Funny To A Point – Let's Get Real About Realism

by Jeff Marchiafava on Mar 02, 2018 at 03:39 PM

Sometimes realism is used in games to reveal or confront a deeper truth about the human condition. Other times it's the knee-jerk defense for some crap mechanic that should never have been put in a game in the first place. Let's talk about the latter, shall we?

I just spent the past two weeks playing Kingdom Come: Deliverance, and after devoting more than 100 hours to life as a 15th century Bohemian peasant, I can finally emerge from my sequestered review hole like a groundhog* and talk about the game. It's not every day I play a game for 100 hours, in part because it's literally impossible without a time machine – and I can think of way better uses for a time machine, like going back and investing in whatever the hell Bitcoins are, or killing tyrants while they're still babies. In hindsight, it's a little disturbing how high "baby killing" is on my time-machine bucket list, but let's move on.

Anyway, one of the reasons it took me so long to beat Kingdom Come was because I lost a ton of progress to bugs, to the point where I felt compelled to write an op-ed on the game's restrictive save system. The comments were surprisingly supportive (aside from the obligatory "PC Master Race!" remarks), but one sentiment repeatedly popped up: If it weren't for all the bugs, the save system would be fine. Why? Because realism – and if you're too much of a wimp to handle it, don't play it!

This claim is a curious offshoot of the "git gud" argument, which posits that playing and beating difficult games proves you're a superior gamer.** As someone who has beaten plenty of punishing games over the years (and sworn at his share of hawks), I can definitively state this isn't the case. With most difficult games, it's not a question of skill, but rather rote memorization and patience. If I bang my head against the wall long enough, I can get through just about anything. The only question is whether or not it's worth the headache. Or the head-shaped hole in my wall.

Aside from the git gud peacocking, however, the realism argument is particularly vexing because it always seems to be a concession for some gameplay mechanic that's about as fun as a bag of farts.*** Just once I'd like to see an element added for the sake of realism that's also super fun – and I can't even offer a hypothetical example here because it's incomprehensible. Instead, it's always something like a stamina bar that runs out after five seconds of jogging (seriously, why are video game heroes so lethargic?), or a sword that breaks down faster than a cardboard wrapping-paper tube. Yeah, I get that not being able to climb mountains when it's raining in Breath of the Wild is realistic, but it's also super not fun.

Kingdom Come's restrictive save system is yet another sacrifice at the altar of realism, but in this case the developers are praying to a false god (see what I did there?). Because guess what? Nothing about saving a game is ever realistic! It doesn't matter if I'm going five minutes between saves or five hours – either way, I'm reloading with a Groundhog Day's-like omnipotence of the events that are about to transpire again. Even if the lost time is supposed to act as a penalty, it's still not realistic; the real-life penalty for getting stabbed in the face with a longsword isn't losing an hour of progress. It's dying. If the git gud crowd really wants a realistic experience, they should create an ironman mod that prohibits saving of any kind. Have fun playing 70 hours only to get permanently stuck in a bush.

Dropping dead during a conversation and continuing to talk also isn't very realistic. And yes that actually happened to me.

To be fair, it's not the developers of Kingdom Come that are offering up the realism defense for its save system. In fact, they clearly understand the tug-of-war between fun and realism. For all of Kingdom Come's attempts to offer players an authentic world to explore, there are still plenty of examples where fun won out. Don't believe me? Well, shame on you! I mean, why would I even say there are examples if I didn't have a list ready to prove my point? You really need to work on your trust issues. Anyway, here they are:

Carrying Capacity: I'm not sure how exactly I became the Great Apple Bandit of Bohemia, but at one point I opened my inventory and realized I was carrying 49 apples around with me. 49! Do you realize how big of a sack you'd need to carry that many apples? Neither do I, but you sure as hell couldn't sneak around with it. Another time I broke into an armory and stole enough swords to make my own Game of Thrones...throne. That was too many "thrones" for one sentence, but regardless, you can carry a ridiculous amount in Kingdom Come before you start slowing down, and the game is better for it.

Horse Warpin': Whenever you whistle, your horse pops up behind you so quickly that it's downright disturbing. You'll even take damage if you're standing too close to it, suggesting the horse is actually moving at the speed of light. Last I checked real-life horses can't warp – hell, they probably don't even come to you if you whistle at them. But clearly the developers realize that stranding players in the middle of nowhere because your horse is somewhere else isn't fun. Hear that, Nintendo?!

The Move-Crap-To-Horse Button: Alright, that's not actually what it's called, but that's what it does. Even when I was deep in the bowels of some castle on a stealing spree (I've got problems, I know), I could open up the inventory menu and instantly beam all of my ill-gotten goods to my horse with the press of a button. Maybe it's a Quicksilver scenario and my horse is actually running to me, taking the items, and then disappearing in the blink of an eye – but that ain't realistic either, is it?

Invincible NPCs: Some of Kingdom Come's NPCs are straight-up unkillable. And thank god! Trying to keep them alive during the game's free-for-all sieges would be an absolute nightmare. I'd much rather have a couple Terminators on my side who will live to see the next cutscene.

Save By Drinking: One of the few ways Kingdom Come's "realistic" save system allows you to back up your progress is by drinking a Savior's Schnapps. News flash: That's not realism – everyone knows that drinking causes you to lose memories, not save them!

This Guy: This NPC is a guard in Talmberg Castle, and he's actually pretty cool as far as guards go (he let me sneak out after I gave him a sob story about my village being razed to the ground). However, 10 hours later he showed up as a Hungarian-speaking bandit who wasn't nearly as likable – he tried to trick me into letting him go with fake directions to a treasure! At first I thought maybe they were twin brothers who took drastically different paths in life, but then he showed up a dozen more times as other NPCs. And also as Bill Hader from SNL.

No Kids: Kingdom Come does an admirable job of trying to recreate what life was like in medieval towns. But you know what's a staple of pretty much every society throughout history? Kids! And there ain't any in Kingdom Come. Probably because the developers don't trust players to not use them for sword practice. Seeing as how I'm a potential time-traveling baby killer myself, I can't really blame them.

Waiting: You can advance time by up to 24 hours in Kingdom Come whenever you want, during which Henry just stands there while the waiting wheel spins by. Not even the Dalai Lama is that patient! In order to be realistic, Henry should start making snide comments within the five-minute mark. "Come on! This is ridiculous! How long do I have to bloody stand here?!" etc.

Soup Stealing: And finally, whenever you visit a town, you can just wander into people's homes and eat their soup. Right from the main pot on their medieval stoves! Actually, can we make this one true? Please?

Despite comparing it to a bag of farts earlier, I'm not suggesting that realism in video games is a bad thing. Incorporating realistic elements into a game can help immerse players in the world and provide a sense of authenticity. Kingdom Come does a good job of that in many regards; the realistic combat feels weighty and deadly, and activities like weapon maintenance and reading help flesh out the actual roleplaying aspect of the game. Hell, I even like the lockpicking mechanic, and think Warhorse Studios is wrong for pledging to make it easier – how's that for "git gud?"

I'd love to see more games based on real events and locations in our history, and that desire extends to realistic gameplay as well. I've been the invincible hero in so many games that playing as a simple peasant in Kingdom Come was a fresh and engrossing experience. But we need to stop using realism as a reflexive dismissal of criticism. I don't know if you know this, but VIDEO GAMES AREN'T REAL. Everything a developer includes or omits in a game has to be balanced against how it affects the gameplay. If some element ends up being a major detriment to the experience, including it because "it's realistic" simply isn't gud enough.

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*Seriously, the sun hurt my eyes when I left my house, which I think means we've got six more weeks of winter ahead of us. (back to top)
**And what better way to leverage that credibility than by needlessly dumping on other players? Everyone loves a sore winner, right? Seriously, if you think you're a better gamer than others, why try acting like a role model instead of an annoying jerk. (back to top)
***I suppose a bag of farts could be fun from a prank perspective, but you know what I mean. (back to top)