Sometimes games that are realistic…are worse

Realistic games

My hot take in stunning 8K resolution

One of the most impressive things about games is just how far they’ve come technologically in only a few short decades. There was a time when a few blinking pixels on a screen were cutting-edge technology, and now we have games that are so photorealistic that we can see every grimy pore on our player character’s face.

Look, I would never be one to diminish the hard work that people have put in to make that happen, but at the same time, I don’t think that it’s all that necessary.

For one thing, hyper-realistic games don’t age super well. Something that we think looks real one year will appear outdated in the next due to constantly improving technology. Remember, there was a time when people thought the first Metal Gear Solid game was the most realistic thing they had ever seen. If a developer wants to go for a more grounded style, I think it works better to lean ever-so-slightly into some stylization. 

Snake in Metal Gear Solid was once realistic looking

The Telltale games are a great example. Those games are far from photo-realistic, but the art style actually mimics the cell-shaded style of comic books, where many of the Telltale IPs got their start. They were great at creating atmosphere and a sense of place, which to me is so much more important than a one-to-one feeling that I’m in the real world.

Personally, I’m a big fan of stylized art forms. Even when you want to go for a more grounded feel, you can still use the art to help achieve that feeling. The art style can set the whole tone for a piece, and since games are such a visual medium, there’s nothing I love more than seeing devs use the art to help build on the game’s tone, because I believe that’s one of the most powerful tools they have at their disposal.

We also can’t ignore the fact that the more “realistic” you want to make your game, the harder your designers, artists, and animators need to work. We’re at a point now where you can easily find a balance between making things look how you want, while also not crunching your developers into oblivion. The pros just don’t outweigh the cons in my eyes.

When the storytelling or gameplay is strong enough to carry a game on its own, that’s what I really care about. If taking away a sense of visual realism makes your game unplayable, then I’m sorry, but you might just have a bad game on your hands.

The cheese-carrying weight limit in Skyrim

Besides the visuals, then there’s the actual design of the game itself. Nothing annoys me more than design choices that are made for the sake of realism, only to find them as hindrances rather than being helpful. Take, for example, the inventory limits in Skyrim.

So you’re telling me that I’m a magical being who can shoot fire out of my fingertips and slay dragons, but I can’t carry one more wheel of cheese because it’s too heavy? Yeah, I’m not buying it. Of course you want to keep some things realistic, but I’m a strong believer in making a game as fun to play as possible (if that is indeed the goal of the game), and I never think realism should get in the way of that.

After scouring Reddit, I found I’m not alone in this annoyance. Breath of the Wild’s rain is a classic example of a hated “realistic” mechanic — if you’re going to make the weather system a thing in a game that so heavily relies on climbing, at least let us get an item that can bypass that annoyance later on. Other players share their distaste for the health regen system that some shooters have, where your screen goes black and while or red and you just have to wait it out behind cover. Another big one is having the player character slowly open drawers and cabinets to loot in real time.

Slow, methodical, realistic animations in Red Dead Redemption 2

I don’t take issue with games where the whole point is to be as realistic as possible, like a racing sim or even a brutal survival game like Rust, but when the objective is to provide a fantastical escape for the player, why are we bothering ourselves with cherry-picking which details we want to be realistic? It’s like how fast travel doesn’t always make sense in the universe of the game, but we’re cool with suspending that part of our disbelief for the sake of convenience.

Because games are still so young as a medium, it feels like we’re all still trying to figure out what makes for the most fun experience, which in some cases means making the player do tedious tasks for the sake of realism. I know some people out there completely disagree with me on all of this, and to each their own, but man, I can’t wait until we move past this and just get down to what feels fun to play.

Noelle Warner