a good job at creating a lifelike representation of a really unpleasant place that it made me not want to play that part of the game. unfortunately that was a really major portion of the game, one that you could not wholly avoid and still complete it!

Whether by design or fortune Bethesda largely managed to avoid this situation in Fallout 3 (or at least reverse it). The underground environments, the "dungeons" of Fallout are sometimes the usual caves and aboveground structures like you'd see in Oblivion, but very often they are portions of the D.C. Metro system. Here, the cookie-cutter nature of the design (entrances, stations, ticket booths, service areas, subway tunnels) does not draw attention to itself, because it reinforces the verisimilitude rather than destroying it. You expect to see that kind of design in a subway system; you expect stations to look like each other. Instead of running across the umpteenth Blood Tower and wondering why the architects of the Oblivion dimension lacked a single shred of originality, I was continually struck by thoughts like, "hey, I remember this station, and it IS laid out like this-- and the floor textures are right, and the ceiling textures are right, and the tunnel map is right." Such is the benefit of setting a game in your own backyard. However, in this case it is more than this-- given the nature of world-building in Bethesda's engine, the choice of setting-- in this case, the Metro tunnels-- was in perfect harmony with how their tools worked, which was not the case always in Oblivion.

Where Fallout 3's environments initially seemed a letdown was in the outdoors, the Wasteland. Whereas Oblivion had numerous hellish instances of stupefying sameness and depression, connected by the pastoral landscapes of Cyrodil, Fallout 3's distribution of territory is inverted. The entire world is gray and destroyed, with the areas of detail and brightness being indoors and underground. This took some time getting used to. Instead of wandering around agape at the natural beauty, as in Oblivion, and avoiding as long as possible forays into the Gates, in Fallout I tend to seek out those dungeon areas, spend less time aimlessly wandering, and use fast travel more often than not except when actively looking for new locations. Whereas wandering the countryside in Oblivion was reward enough for risking death by rogue or wild animal, the sights by themselves are rarely worth it in the Wasteland, and the experience and loot are usually better in specific encounters rather than in random ones.

However the D.C. Wasteland exteriors do have one advantage over Oblivion's, and that is scale. I remember reading that Oblivion's world was a scale 12 square miles. That's awfully small an area to have the variety of cities, culture, and terrain that you see in the game. I also seem to remember reading that Fallout's area is actually no bigger than that-- perhaps a bit smaller. But it's much closer to a realistic scale. It's a single city and suburbs, connected by a smashed highway system and a wrecked Metro network. The landscape may be less varied, but this also reinforces the lifelike feel. It was always easy to perceive the sleight of hand regarding scale in Oblivion, especially when moving from one terrain area to another; the changes seemed abrupt and arbitrary, and a lot of work was put into arranging for long, meandering paths linking disparate areas with high mountains to make things seem further apart. This same trick feels like less of a trick in Fallout than in Oblivion.

For while all of its visual effects are impeccably implemented, in contrast to the clumsy attempts at the start of this generation, I could have done with the suggestion of devastation instead of a meticulous recreation of it. I’d have preferred a more distanced, iconic representation of Helghan’s scorched surface rather than the flawlessly dismal illustration in the finished game. Four holidays into this generation’s titles, the last thing I expected was that I’d find myself clinging so hard to my long-held assumptions about what defines videogame reality. But if wanting a little more beauty in my games is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

I tend to agree. Realism, by itself, is not necessarily a virtue. What is needed is enough verisimilitude to allow the audience to suspend disbelief. Realism in excess of this amount is, in my opinion, wasted effort.

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Comments

My favorite online shooter is Project Reality mod for Battlefield 2. In this mod the weapons looks, sound, and (most importantly) feel as they should in the real world--you have to fire in semi-automatic mode to hit anything beyond 20 meters, and you have to wait at least a second or two before each shot due to recoil and deviation. You spawn only on rally points which are set down by your squad leader, or from APCs. All classes carry the same weapon type but with different configurations as a real professional army would, and if you want a special class you have to request the kit at a forward base (deployed by your team) or your home base. There are thousands of changes from the original Battlefield, and all of them were done with realism in mind.

Now, there are people that really enjoy this--usually it's military enthusiasts and veterans. However, admittedly this is a niche group of people. The same can be said for flight simulator fans. Most people are okay with H.A.W.X. or Ace Combat, but some people want more and would prefer a game like Falcon 4: Allied Force.

There does come with this added realism a major sense of sacrifice. Most concepts in games, whether they be actions or objects or procedures, are largely symbolic, and we except this because we're aware of the technological limitations. The more realistic and believable a game attempts to be the more symbolic it has to be in its concepts, generally speaking. The fidelity associated with realism is still too much for what our computers and game consoles can handle, but it's also just too much work for the development teams to implement.

Personally, I really enjoyed Grand Theft Auto 4 over previous iterations. It was more "realistic." For me it's about immersion. That's why I play games. Some people do not want that. They want to get away from reality, or anything resembling it, and so you have a large group that very much preferred the silliness of Saints Row 2. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with that. I've always felt that as game design moves forward there will always be two camps: the one that prefers the more arcade style game, and the one that prefers the more immersive, perhaps cinematic (though not necessarily), style of game. Now we're seeing people from the latter camp that want realism immserive and people that want stylistic, metaphoric immersive. It'll continue to break down.

It's an interesting subject, no doubt.

No Zizek references other than the title? I'm disappointed...