Monday, 22 February 2010

The Believable Surreal

Jeez, I’ve been cutting myself some extra slack haven’t I? No posts since Christmas. In my defense I’m doing this for free and was swamped with exams. I’m sure the two of you that checked this blog meanwhile were thoroughly disappointed. Anyway…

One thing I’ve come to realize lately is how grossly misused the word “realism” in gaming culture really is. We say it all the time, while half the time we mean something completely different. I’ve grown to hate realism. Ok, not games that aim for realism per se, but the concept of realism as a mechanism used to bypass game design.
How many times have you heard the word “realism” being tossed around in an argument pertaining to a game involving one of the following: Aliens, space traveling, spaceships, space colonies, teleports, super powers, high powered portable laser rifles, power armored space marines, regular space marines, magic, trolls, zombies, mutants, cyborgs, giant robots, time traveling, magic self-regeneration, health kits that instantly cure all ailments, people that survive a bullet to the head and walk it off, respawns or a myriad of other unreal elements? You might be aware that none of those things exist in real life, yet most of them are regular staples of gaming culture. And we love them. Again, I ask, for how often (and generally out of context) we throw “realism” around, is it really the concept we’re looking for? 

I believe that the concept we’re really looking for is “believable”. You’re probably thinking “But Cali, you’re arguing semantics here…”, and it should be semantics, but the issue is that this reflects on game design. We can live with lack of realism, in fact we often ask for it, but lack of believability breaks immersion, and without immersion games are little more than pretty graphics. Realism by itself is meaningless.
Here’s a scenario: you’re playing Team Fortress 2, a game where you’re capable of jumping around 15 ft by shooting a rocket at your own feet (and live through it), can survive several bullets or explosives, despite the lack of any body armor and overall not exactly a very realistic game. You walk up to a fence on the side that’s clearly a map limitation and realize you can’t jump over it despite the fence being around 5 ft tall, and you being able to jump triple that height. Odds are it won’t bother you much. Nothing about that is realistic, not even closely, but being unable to jump that small fence is perfectly coherent with the cartoonish and overall surreal tone of the game. The fence is a barrier, it’s perfectly defined as such, and you accept being unable to transpose it because the game sets you up for it. Yet, the same situation in a different, far more realistic game becomes absurd and awkward. Playing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, by all counts a far more realistic game than the aforementioned Team Fortress 2, you’ll run by several fences you can’t jump… And you’ll find it awkward. Why? Well, first because the game shows you you’re clearly capable of it. Through the game you’ll jump through more than a dozen equal fences, walls and obstacles, sometimes forcefully, yet when the game decides so a small fence becomes an insurmountable obstacle. It’s incoherent. It’s basically one step above the horrible “invisible walls” that plagued 90’s games. However, most of it stems from the realism inherent to the game. Unlike Team Fortress 2, Modern Warfare aims to be realistic, which leads us to wondering why a highly trained soldier suddenly can’t hop over a small fence. It’s uncanny, and breaks immersion faster than a “game over” screen. 

The principal psychological element at work here is an effect of contrast: In Team Fortress the whole ambiance is cartoony by nature, so it’s a lot easier to accept this kind of situation from the start as it does not deviate from reality any more than the rest of the game, while Modern Warfare on the other hand, approaches reality so much more that this situation stands out as uniquely out of character. If you hear a college student got drunk at a party you’ll likely have no reaction, if you hear a surgeon got drunk right before surgery, you’re likely to be at least surprised. 

Here’s a recurrent and inevitable situation if you’ve ever played Prototype, a game whose protagonist is a super powered mutant with the kind of capacities that would make a comic book super hero insecure: You run up the side of a skyscraper, you drop (or jump) down a good thousand vertical feet, and proceed to crash land on solid concrete street, making a giant crater on the floor before simply walking away like nothing happened. Amongst the whole entirely surreal episode, you know what’s the one thing you’ll notice as strange? That no one seems to care. It’s out of place. Your superhuman feats can be explained by the character’s superhuman powers, but nothing explains people’s robotic apathy. Everyone will panic and the entire military will unleash hell on you if you so much as punch a passerby, but apparently in this Manhattan it’s perfectly normal for average people to crash-land the height of the entire Chrysler building and then go for a jog, so much so that even the military looking for someone with that kind of powers won’t give it a second thought. 

At the end of the day is all about coherence, consistency. No matter how surreal something is, if it’s consistent, it’s believable. Yet even the most realistic puzzle falls apart when the pieces stop matching. It’s the same reason nobody questions why Mario can stand falling some incredible heights with intact legs, but Valve had to go an extra mile to justify the same situation in Portal (“main character has bionic leg implants”).

Am I asking people to stop making realistic games? No. Not at all. Reality is always a reference point for us. But perhaps it’s time we restart exploring the surreal. First because the more realism you go for, the less freedom you’re given. Reality is already rigidly predefined and when you run into limitations, and you will always have limitations whether they’re game engine or gameplay wise, the more realistic your game is the harder it’s going to be to cover them up. Mostly, however, is that reality is just… constricting. The lack of realism is as worth exploring as realism itself. So long as you keep whichever universe you create coherent, it’ll feel “realistic” by its own standards.

The bottom line here is that believability is the concept we should always strive for, there’s definitely room in this world for realistic games but just because they’re realistic it does not mean they’re believable. Toss out the concept of “realistic” as a standard, and let’s explore the unlimited potential of the believable surreal.