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I see the term realism thrown about quite frequently by gamers in forum discussions, blogs, and even in reviews. The fact is that realism in video games is a myth. Just as fiction cannot (by definition) be real, there are no real video games.
Realism is defined by Merriam-Webster in two pertinent ways:
1. concern for fact or reality and rejection of the impractical and visionary
2. the theory or practice of fidelity in art and literature to nature or to real life and to accurate representation without idealization
Essentially, when talking about video games people tend to talk about graphics and sound effects in terms of how “real” they are both in a visual and an audible sense. Developers frequently go out of their way to provide accurate representation without idealization to the best of their ability. Some developers record authentic sounds for various gun types and the noises made by shots of specific bullet calibers at gun ranges. Modern facial animations are based off of the face movements recorded from real human beings. Millions of dollars are spent on getting the most realistic look and sound possible in many of this generation’s games (Note: I did not say that this realism is the goal of all modern games. I am merely talking about the games that DO attempt realistic visuals and sounds). Given those facts, it is hardly surprising that gamers tend to think about games in terms of being more or less realistic.
The truth is that video games are not, nor have they ever been given to realism. Many games outright eschew real world facts for the impractical and visionary all the time. Examples of this are easy to pick out: Super Mario Bros., Minecraft, Star Fox, Borderlands, Skylanders, etc. None of those games fall under the umbrella of either of the provided definitions for realism.
The best that one can say about them is the attempt they make at illusion of reality. When a game sucks you in and holds you in rapt attention (i.e. immersion) it is creating a convincing illusion of reality. You care about and are invested in the environment, characters, and avatar in the game you are interacting with. However, often times these things do not look real. The presence of polygons means that graphics frequently look unnatural, flat, and have awkward angles. This is only a problem if a game is trying to produce in-game objects that look real. If a video game is going for a more animated aesthetic, then realism ceases to be an issue because the game is not trying to emulate the real world. The human brain is great at abstract thinking and it is this ability that allows us to become immersed and invested in a game that does not perfectly replicate the real world. This is because we can make that mental leap and relate imperfect digital creations to real world counterparts either real (like an AK-47 or a dog) or imaginary (like a space ship or a dragon).
This is not to say that the future of gaming graphics technology is not moving closer to realism. Graphics technology is improving at an astonishingly fast pace. At this year’s D.I.C.E. summit, Tim Sweeney gave a talk in which he stated that, “Within our lifetimes, we will be able to push out enough computational power to simulate reality.” Last year, the Australian company Euclideon made a startling announcement that the graphical power of their unreleased software promised unlimited graphics detail. Essentially that opens up the possibility for more or less perfect fidelity to real-world objects in video games. The ability to produce life-like graphics is nearly here. But will games be more realistic for their ability to replicate the real world?
In short, no. Because for all of the work developers put into making their games look and sound more real, perfectly realistic games would be catastrophic failures. How fun would a game like Call of Duty be if taking a bullet wound left your character screaming for a medic on the ground? Or how about lacking the ability to fast travel to various locations? Or playing through a driving game that required strict adherence to traffic safety laws? None of those would be fun, or at least they would be plagued by problems constantly. While striving to make games feel more real, developers are also tasked with making their games fun and playable through the implementation of clever and enjoyable game mechanics like health bars, shields, fast travel locations, magic abilities, etc. Given this, even a video game with the most realistic appearance and sound remains fictionalized because it must still be a game.
What the achievement of perfect graphical fidelity will do (in my opinion) is create crazier and more mind-bending video games than we have yet seen using high graphical fidelity. To see this trend one has to look no further than what happened to painting with the advent of the photograph. Painters for centuries had been attempting to portray accurate landscapes or human figures, but then perfect fidelity came along in the form of photography and made that attempt a moot point. Painters then began experimenting with abstraction and surrealism and from that experimentation emerged great artists like Picasso and van Gogh. I would argue that with the advent of perfect graphics, video games will follow a similar path (although I realize that some already do). Instead of striving for such things as graphical power, developers will be free to focus on gameplay mechanics (perhaps something better than the Bioware dialogue wheel?) and making their game more fun, or adding more content.
Don't like the Bioware dialogue wheel?
Whatever the case, video games are not real nor, in my opinion, should they be. And if you disagree, watch The Matrix.
Good read! I really enjoyed it.
Great blog, Jack. I really like your thought process going along with it. I had a gripe about about developer's attempts to reach realism a while ago, talking about how there is a steady increase of 'lack' of variation in game mechanics due to studios keeping things in what makes sense. Hopefully, with your thoughts about the evolution of artistry and video games mirroring the same lineage, things will change.
I would definitely look forward to the day that happens :)
A very enjoyable blog to read. I enjoy realism to a certain aesthetic extent. When I look at the graphics demos that are put out, I stare in a sort of awe at the level of graphical power these new engines are putting out. However, I think also think about all of the possibilities we are going to see when this engine is put to use; not just realism, but mechanics and the story as well. I like to think of all of the unique things that I will get to see in the future thanks to these new engines.
Nice blog and a very well-thought meditation on the issues of realism in videogames.
Ummm...I'm not sure if you've ever played Mortal Kombat 1-3, but the graphics in that are actually real. I'm not sure how after 15 years no other developer has been able to achieve that level of realism for the characters as MK1-3, maybe it's some long lost secret.
Haha, just kidding. Nice blog post.
Great blog. Very nicely articulated. You made some very good and interesting points.
dang this really got me thinking now... Yes it would be fun for some things that would be real such as driving games I could see being sorta fun but yes I would have to agree overall with what you say about how it would be really hard to implement getting shot without completely messing up the game. kinda reminds me of what the borderlands 2 people said about we just want people to have fun so we added stuff that just makes the game fun who cares if its overpowered.
Good blog please keep making these thought provoking blogs I always enjoy a good thought filled blog...
you can simulate reality; you can create objects in games that look like objects in the real world, but every simulation you will ever be able to do with those objects will still result in a simulation, not a real object. commander shepard in mass effect 3 will never be real like the PS3 that sits on your dresser; I don't care what graphics engine he's being run on.
you sir are 100% percent right i was thinking about this the other day good job sir
In terms of appearance yes realism can be useful for a given game if that’s what they are aiming for. If every part of the game where like real life then it would probably do poorly in the market, I think when dev’s aim for realism its more or less in appearance and not entirely experience (by that I mean what you the player do). Video games I feel just have that happy limbo point between real enough and fantasy driven.
Pushing it any further then that could ruin that balance, or maybe, just maybe make something unique. But something of that nature would truly have to be made with care; if it can be made at all.
It seems like you are using the terms "realism" and "realistic" as absolutes. No game is "realistic" if it doesn't perfectly portray real life, and that would be boring. However, these terms should really be taken like a sliding scale. Games can be "more realistic" or less realistic" than other games, and generally this refers to the computer generated images being designed as photo-realistically as possible.
Outside of sim games (simulation, not The Sims), games generally do not try to mimic real life in terms of mechanics and interface.
It seems like, in general, (non stylized) games for a while attempted to approach realism in all aspects up to a certain point. After increased realism starts to make a game less fun, the quest (for realism) is scaled back in some areas, and advanced further in others. Graphics certainly haven't hit that limit yet, and as such, can continually be improved. Enemy (and friendly) AI also have a long way to go. Sound design tries to use sounds that feel right for any situation, even if it is not the sound such a thing might make in real life (if it exists at all). With motion controls, the user interface is able to be used to increase immersion, by using one's body to mimic the actions that a character makes in game. Story can also be used to portray a believable situation that could occur in real life. Even beyond this, if the characters, their behavior, and their actions are relatable, it increases "realism" even if the situation could not happen in real life. All these can be used to increase the "realism" of a game, if the developers want to go that route. Just because a game doesn't force a player to act exactly as a real life human would have to act, it doesn't make a game absolutely unrealistic.
I think the closest I've seen a game get to "realism" as you define the term is Heavy Rain. The characters, while still clearly CG, looked and acted real and emotionally complex, and existed in a believably real world. If there were liberties taken to make the gameplay/story more exciting, I didn't notice them. I don't know if true realism (where games look exactly like the real world) will ever be achieved but we're starting to get darned close.
Great read. It always annoys me when people start talking about the realism in video games. I'm so tired of hearing that the reason more people play Call of Duty over Battlefield is that CoD is more realistic than BF. "The bullet trajectory in CoD is the way it should be" and "You can't do that in jet, really." Well no *** you can't do that in a jet. You also, as a spongy couch-potato (excuse my gross generalization for the sake of my argument), can't go storming off to Russia or Rio or wherever to chase down a terrorist organization. There's no point in striving for total realism in a medium such as video games; as you say, realistic games would be awful.
I realize that most people, when speaking of video game realism, are referring to the graphics, and an attempt at realism in the graphics department is fine. But for every individual seeking real-looking graphics, there are at least two others that think video games should look unrealistic and take you to an unrealistic (in the best sense of the term) place. I'd much rather hang out in Azeroth or Hyrule than somewhere that's considered more real-to-life... and boring.
I've been keeping up with Euclideon's work myself, and I'm glad you included them in your argument. Their tech, if it works as promised, will be a literal revolution for game artists. Like you said (a view I wholeheartedly agree with and hope comes true), this will set the artists free to literally do whatever they want, however they want. Think about it: there are already artists and designers out there that strive to create fantastic places, moreso than those that try to create realistic places. So set them free, Euclideon!
Again, great blog.