Saturday, February 05, 2005

Let's get real . . . Or not

I know I blab
a lot about simulations and making games more complex, but even I realize that games don't have to be deep, engrossing, complex, story-driven masterpieces to be an absolute blast to play.

That being said, I want to present a discussion of realism in games - what role it can play and what exactly I mean when I talk about a game being realistic.

The first thing to admit is that a videogame can only simulate realism, no matter how complex its model. Even those gigantic supercomputing arrays that provide data on nuclear explosions or genetic manipulation are only providing approximations. In terms of the output, they don't give any hard answers, but rather a whole bunch of possibilities.

So why bother even discussing realism in gaming terms? Well, because I want to, and because even though the issue's probably been talked about before, um . . . that is . . . no reason, really.

For me, there are three questions I ask concerning a game's realism:
1. What aspects of this game are attempting to be realistic?
2. How important is this realism in maintaining the 'suspension of disbelief'?
3. Does the realism serve the gameplay? That is, can the game do essentially the same things without the realism?

In question one, we examine the parts of the game that are attempting realism and that might actually demand realism. If your goal is to make a licensed soccer game for hardcore fans, then it would be in your best interest to make sure the stadiums are to scale, that the players handle and animate like a live broadcast. If you're aiming to make Neptune League Bionic Soccer then you can probably take a lot of liberties with, well, everything. This is essentially the first step in any game, and if the answer happens to be "Nothing in this game is trying to be realistic," then you can dismiss all of these questions.

Question two deals with how well the realism elements work together with all other aspects of the game in order to create a convincing gaming space. Is there some fundamental reason to attempt realism? In a military-themed shooter based in present-day, it will be in the developer's interest to model actual weapons, vehicles and tactics - since it's safe to assume this is what the audience will expect. Anything less will break the player a little bit out of that world, and this may be perfectly all right. I see this question as dealing with the game environment, what it contains and the global constraints on the system (such as weather, lighting, materials).

The last question has to do with the gameplay. Is there a reason behind the realism? Certain bits of realism are so fundamental to games that we ignore them until they are absent. Collision detection is how we stop objects in our game from phasing through each other - remove it completely (referred to as 'noclip') and the game is essentially broken. Imagine an Asteroids game where your ship simply passed through the asteroids instead of exploding against them - there wouldn't be much of a point.

The other side of this concerns how much realism is necessary. Do you really need to use up 35% of the processor in calculating convection currents for the clouds in your bike-racing game? Conversely, plenty of action titles have a default gun with unlimited ammo, and this is so negligible, and often a necessary 'fudging', that immersiveness is maintained.

All of these questions feed into each other, and there are no doubt plenty of other questions to ask, especially when you have an actual game in development. Concerns about realism often tie into the parameters you're given: How much memory? Are you utilizing a physics model? What does the audience expect? What kind of budget do you have?

The realism issue is one that should be laid out early in the design process and adjusted as new factors are determined. It is important to maintain a consistency in its use and remember that, if you can take it out of the game without altering the way the game plays, it may be better to do without.

1 comment:

Bryan said...

I'm not a big fan of the idea that "better" videogames and those that are more "real." This, of course, is not the point you're making here, but I wanted to throw my two cents in anyway.

Here's something I wrote that I think speaks to your post: