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Realism in Gaming
by Nate Paolasso on 02/16/13 09:41:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This article was originally posted on N4G.

Obviously, at the very beginning, everything is simple. The first movie ever documented was of a man sneezing. The first stories were drawings of men hunting animals on cave walls. And people start out as a single, simple cell. This immaturity and simpleness is also true with video games. From the simplistic beginnings of Pong sprung an entire industry devoted to making games as intricate and realistic as possible. Games today are more believable and realistic than ever. Developers continue to break boundaries in what video games can do, both with story telling and graphical prowess. While some games are still raw and simple, developers should strive to bring a new level of realism into their games because the closer we can get video games to reality, the more we can understand ourselves. 
Battlefield 3
Video game 'realism', in every sense of the word, has come a long way since the days of quarter-fed arcade machines. High-powered PC's can produce cutting edge graphics that deliver complete immersion into a gaming world. Polygons upon polygons are being rendered; providing uncanny resemblance to the real world. Games like Battlefield 3 and Crysis 3, when put in a powerful enough rig, look absolutely photo-realistic. Even consoles are pushing the limits of what we expect from games. And with the next generation of consoles just around the bend, the graphical power is sure to get even better. Graphical immersion is, however, just a small part of what makes a game feel like a real experience. 

Obviously, the experience is real for people; we're not imagining playing these games. Games no longer are confined to simple mechanics of go here, perform this, achieve that. Now, more often than not, games have stories. These stories can range from action-thriller, to drama, to horror. Games like Heavy Rain are almost purely story driven and use very little mechanics. The realism of games like Heavy Rain, both graphically and emotionally, are startling. As gamers we become attached to characters, and we care about what happens to them. This relationship that gamers started having with characters didn't really happen until games got big graphical boosts and story makeovers. Original games like The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy gave the gamer something to fight for, and a reason to push forward. The natural progression of the industry, and technology as a whole, has made these stories more believable. And the more realistic they become, the greater investment gamers are going to put into them. 
Heavy Rain
It's important that gamers invest not only their money, but their time, into the games that they play. Even games as mechanically simple as Super Meat Boy have some sort of story that the player can relate to. Making connections with people and objects is possibly the biggest part of being a human. When we're infants, we connect with our parents. But along with our human connections, we form a bond with the toys and blankets given to us; these things bring us comfort. That sense of connection never goes away with age, we still get attached to our possessions. Games that fail to capture the players interest, and leave them without any afterthought, are hardly spectacular. But a game that is realistic and reflects the human condition, forms a bond with its' players and is something special. These games are forever remembered as masterpieces. 

All video game developers should attempt to make their games, in some form or another, realistic. They may choose to go down the path of cutting edge technology that produces a photo-realistic experience. Maybe create a deep and enthralling story that gets the player emotionally invested. Or maybe they choose to reflect the human condition back onto the player, forcing them to see their own strengths and weaknesses. All of these things generate games that not only immerse the player into the worlds fiction, but make that fiction seem like reality. Who knows, maybe a game will come along that delivers all of these things, and completely take the gaming world by surprise. 

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Toby Grierson
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I think you've cast a wide net in terms of what's "realistic". You're talking about Super Meat Boy and Final Fantasy.

Certainly any story can have realistic characters and motivations while having fantastical settings. Or even merely _relatable_ characters and motivations who are not realistic at all. Many winning stories and franchises have relatable characters who are not realistic and are not in realistic situations. Of course they draw from life one way or another, but we "realistic" is everything even tangentially related to real life, it's kind of a useless word.

You can also have really nice looking graphics that aim for photorealism. It's not the only way to do it but it's legit.

Some products are not games but simulations; I have an F-15E sim where you have two hour combat air patrol missions where literally nothing happens. Beautiful.

Some products are more what I call "conceptually realistic". My favorite example is the air power in Civilization 3. You do not maneuver your air units like you do tanks (or like you do in in Civilization 2); you "base" them somewhere and they perform "missions" like "bombard" or "air superiority". This is the "drawing from life" approach; they are created a legitimate game mechanic inspired by a real thing. And that can work _great_ for games.

In any case, "realism" is certainly not an automatic good nor automatic bad. There are things in real life that you can draw on to create interesting challenges; you can find new inspiration by looking at reality instead of aging genres which regurgitate the same 1940s-era tropes over and over again.

You can also make something really boring.

And you also might find customers for that really boring thing.

My next project is something of an experiment in all this. I will write about it later, however.

Allan Munyika
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"There are things in real life that you can draw on to create interesting challenges; you can find new inspiration by looking at reality instead of aging genres which regurgitate the same 1940s-era tropes over and over again."

Great comment, I think more needs to be written about the need for game designers to draw inspiration from real life rather than from existing game franchises. This is not ntirely the fault of game designers as individuals but publishers also have a part to play in perpetuating this practice, their need to guarantee a RoE on game development projects has lead them to create game design templates, some of which are from preceding successful projects. Another culprit is the long hours that game development staff are expected to work, which leaves them no time to actually experience lif and be inspired by it to create meaningful game experiences.

Jacob Pederson
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Photo-realistic is a term that gets thrown around a little too lightly. What does it mean exactly? That a single freeze frame should be indistinguishable from a photo? If that is the case, our monitors are far short in terms of DPI alone! And why are we talking about freeze frames when our worlds are in motion? I suggest we get away from the term photo-realistic which makes no sense unless we are developing photo simulators. How about something like retina realistic or full body immersion, with the expectation that the bar we should be shooting for in "realism" is honest equivalency to real-life, whith the ability to look around in 360 degrees, walk, and pick up and examine virtual objects. See Project Holideck, Occulus Rift, 6dof motion Sims, ect.

Bisse Mayrakoira
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How exactly should the developers of Tetris the Grand Master 3: Terror Instinct have made their game "realistic" or filled it with "human condition"? Seems to me it is a spectacular game without any of those things.

Bart Stewart
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I've argued elsewhere (
s-realism.html) that taking "realism" as a goal is a kind of trap.

Realism means picking some aspect of the real world -- appearance or behavior -- and trying to simulate it within a game world to a point that feels right for most players. But that standard is always going to run afoul of two big problems:

1. It'll never be "real" enough for some people. Trying to make things very realistic will make it a lot harder to complete and ship your game.
2. Just because you can simulate some real-world object or process in a game doesn't mean it will be right for the imaginary world of that game.

To highlight that second point: why should you assume that every thing and every behavior in the real world should look and work the same way in an invented world? The most important creative goal in describing a new world (what Tolkien called a "secondary reality") is that it be logically and emotionally consistent within itself, not that it mimic the real world except for also having magic or starships.

That's why I believe a better word for what a gameworld really needs is "plausibility." A plausible world is one where the appearance of every thing and the behavior of every process supports the theme of that invented world, regardless of whether our real world has it or not. A gameworld that feels plausible is one where everything the programmers and artists create is consciously designed to be 100% applicable to that particular game, and no time is wasted trying to achieve an impossible realism.

A limited realism can be fun to work on. And I enjoy a good simulation! What I'm suggesting is that plausibility is a more valuable target for games that are meant to be secondary realities.

Daneel Filimonov
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Indeed, "realism" seems to be an abstract concept when relating it to games. Consider this; if games were so realistic we couldn't tell the difference between it and reality, would it still be considered a game? I think not, and the reason behind this is that we cannot possibly create a game that is fully realistic because it defies the very reason a game is what it is, which is the absence from reality. Any game which claims to be realistic in one shape or another is fine (ie. "real physics!") but a game which would claim to be fully realistic is nonsense due to the fact that it must have an underlying rule (or set of them) to define its gameplay, which would render it unrealistic in that sense. Basically summarizing what has been said above :)

Stephen Chin
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Agreed. Certainly if nothing else, it can be easy to fall down into the rabbit hole of X needing Y which needs Z... to the point where, as Sagan said, you want to make an apple pie, you have to start with making the universe first. While good for physics, not so good when you just want an apple pie in a game.

Allan Munyika
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"The most important creative goal in describing a new world (what Tolkien called a "secondary reality") is that it be logically and emotionally consistent within itself, not that it mimic the real world except for also having magic or starships."

I agree. I find that I often get frustrated these days when playing games, watching movies, or reading comic books becaus it seems like a lot of creators today like to focus more on spectacle than they do on plausibility. Another problem that I find with media today is that it doesn't take into account the fact that people know more today than they did some decades ago. Creators still use the same tropes that they and their respective industries formulated decades ago when people weren't as knowledgable as their are today.

Allaiyah Weyn
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I don't care for the realism at all. Around the time LA Noir came out, I found myself turning to 2D, 2.5D, & polygonal games. Games should be to escape reality, not emerse yourself in it.