Ever since my dad held me up to a Pole Position cabinet to steer as he worked the pedals, I've been absolutely hooked on games. It just took me 25 years to figure out that I loved writing about them too. I don't have any particular genre biases, I'll play just about anything that involves pressing buttons (that's probably why I shouldn't visit hospitals...). This blog is just the thoughts of a guy who loves games, but is occasionally frustrated when they squander their potential.
A simple wooden door. I've lost count of how many times my gaming adventures have been halted by one of them. In my possession I hold an axe, a crowbar, and my trusty bazooka on my back. But none of these items that are super useful in real life at getting past a two inch locked door will get me past this one. Not unless I find some ancient artifact or keycard or secret password the game demands I must.
You shall not pass.
I feel like Dante knocking on the gates of hades without Virgil to guide me through. And so off I go! Maybe even two hours in the opposite direction to get what is required. That’s just playing the game, right? And playing is what we're all here to do. But sometimes, I just wish for the option to solve this problem more like someone would in real life.
I’m not sure when it started, or when I first started noticing it. That feeling. You know the one, the unease that something is just not right. And no, I'm not talking about the uncanny valley—even though it is related. For nearly a decade now, video games have rapidly approached the age of photo realism—slowly hoisting ourselves out of that seemingly bottomless valley—but it seems as if we are steadily falling deeper into another canyon. Quite simply, the better graphics seem to get, the harder it is to actually tell ourselves that these things happening in front of us are nothing more than a facsimile of reality.
These “glitches” in the Matrix that snap our attention out of the game could manifest as a gameplay element, lackluster AI, or simply a technological limitation. And you know, things didn’t used to be this way.
I never begrudged for mario being able to change directions in mid-air or Alucard for using a well-timed double jump to reach a platform. Was I blissfully ignorant, or did these things just not matter?
In 1985 everyone accepted that a plumber could jump five times his height.
I think the answer lies in the sometimes underestimated power of imagination. You see, sprite-based, or even some of the less sophisticated polygon based games of old—the ones we grew up with and defined us as gamers—were simple looking games. Some of them had color palettes that struggled to reach double digits, and others had models you could count the polygons of on one hand. Because these visuals were so basic, so abstract, they encouraged the full use of the players imagination to make us believe we really were fighting guerrilla soldiers in a lush rainforest or saving the earth from yet another alien invasion in the heart of times square. In this way, a pixellated but charming world like Midgar seems real and alive—and Final Fantasy XIII's Gran Pulse feel like hollow window dressing.
Today, an imagination is hardly necessary for your gaming enjoyment. Thanks to multi-core processors and motion capture technology, games are filled with believable water effects, individually rendered strands of hair, and faces capable of a range of emotions we’d expect from breathing actors. But in this mad-dash towards hyper-realistic visuals, our brains no longer have the job of filling in the blanks to enhance our playing experience, and it gets a bit bored. Since our minds don't particularly like sitting idle, it begins to take note of anything that seems out of the ordinary, finding the seams and faults in every little thing.
Every time your character jumps a little farther than he should, or you set off a bomb in an office and all the papers stay on a desk, or the fact that grabbing a health pack can heal multiple gunshot wounds in seconds, or my character dies instantly in WAIST HIGH WATER (sorry, huge pet peeve)—there's bullshit alarms going off every which way in your head. The very part of your brain that used to enhance immersion is now actively sabotaging it.
Also died in chest high water...but I'll allow it.
It’s kind of funny how so many games are now reducing their UI’s and HUD’s to an almost non-existent level, attempting to gain a movie-like level of immersion, but forgetting the fact that there’s all these...for lack of a better word: “videogamey” elements that never allow us to forget that we are just sitting in front of a TV with a dualshock in our hands.
Simplistic, inconsistent, or just plain bad AI is also a big contributor to the dissonance that can pull a person out of a game. For example, in open world games with a police presence: cops don’t even mind when you do 120 down a one-way blowing every light and having 10 hit and runs every ten seconds. Or when they finally do give chase, they give up in three blocks even though you’ve just robbed a bank. Even better, being able to walk into a police station with an assault rifle with nary a soul batting an eyelash.
That's a mighty fine park job, citizen.
Townspeople are seldom any better. It is extremely rare to get even the slightest reaction out of someone in a car you’ve just sideswiped and rammed into a light pole. How awesome would it be if instead when you cut someone off, they chased you around for ten minutes tailgating you and leaning out the window and flipping you off?(Trust me. In Chicago rush hours, it happens.)
In shooters, it drives me nuts when the AI either stands out in the open standing directly next to suitable cover, or even worse, running directly into the fusillade of bullets I'm throwing across the room, giving the game almost a shooting gallery effect. But games that require stealth seem to be the biggest AI offenders. Ever wonder why some guards have ZERO peripheral vision? You can practically reenact a full Broadway show a two feet from a guard by tap dancing just out of his cone of vision. On the flip side if there’s a level with snipers, sticking out half a joint of your pinky from cover will result in it being blown off from 400 yards at night. If you happen to find a sniper rifle yourself(with a silencer of course), there’s also a tendency for guards to ignore the exploding craniums of their co-workers right next to them, as you slowly pick off an entire facility’s guards.
For some reason these are standard issue for every guard in the history of ever
In driving games, how infuriating is it to be winning a race by several city blocks, only to have a minor collision 100 feet from the from the finish line and have half the field pass you. Gotta love slingshot AI. And then, you have escort/teammate AI. Need 10,000 examples? Go find a copy of Dead Rising or Resident Evil 5. No rush, I’ll wait. Done? Or rather, put your foot through your TV yet?
Then sometimes, there are just flat out limitations on what you can and can't do in a game world because of hardware. Yeah, there are going to be invisible walls around the city limits, or doors to buildings that wont open. But it still makes me a little sad every time I cause millions of dollars in property damage—totaled police cars and charred bodies stretching clear into the horizon—and if I walk around the corner and come back, it's as if I imagined the whole thing. Where there once was a flaming pile of victims to my flamethrower, now sits a lovestruck couple in a cafe. The place I shot that police helicopter with an RPG, now sits an elderly man, feeding pigeons. The overturned bus where I made my last stand is now filling up with commuters, eager to start their workdays. All my beautiful work, for naught!
Officer, if you just walk around the block and come back this mess will be gone. I swear!
How much difference can a little realism injected into games go? All you have to do is think back to the times when you expected something videogamey to happen, and it didn’t. That time when you tried to flee Nemesis by running into an adjacent room but quickly finding out he knew how to use door knobs! Or when a seasoned RPG player who is used to breaking into houses and swiping everything that isn't nailed down tries the same thing in Skyrim and gets thrown in the slammer for weeks. Or the first shooter that you noticed finally allowed bullets to you know, behave like bullets and *gasp* go through walls. I've also always appreciated the game that prevented the hero from carrying several metric tons of weapons, ammunition, and supplies in their infinitely deep knapsacks.
Vidjagames have taught me that this is how every soldier looks in combat. PROVE ME WRONG.
Of course most of the time, the lack of realism in video games is preferable. It is a hobby of escapism, after all. I’ve mentioned before that games far too oftentimes are obsessed with excessive violence and brutality—perhaps the entire problem is how unrealistically most games deal with death in the first place. How often have you to empty half to an entire magazine just to down a bad guy? Then, when you finish an someone off, you get these incredibly gory, exploding gibs that used to be heads, limbs and torsos. It’s so cartoonish in fact, that there’s automatically a disassociation with what's going on onscreen, and what would actually occur in real life. This allows us to shoot pretend people for hours on end without bordering on being a psychopath. Maybe if there was a bit more weight given to death, or guns as RamWar’s blog mentioned, we’d think twice about the amount of digital genocide we were committing.
Just look at the COD level “No Russian”. The game gives you the option of either not participating or simply skipping over the entire scene, and many players have admitted they did just that. Regardless of how you felt about the it's execution, it's hard to deny that there was a weightiness that made a lot of players squeamish and hesitant to pull the trigger that they've pulled hundreds of times just minutes earlier.
It's for reasons like that, that we should be wary of just blindly pushing for a more realistic virtual reality. There’s also a delicious irony somewhere in there—yearning for more realistic games to make escaping from real life more enjoyable. But as we sit on the cusp of a new console generation, one cant help but wonder what new graphical heights games will reach, what fantastic new worlds we will have the privilege to visit. And In the back of my mind, if just for a second I'll ponder: when does Master Chief find the time to go to bathroom in that suit?