Sunday 24 February 2013

We don't need no... realism in video games!

"We try to make players forget they're playing a game. We want them to live the experience and suspend disbelief. But emotion is complex and challenging to capture through sounds and dialogue and gameplay. In a medium like ours, tech is very important. We rely on new technology to get players emotionally involved."

Quantum Dream Tech Demo - It's amazing to see how far we've gotten, but on their own, and not embedded in a game, such things always seem better.
As impressive as David Cage's presentation was during the Playstation 4 reveal event, it's not the first time I've heard a developer say something like this. With the reveal of every new system, the promises of 'a new level of realism' follow shortly. And why wouldn't those promises be there: the new system comes with a range of intuitive interaction devices, and graphics that will, quite figuratively fortunately, blow your mind. Realism, particularly in terms of interaction and graphics, seems to be the Holy Grail.
However, I can't seem to help myself asking whether this fabled Holy Grail actually exists? And if so, is it really what we expect it to be? Did the developers of old not try to 'make players forget that they're playing a game'? Were we not able to emotionally connect to characters from older video games? Are we perhaps just chasing a carrot on a stick?
Playstation 4 Reveal - It's amazing how little gameplay you actually have to introduce at a reveal event for a new console.
The Kinect, the Playstation Move, and the Wii Remote are just a few of the more recent attempts to create a more intuitive interaction device. While they were originally praised by many people as the 'next best thing', they ended up as little more than a gimmick. This may be due to the fact that those devices don't always seem to recognise your gestures (yes Kinect, you especially), or it may be due to the fact that they don't come as part of the console package (although this is not the case for the Wii Remote).
Personally I feel that the problem with interaction boils down to expectations. After years of playing games with a controller, having to actually wave your hands to greet a virtual stranger just feels a bit strange. For those of us who play games on a regular basis, this may actually be counter intuitive; pressing a button may feel a lot more natural. Also, because you are trying to emulate a realistic experience, you just become more aware of the things that are missing. For example, while your gestures might be more realistic, you still get no realistic physical feedback. Instead of feeling like you're a participant of a meaningful interaction, you may feel like you're a silly person who's waving his hands in front of a television screen.
Kinect Star Wars - Based on your behaviour, a stranger would probably think that you're being attacked by wild bees.
Not only environments and backgrounds are becoming increasingly detailed and realistic, but also the characters and their gestures. This made playing games such as Heavy Rain or L.A. Noire a treat; the expressions of the characters were so life-like, you could hardly believe the level of detail. However, after playing those games for a few hours, those details just didn't stand out anymore. It's not until you show the game to a friend that you remember how beautiful the game actually is.
Ni Ni Kuni: Wratch of the White Witch - It's not often you find yourself staring at the environments throughout the entire game
This is because there is a connection between the player and the game. The characters may start out on the screen, but once you've gotten to know them, they start occupying a small place in your mind. To you, these characters are no longer just pixels; they are real characters with motivations and emotions. The specific details that you see on the screen are becoming less important, and whatever's missing, well, let's just say that your imagination takes care of that.
Back in the good old 16-bit period, characters were built up out of a few dozen pixels, had only a few different animations, and, if you were lucky, were able to show their expressions through a few simple illustrations (hard to imagine that people once considered these games 'realistic').Did that stop people from connecting to these characters? Did they not have emotions and motivations? No, they are just as real as the characters from more modern games are.
Wreck-it-Ralph - "This animation is so real."
By focusing too much on this concept of 'realism', we're creating an artificial carrot on a stick. We are already quite capable of 'forgetting that we're playing a game'. New graphics and interaction devices just create a set of new expectations, which may make it more difficult for those who follow to get the same connection as before. Do not get me wrong, it's good that we're seeing innovation in these areas. However, we should be careful not to forget what is important. Because what happens in our minds is more important than what happens on the screen. In our minds, we are able to create the most majestic paintings. As a game designer, make use of that canvas.


  1. Well said. To go one step further, consider novels. Often, characters that exist just as words on a page even feel more real than those in video games. Pixels are entirely optional.

  2. You're completely right. Books have seen very little 'innovation'. Some have experimented by adding illustrations, but that hasn't been very successful (besides perhaps children's books). It is interesting to see though if interaction does change perception; i.e. is there any relation between interaction and realistic graphics.