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On Realism in Games

Article by Kris

In the few glorious minutes every month where I have disposable income, I like to stroll through the gaming deals on Steam with the relaxed abandon of a portly, middle-aged man who has drunk his fill of sangria and is now looking through a Mediterranean night market for fish.  He knows he wants dinner, but he also knows there’s no pressure to make a decision – there is a huge amount of choice, and if he’s willing to look carefully, the right deal will be there for the taking.

It was precisely this particular frame of mind that once encouraged me to splash out £5 on a game called Euro Truck Simulator (ETS).  The premise of the game was straightforward – deliver cargo from one major city in Europe to another within a reasonable time limit and without dropping the entirety of your cargo across the French equivalent of the M25 in rush hour.  An eclectic mix of unrepresentative Dutch highways and blind bends in the north east of England made this an unexpectedly fun way to kill time.

Flash forwards a few years.  Empires rose and fell, and in a niche corner of the internet populated only by me and a few other slightly strange individuals, ETS spawned a sequel.  Now with more cities, more realistic graphics and actual real world truck brands, SCS Software hit upon a winning formula by offering their growing playerbase realism within the scope of the game world.  DLC offering (relatively) faithful, detailed representations of France, Scandinavia and Italy followed.  Trucks don’t just come cargo-ready any more – now you have to ensure you have appropriate specs for refrigerated or heavy loads.  The active forums are full of discussions about the impacts of roundabouts on traffic flows, which corners of Europe offer the best prices on fuel, whether the sound of the new Scania pistons are truly authentic.

It’s glorious, and just a little bit scary.

Sometimes, a jolt of realism in a confected environment can give a player that rarest of things – a true moment of delight.  In my soccer sim years, I remember the first time playing as manager of Manchester United, the biggest club side in the world.  When I dipped into the transfer market to purchase the dynamic playmaker Georgi Kinkladze from Manchester City, they turned me down flat because I was a rival club.

It seems silly now, but at the time the fact that someone had taken the time to program that kind of distinction into the game blew my teenage mind.  My respect for the game grew.

Now, with emotions intensified by perceptions of an increasingly complex, fragmented world and expectations heightened by more desire for innovation in modern gaming, such moments are harder to come by and have more emotional impact upon their audience.  Various reviewers have highlighted their discomfort over the recent release Middle-earth: Shadow of War because the process of enslaving orcs and using them as pawns to fight and die on your behalf generates such intense feelings of empathy.  While I can appreciate the problematic nature of this, part of me wants to play this game specifically to see how it will make me feel.  Would my feelings or reactions reveal something about myself, and would I want to know it if they did?  How much realism in games is too much?

A lot of games maintain a positive veneer of realism as part of their appeal.  The Sims has given every player in the world the chance to figure out how to live as the very best capitalist that they can be.  (Though there’s a notable limit to just how alternative your life in the game can be, and it’s no coincidence that the one part of the life experience that Sims doesn’t try to replicate in detail is work.)

Paradox’s Crusader Kings 2 aims to recreate the experience of building a dynasty (mainly) in medieval Europe by allowing individual characters to experience a plethora of personality traits and unfortunate events that do a brilliant job of building narratives for characters within the game world.  The perception is one of a given value of realism, but this may only be partly due to our perception of history as a timeline of events in which there is some underlying sense of logic, a feeling which is increasingly being borne out by contemporary events.  In one particularly fun game, I played as a lunatic petty king in a single county in England who married off his first born son matrilineally because he was a drooling inbred.  My second son then died unexpectedly and the third turned out to be both gay and celibate.  I thought my line would come to an end (which ends the game) but my inbred son’s first wife died and, unbeknownst to me, he had remarried to the Queen of France. She had no close relatives, was assassinated before my petty king died and I suddenly found myself King of France. They were good, and crazy times.

More in the mould of ETS2, Microsoft Flight Simulator gives users a recognisably authentic experience of flying a plane – a work colleague advised me that a stint on this proved invaluable in his early days of learning to fly a glider – and in the words of GCT’s own editor CJ, Farming Simulator ‘made me want to do anything but be a farmer’.  This shows that creators are aware that the kind of people who play Farming Simulator want and expect a very different experience to those who play, say, Stardew Valley.

Contrast the need for details in successful simulations to the bullet-sponge effects in first-person shooters such as Call of Duty and its many clones.  In one particularly memorable sequence from the series, I was left alone as my colleagues were killed around me, defending a desert fort with multiple points of entry from waves of invaders.  On more than one occasion, I suffered injuries that led to the screen pulsing red (to indicate that you are close to death) but simply hiding out somewhere quiet for a few seconds caused me to regain enough health to continue.  I’m loathe to criticise this too much as it’s surely an essential mechanic to avoid frustrations as a result of repeated player deaths, but in a strange sort of way, it still felt like cheating, and that detracted from what was otherwise a pretty tense and enjoyable experience.

In terms of narratives, I’m a fan of gritty experiences, but in order to be truly meaningful, there has to be some sense (or at least some chance) of redemption.  Otherwise the experience is just punishing (and I have some thoughts on punishing gameplay, which I’d like to explore at some time in the future).  To illustrate this point, compare the TV shows Z-Nation and The Walking Dead.  The former is a ridiculously convoluted and silly post-apocalyptic jaunt that wouldn’t be too far out of place in one of my own science-fiction novels.  No pretense is made towards seriousness, and the show trades on the fact that it’s fun.  In comparison, the latter is filmed in agonising, washed-out tones that perfectly reflect the horror of a world in which hope is built and maintained on a day-to-day basis only, and in which lives are lost on shallow, split-second decisions.  Though based on similar premises, both shows have their audiences and both have their appeals.

When I’m finished with this article, I’ll be switching back to ETS2 for another hour of cruising along Polish highways and I’ll allow myself a wry smile at the authentic nature of the livery on the local police cars.  It’s far from an essential detail, but it’s the icing on an already excellent cake, and whatever builds my immersion works for me.

Depending on the types of games you want to play and the types of experience you’re looking for, realism is not always appropriate and almost never going to appeal to everyone.  Ultimately, games are a form of escapism and for the vast majority of people, still intended primarily as a source of fun.  For all that, it’s magnificent that people who want forensically detailed experiences that others might see as dull are catered to in the modern gaming market.  It says so much about how inclusive gaming can be that there is room in here for everyone.

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