Editorial: An Appeal For Unrealism

“Realism”. It’s probably the most common phrase I read in the forests of press releases that tower over me every day – boasts of a game’s attempts at realism. “Realistic weapons”, “realistic gravity”, “realistic AI”… And each time a part of me looks up into the sky, raises its arms, and wails. “Buuuuut whyyyyyyyyyyyy?!”

Games have this amazing opportunity: unrealism. And not just to show it, like books and films, but to let us experience it. Games are a space in which absolutely anything can happen, and we can be the agents within it. A place of no boundaries, no need to be walled in by the confines of the reality in which we usually exist.

Yet gaming appears to be walling itself in as tightly as it can. “THE ULTIMATE REALISTIC SOLDIER SIMULATION” they cry, ensuring that the guns gleam just like guns gleam when soldiers use them in deserts. But what about a soldier simulation where the guns fire jelly, and if you press a button they transform into jetpacks, but jetpacks that can fly, and then you can just drop jelly on the enemies until all the war stops and everyone just has a bowl of jelly together? Okay, perhaps I shouldn’t be designing games, but I can at least want to set them free from their self-imposed shackles.


Sounds more interesting, doesn’t it?

“Realistic physics” is perhaps the phrase that makes me the most sad. What about unrealistic physics?! What about physics where the harder you throw something, the bigger it gets? What about physics where jumping causes time to slow down? Heck, forget player involvement. What about a world where the basic laws of physics are rewritten, where time is height and molecules grow bigger at night?

I think it’s somewhat trite to dismiss reality in games with a, “But if I wanted reality, I’d go outside.” I’ve said it myself, but if I wanted reality in a war simulation, I bloody well hope it’s not achieved by going outside. And if I want realistic flight mechanics, going outside would involve plummeting through the air and being impaled on a church spire in an ungainly (if well ragdolled) position. Games definitely do offer us the ability to experience that which would usually be unattainable to us, if in a parodied or near-meaningless simulacrum. There’s nothing wrong with offering versions of reality, especially when they’re so far out of our reach or real-world desire to participate.

But sadly we seem to get stuck there. Even in a game set on an alien world, in which aliens must battle aliens, in an ongoing war amongst aliens with their alien technology on the planet Alienia, it still gets tied down by a perceived need for realism. Weapons still run out of bullets, the ground still stays beneath you, the aliens still die when you shoot them, and your health still goes down when you get hurt. They are, in the end, still very realistic.

But let’s take a moment here to celebrate that one peculiar abandoning of realism that almost all shooters now make – the one where you get better if you squat behind something for a bit. I love this. I love that this most insane of things has become ubiquitous in gaming. Yes, there are the ARMA-like exceptions, but most shooters that so desperately want you to know that the grenades are modelled on actual grenades that exploded the face of actual people only last week, they still let you recover from near-fatal shootings by getting your breath back.

That’s the spirit! Now if only it could go further, this non-logic be allowed to permeate deeper. How about a game where getting shot at is the only thing that heals you, and not being hit by bullets means your life meter gradually drains away? Or a stealth game where you can only breathe if you’re running? Or a game where a fit, strong human can only sprint for three seconds at a time… oh wait, that’s already all of them.

I can’t even imagine the games that could appear if mainstream developers would untie themselves from their realistically weighted anchors. If games stopped worrying all the time, and just let interesting things happen.

I think the Saints Row games are the closest anyone’s getting to this, and the wonderful Saints Row IV should be obligatory playing for every major developer before they start any project. A reminder that if you want the President of the US to be elected purely by jumping through the roof of the White House, and then get stuck in a computer simulation of Earth where they have super-powers, and fight evil by throwing giant animal costume heads through impossibly floating rings before causing people to dance themselves to death, you can! In fact, do it and you could make lots of money!

But it’s the ideas I can’t conceive, the notions so strange that can only come to someone once they allow their creativity to be expressed without the bindings of reality. What Ken Levine might do if he didn’t feel obliged to reference the past while asking me to engage in running-around-combat with a pseudo-gun. What Sid Meier might simulate in a truly alien culture, in another dimension. What you, yes YOU, could put into your next game if you allowed yourself to agree that up doesn’t have to be opposite to down, and next doesn’t have to happen after before.

So, you know, do that everyone.


  1. Cytrom says:

    I want Quake back! I’d even settle for UT.

    • Horg says:

      As much as I miss the good old days of FPS, I think HL2 demands a special mention for doing something gainful with reality by giving us the gravity gun. You can call it the zero point energy field manipulator…..if you really want to. No matter what else begins to feel dated in that game, killing an entire squad of co-opted super soldiers with nothing but a toilet and the power of physics will never lose its charm.

    • Metr13 says:

      Completely support this notion, hence why I have both quakes and UT99 always handy.

      Boom, goes the supershotgun.

    • RogueNineCH says:

      I say bring back Deer Avenger, as stupid as it was it was still fun to play.

  2. golem09 says:

    Sometimes I hate realism, sometimes not. Shooters. Too much realism in general, I’m extremely bored by that. Put in some superpowers like in Mass Effect or Bioshock and I’m ready to go.
    State of Decay, first zombie game I’ve played with needs and resources and houses that kinda look realistically abandoned. Yay realism.
    It’s a design choice like any other. Too often it’s the most boring one to make.

  3. popej says:

    “But what about a soldier simulation where the guns fire jelly, and if you press a button they transform into jetpacks, but jetpacks that can fly, and then you can just drop jelly on the enemies until all the war stops and everyone just has a bowl of jelly together? Okay, perhaps I shouldn’t be designing games, but I can at least want to set them free from their self-imposed shackles”

    Everyone, to Kickstarter!

  4. Premium User Badge

    Hodge says:

    Hear, hear.

    I often feel this way when playing early (say, mid-eighties and prior) arcade games in MAME and seeing some of the batshit stuff that was around back then. Granted, it’s partly a byproduct of gaming being so young that there weren’t as many tropes to get trapped in, but still… imagine something as delightfully bonkers as Bubble Bobble done with modern AAA production values.

  5. DantronLesotho says:

    I completely agree with this notion. For me, the more surreal a game gets, the better I enjoy it. In Minecraft for example, I think the game took a tragic turn when they introduced hunger, killed the boat elevator, and introduced animal breeding. I wanted my animal spawner tower to work comically and my exploitations of the game’s alternaphysics to provide me with satisfaction when I have mastered them.

    I also think that there is something primal that most people lose in terms of having to learn how a world works. I was just hearing a report the other day on NPR about how the reason why it’s easier for children to learn languages better than adults is because their potential for learning syntax is much higher, before it gets solidified in a certain method. I think physics is like that too.

    I think the problem with this though, is that most people don’t have the capacity to learn world syntax any more, so as little as they need to abstract the better. Every kid my age played NES and understood it even though it made no goddamn sense most of the time. But if you were to ask an adult now who didn’t play NES to play a new game with just as confusing rules, they are befuddled.

    • Rizlar says:

      You may underestimate the capacity for people of any age to learn new things, eg elderly people learning chess to improve mental health. It’s kind of one of the main appeals of games imo and why new games are so much more fun before you manage to master them.

      • DantronLesotho says:

        I agree; I am not saying it can’t be done, I’m saying that most people would avoid it given the chance and take the easy route of playing something “more realistic”.

    • GiantPotato says:

      I think the NES generation might prove more resistant than usual to that kind of decline, just by virtue of having spent their childhoods as plumbers shooting fireballs at walking mushrooms to collect gold coins.

      • Talksintext says:

        ^ Why I really, really wish we had a “like” button or upvote in these here comments.

  6. lordcooper says:

    Today John is Molyneux.

    • Dom_01 says:

      Today must be a slow news day.

      • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

        Today some incurious laggard on the internet uses a stock phrase to belittle those interested in different things than them

        No wait that’s every day

        • guvuhmann says:

          well, at least it’s not 10 minutes of his life that he’ll never get back.
          i always feel bad for people who that happens to.

  7. Viroso says:

    I don’t think the problem is realism, the problem is the setting. I’m okay when a game tries to be a realistic simulation, like those car crashing videos posted here last week. Those are awesome. More realistic physics, that’s great, because even the best physics I’ve seen in a game still feels like it’s too slow, floaty, like there’s no friction. For physics, it is realism that would make it more fun to throw objects up in the air like they’re a pebble. It’s also cool when games try to be super faithful simulation, there’s fun in the pedantry of a simulation.

    The problem isn’t realism. The problem is that developers feel like games need to have a setting and with that setting will come certain rules. If the setting is modern war, your soldier can’t shoot jelly. Trying to have a reasonable setting, which is consequence of trying to have a story, that’s the problem.

    Not that I want games to be story-less abstractions. It’s just that a lot of games don’t need to have a story. They just need to have fun mechanics. Like Shootmania or Trackmania. I dunno, do those games have a story? They seem like they’re focused on the gameplay and that’s it.

    Realism is nice, I like it, I want a push for it. You can even have that on completely unrealistic games. Photorealisitc graphics with (seemingly) realistic physics, that’d work perfectly well for Portal or Kerbel without making these games boring.

    • HereticSoul says:

      I’m with you on that- things like modern war shooters don’t offer a thoroughly realistic experience, but they tend to be internally consistent (someone below already went into more detail). My biggest issue tends to be with a “realistic narrative”, because in the case of war shooters that tends to be awful. I remember watching the preview for Warface, or whatever it’s called now, and thinking for a moment that the multiplayer battles were body-armored soldiers in red vs. body-armored soldiers in blue. And I thought that was fine. Because so far, realistic portrayals of modern conflicts have veered dangerously towards jingoism. I’ll try to leave it there, because otherwise I’ll be writing here all day.

      Also, neat ideas, John, but be careful you don’t go full Molyneux.

    • Rizlar says:

      Indeed, often you need the ‘realistic’ touchstone to engage with something wild, but not necessarily, and it’s clear that games have mostly gone too far in the other direction.

      • Viroso says:

        Yeah, some good examples of realism injected into fantastic things.

        Merida from Brave and pretty much everything Guillermo Del Toro comes up with.

        link to images.wikia.com
        Merida’s face isn’t at all an attempt at realism, but her hair, how convincing her dress looks, a slightly uneven smile, these are all small touches that bring life to an unrealistic design, and enhance it.

        Same with Guillermo Del Toro. I mean, not the man himself but the creatures he comes up with.


        They’re extremely imaginative, but there’s that extra touch that gives them life. A crack, a mole, the textures, the muscles, little details that imply a life to the creature, little realistic details thrown into a completely fantastical creature.

        I’ll say in fact games do not have a realism problem. There are too many games that exist in a fantasy space of alienation, a majority of games even. Not that this is inherently a problem, it’s just that’s too frequent. A majority of games made about things that are completely irrelevant to our reality.

        The problem is lack of imagination. Lack of imagination when creating fantastic worlds, when creating the game’s rules. Even lack of imagination to create a game with life like people and life like situations.

    • Baines says:

      But the problem that you’ve described isn’t the general idea of a setting or story, it is aiming for a realistic setting specifically.

      I think another issue is the improvement in graphics and physics simulations. With better graphics comes the desire to make things more realistic and less abstract. Hardware limitations led to sometimes unreal/abstract solutions, and reducing those limitations has lead to people filling that space with the realism that they know. Physics are similar. Work goes into recreating realistic physics, and developers want to show off increasingly realistic physics, which pushes out the desire to show unrealistic physics.

      • Viroso says:

        I don’t think the games aim for realism though. How many games out there could you say are actually realistic. They have a setting that asks for SOME realism, but then again that’s something that has always happened. Like shooting aliens in space or killing dragons in a castle, that asks for some measure of realism, and that’s where most games exist, in a fantasy world.

        Both in the past and now.

        And I understand the power of abstraction, I’m even arrogant enough to say I was the guy who first said tiny sprites in old RPGs were nice because they’d let us fill stuff in with our imagination. Everyone just slowly picked up on my amazing insight and I get no credit. Wow I actually said that.

        But the thing is, I don’t think we can blame hardware for lack of abstraction… well we can partially, BUT still that doesn’t have to do with the argument that’s going on in here. What John said there is that he laments when there’s an attempt of realism in games, instead of trying to go wild with things.

        I say that you can go wild with your setting while still selling the game with claims like realistic physics, realistic AI, realistic graphics.

        Like I said earlier, Kerbal Space Program, Portal. Those two games shoot for some realism in a few aspects, and they use that as a foundation for the gameplay. Another example, From Dust. That game is only fun because the water and the dirt all seem to move like you’d expect them to in real life. Yet you’re spawning volcanoes with a click as you’re led through a pretend creation myth, few things can be less realistic than that.

        Imagine a game like Zeno Clash with photorealistic graphics, it’d be fantastic I think. It’d really bring that game’s completely insane designs to life, which is the whole point.

        Better graphics, better physics, better AI, better whatever that hardware can provide, I think all of that actually opens doors, doesn’t close them. How could Crayon Physics exist without physics. Or Portal. How could Wind Waker look the way it did without the Gamecube’s power.

        Realism, better hardware, those aren’t the issues. I feel John is actually disappointed at unimaginative settings, specially in the wake of a game like GTA V that boasts a huge open world that tries to be just like ours. And unimaginative settings are not necessarily realistic settings. GTA V creates a pretend Los Angeles but it’s far from trying to be realistic. Bald space marines, that’s not realistic at all either, nor imaginative for that matter.

        Because as I said earlier, most games exist in a fantasy setting. What I defend is that you can, and want to have, some manner of realism in your fantasy. How would the jelly gun even work without nice jelly physics, for an instance?

        As I described in another post, injecting realism into a fantastic setting helps bringing it to life. I used Merida in Brave as an example, her hair, the way the fabric of her dress looks, a slightly crooked smile, these are details that enhance the character, some highly resource demanding.

        The real issue problem is in the need of having a setting, specifically a setting that we’ve played a million times before. Generally, the more a game lets go of its story, of its fiction, the more room it’ll have to be just a game and go completely insane with the mechanics. The game’s fiction imposes some rules on the gameplay, and when the fiction is guy shooting guns, well now he can’t really fly around shooting jelly anymore.

        You change the game’s fiction to flying jelly shooting soldier and the problem’s fixed, meanwhile the developers of this insane game will still get to boast about their jelly physics, how it distorts the light and talk about the ground breaking jelly AI, levels of authenticity never before seen in jelly behavior. So…

        “Realistic physics” is perhaps the phrase that makes me the most sad.

        I guarantee realistic jelly physics would not make anyone the most sad. My take is that it’d be better if more games abandoned a need for a setting altogether. I’d actually prefer that to more Saints Row IV.

  8. Apack990 says:

    I have but one word to say: AYE!

  9. realitysconcierge says:

    I know that you want unrealism, but I think one of my favorite experiences in games is when they build a world around you that you can understand, and then they yank that carpet right out from underneath you like at the end of Metro 2033 or Prey.

  10. Apack990 says:

    I would just like to say, that this has encouraged me to take up programing. I have a need for a new unrealistic arena game. Should this game become a reality, I shall dedicate it to you, Sir John of Castle Shotgun. Wish me luck on my adventures!

  11. MobileAssaultDuck says:

    I prefer unreal worlds with internal consistency.

    I like orcs, and lasers, and star ships, but gravity better work like it is supposed to, blood better leak out of holes I put in things, and the world should have its own consistent laws of physics even if those physics are impossible.

    The worst thing is inconsistency. If X works like X, X should keep working like X unless a very specific thing causes X to begin acting like Y. If X just starts acting like Y with no rhyme or reason, immersion is shattered.

    The goal is an unreal world that is plausible enough to pretend it could be real. Once a world becomes so crazy it just completely shirks any attempt at consistency, I’m out.

    • TheGrinningMan says:

      This, pretty much. As well as the usual artistic reasons for an internally consistent world, it’s part of good game design — games are defined by their rules, and having those rules arbitrarily and unpredictably changed is a gimmick that rapidly overstays its welcome. The rules don’t have to resemble reality in any way, shape, or form, of course.

    • Dozer says:

      Yes. In the X-Universe space games (which I haven’t played since X2) all the ships were registered to a nation and had a prefix identifying which nation – e.g. “B-4592” for Boron ships. But the player’s ships were prefixed with “Y-“, presumably for “Your”. This inconsistency was (one of the) deeply irritating things I found with that game!

      In general, actually, when the player’s avatar in the game universe is fundamentally different to the NPC avatars in the game universe, unless there’s a good reason, it’s really bad for my immersion. In this case I was the only entity in the whole weird grid-maze able to buy ships from other nations. Perculiar.

    • melnificent says:

      I instantly thought of Antichamber. For all it’s crazy style rooms and corridors, it has it’s own internal logic. Gravity is always down, walls don’t suddenly become floors. If it says don’t look down, don’t.

  12. mpk says:

    You had me at jelly gun.

    Part of the reason I’m growing increasingly bored with modern gaming – apart from the fast approaching peak of my personal hill – is this incredibly dull desire for the illusion of realism. I grew up gaming in the 80s and 90s when realism meant being able to aim up and diagonally-up as well as across in a licensed movie tie-in side-scrolling platformer.

    Simulations that are clearly simulations are one thing, and fair play to the people who design them and the people who play them. Your anoraks are of a different colour to mine.

    I want spaceships and gorram jetpacks and battle-elephants, and space-battle-elephants with jetpacks and great, heaving piles of nonsense and stupidity, tied in with games that aren’t about manshooting and unlocks.

  13. fooga44 says:

    The reason games aren’t more unrealistic is because we’re the minority, the reason why older games are so imaginative is because older game audience was primarily nerds and people with high aesthetic flexibility (people of higher intelligence have wider range of tastes then people of lower intelligence). As gaming went mainstream you have to appeal to a more limited aesthetic of non-gamers. When computer power allowed realistic graphics we had an enormous influx of non-gamers brought into gaming who have extremely limited tastes. If it wasn’t for the realistic graphics kinds of games most of them would never be gamers to begin with.

    Think of the stigma against JRPG’s because of anime aesthetics, the same thing applies to cartoony games/unreal games. If you use cartoon aesthetic you’re guaranteed to turn off a sizable chunk of the audience depending on the genre and whether or not you have good art direction or not.

    This is the reason why Doom 3 and Rage were all realistic and not 2D cartoon based similar to the original animated sprites in Doom 1 / Doom2 style.

    I was one of the people who hated Doom 3’s move to realistic looking graphics and I wished Doom 3 had art direction based of Doom 2 style toon aesthetic. I’d love for iD to do a kickstarter and remake Doom 2 in HD with traditional 2D toon style art or 3D cel like shading. Similar to how JRPG’s do this with Tales of Vesperia and similar games.

    • Reapy says:

      I was basically going to type exactly what you said. There are two types of people, ones who though it was cool when the actor’s took off with their Wire Fu in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or people that laughed and ridiculed the movie.

      A large amount of people can’t accept a story taking place with different rules than the real world, and there are more of them than us unfortunately.

    • Rizlar says:

      I think what puts a lot of people off the anime/jrpg style isn’t necessarily that they are too abstracted, but that often the style is too affected with the conventions of anime/jrpgs, a bit limited and not very expressive. But yeah, it is a bit of a stigma and there is some awesome, creative stuff out there as well.

      For extremely popular cartoonishly styled games, see WoW, LoL and such.

    • MrUnimport says:

      ” (people of higher intelligence have wider range of tastes then people of lower intelligence). ”

      Please don’t make this about the sophisticated PC gaming thinking man versus the unwashed console COD masses. I don’t want anybody out there to think that just because they like a particular game’s aesthetic and I don’t means they’re more intelligent than I am.

      • fooga44 says:

        I’m sorry but the truth hurts, gaming before it went mainstream was the de-facto nerd hobby, right along their with comics. Think about this: Comics are just stories with art with them, yet they were looked down upon and mocked by wider society. Videogames suffers still from a similar stigma that the are ‘just for kids/toys’.

        CPU power advanced to the point where the graphics hit a critical point that started appealing to the lowest common denominator and hence gaming burst wide open and went mainstream because of aesthetic appeal, not because of gameplay.

        90% of games from after 2001 are dumbed down compared to the previous era, in both the console and PC space. The fact that game companies had to dumb there games down is DE-FACTO proof that the mainstream audience is less able to enjoy what makes videogames fun : Challenge and depth… which requires higher intelligence and a higher threshold for frustration and a desire for learning than the average human being.

        Sorry but one can take a look at something like Civilization or Alpha centauri and compare it to Civ 5 to see the dumbing down trends that are apparent. The evidence is OVERWHELMING because the games themselves had to have gameplay aspects removed because the wider audience couldn’t handle it.

        • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

          [Looks up from Legend of Grimrock / Spacechem / Dark Souls / Call of Pripyat / Portal / Antichamber / E.Y.E. / Crusader Fucking Kings II]

          Hmm what? Oh sorry couldn’t hear you over this golden age of unique and challenging games. But yes, carry on, Those Other People Are Bad and what not

          • fooga44 says:

            Portal and pripyat are CASUAL GAMES. They have all sorts of modern design conventions. The fact that you would include these games means you’re too fucking stupid to even take part in the discussion. Since you’re unable to see that Portal is in fact a super casualized game.

            Even if what you were saying is true, those games you mentioned aren’t even a fraction of the dumbed down casual games that have been released. i.e. those would be exceptions to the rule.

          • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

            Oh my god you’re just the cutest little thing. Also blocked.

          • Dominus_Anulorum says:

            Dude, you need to chill. There is absolutely NO reason to insult someone like that. I don’t care if it is the internet and I am fighting a loosing battle. It is possible to have mature conversations without ad hominems being thrown left and right. And how is portal casual? I thought it was brilliant and some of the challenge maps were quite hard. I grew up with older games as well, and I love them. But that doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of modern games at all.

        • ffordesoon says:

          Been away from the Codex long? ;)

        • Talksintext says:

          I was going to write up this long critique, but then I realized it just agreed with you, save for the whole “liking complex games = intelligent” comment. A lot of games were not accessible to a wider audience before due to hardware limitations, so they had to be forced into a cerebral/complexity niche. As typical desktop power increased the graphical abilities of mainstream consumers, these sorts of games started to be more and more accessible to mass audiences. Basic business incentives made it inevitable that as this occured, the gameplay would be adjusted to appeal more and more to such audiences, which necessarily meant a shift away from their previously stringent design for niche cerebral/nerdy sorts. That said, some games have remained true to form, and those are typically games with very poor graphics (PI in particular), while similar games with good graphics (Anno, Civ 5) shift towards simplicity.

          I guess you can claim nerdy/cerebral people are by definition more intelligent than the mainstream. I won’t make such a claim, but it’s convincing in a way, yes. I also really want to disagree with you just based on the disrespectful and rude way you’re going about making your argument. Try to be civil.

          • iridescence says:

            It’s a mistake to frame this in terms of intelligent vs. stupid. You can have a brain surgeon who’s tired after a long day and just can’t be assed spending hours on a wiki to learn how to play Dwarf Fortress. Chances are, in absolute terms, she’s smarter than a 12 year old kid who has mastered the game. The difference is in time available and willingness to devote that time to one particular leisure activity. I have a preference for complex games with high learning curves but I can also understand why they present a barrier to some people and intelligence is not that reason.

          • Dozer says:

            Why do people cite doctors as shining beacons of intelligence?

            (I might be a little bit bitter about the number of times I need to track down Dr CannotRead to get him to write the date next to the bit that says “Date:” on the forms he has to sign.)

    • Nest says:

      Doom 2 didn’t have “toon-style” art. It was just low-res. All their sprites were made by taking photos of physical stop-motion sculptures. Play Doom 3 with your monitor set to 640×480 and it’ll be every bit as cartoonish as the original doom.

      • jon_hill987 says:

        320×240 in the original DOS version if memory serves.

      • fooga44 says:

        They used those techniques but it does not eliminate the toon art style at all. Plenty of cartoon games used techniques like that for animation purposes but still had cartoon style. So just saying that doesn’t mean shit.

        “Play Doom 3 with your monitor set to 640×480 and it’ll be every bit as cartoonish as the original doom.”

        I’m sorry but this is bullshit. Look at the god damn loading screen of doom 2 or the ending screen. It’s all pixel art toon art style.

        Look at this here:

        link to 4.bp.blogspot.com

        The big red guy is definitely toon style, trying to say they were going for realism is lying.

        • Napalm Sushi says:

          And of course this aesthetic choice wasn’t in the least bit driven by the engine’s hard limit of 256 simultaneously loaded colours?

    • Grey Cap says:

      “people with high aesthetic flexibility (people of higher intelligence have wider range of tastes then people of lower intelligence)”

      First, you need a source for this (because it sounds made up). Then, you need to not be such an arrogant ass. Your post seems to be saying “people who enjoy art I don’t like do so because they’re not as smart as I am” and it’s terrible.

      Instead, how about: AAA games are designed to be easy to market, rather than being great games, so then when a certain game gains immense popularity, all the marketing execs say to their game devs: “You need to rip off that game so we can sell this game more easily.” I don’t think the artistic rut is caused by the audience, I think it’s caused by the creators.

    • Baines says:

      the reason why older games are so imaginative is because older game audience was primarily nerds and people with high aesthetic flexibility

      Older games are so imaginative because of limitations.

      You had limited colors, limited resolution, limited time, and limited power. You put some pixels together into something that might kind of look like what you wanted, came up with some gameplay mechanic that you thought worth pulling off, and tried to string together some idea for how it all worked. When games added more people to projects, it arguably became more chaotic, as people would of course have different ideas.

      Do you think that if Nintendo had SGI workstations and Nintendo 64 tech in the early 1980s, they still would have created the side scrolling Super Mario Bros? Nintendo would have created something completely different. And likely something that attempted to be more realistic. (Even some of Super Mario Bros ideas were drawn from the more limited original single screen Mario Bros game.)

      We wouldn’t have classic Outrun if Sega had the tech to make Sega Rally instead. What would Contra have been if Konami had current tech back in the late 80s? You don’t even have to boost all the tech. What if some tech breakthrough meant everyone had 1080p monitors, and PCs had the memory and power to use them, back before Doom was made. Would it still be so cartoonish if it was designed for a system that ran at a much higher resolution and color depth?

      Imagination was a product of working within limitations. You made a game with a blob of a main character that kind of looked like a dinosaur if you squinted, and suddenly you had a game where the player was playing a dinosaur on a skateboard in space. You’ve got a mechanic where stuff is “pulled” towards the center of the screen, so maybe you make a game centered around a black hole or maybe you make a game about soap bubbles in a sink.

      • ffordesoon says:

        Your argument strikes me as deeply odd, because while I do in theory agree with you, I am nevertheless frustrated by the (perhaps unintentional) resignation I detect in your words, when the solution is quite clear to me. If creativity is fostered by limitations, and there are no limitations anymore, then surely the thing for creative people to do is to impose limitations on themselves?

        Plus, you know, there is the fact that big budgets and expensive graphics impose their own limitations.

        • Baines says:

          There is a sense of resignation, yes, because enough people don’t believe that limitations are a positive force for creativity. People tend to think the more unrestrained their freedom is, the better.

          While there are still limits with budgets and hardware, the upper limits are so high that I begin to question whether they are the “real” limiting factor for big budget games. After a while, a big budget project can become so unwieldy that its size alone may be the limiting factor, and that might not be a positive limiting factor. (Creatively working around a hardware limit is one thing. Creatively working around bureaucracy and bloat is another.)

          There is also a resignation that the answers to limits might increasingly be “cut content, because we have enough already”. That new map goes over the poly limit? Don’t get fancy trying to work it out, just cut some bits and pieces, because there will be plenty left. That new game is starting to get a bit strained in budget? Cut two areas and repackage those alternate models as DLC, then call the game a failure when it doesn’t reach unrealistic expectations.

          • Napalm Sushi says:

            I’ve long held to the conclusion that what the AAA industry needs more than anything else (since the indie route of technical regression in many areas simply isn’t an option here) is tools that allow fewer developers to make more content faster. The density of game worlds jumped by an order of magnitude in the past decade, but the effort required to generate a given volume of content seems to have remained largely constant. It simply takes far more man-hours to create a hi-res bump mapped stretch of brick wall covered in high-poly pipe and shelf models than it does to just paper the same stretch of wall with a 150 x 150 bitmap, and this has had a drastic effect on the amount of content that AAA games can feature within their budgets and schedules.

            Does anyone remember the original Unreal, for example, and how truly vast it was by any modern metric? It was by no means unusual in that regard, but to witness that kind of scale these days you have to look beyond the conventional FPSes that it was very much an example of and look to the likes of Arma and Skyrim.

  14. sonson says:

    Yes yes yes

    Two of the best games I’ve ever played are Psychonauts and SR IV and I think it’s in no small part due to the sheer creativity of both.

    Without having to waste time on convention or establishing some sort of rules of normality everything comes across a surprise and delight, you have no idea what’s coming and the game is free to ensure that all components in it work to that end.

    VideoGames at their best, to me, should simply be anything they want to be. From historical simulation to fighting trolls to managing a football team to whatever. That’s why I love them.

  15. Christo4 says:

    I think one of the reasons i liked the first mass effect the most was because of it’s world. I mean weapons didn’t use ammo, they had cool-down (honestly why didn’t they keep that?), grenades that aren’t affected by gravity, you have adepts who can use biotic powers and enemies deploying shields, different planets with different types of aliens and missions (like the one where you had to use sleep grenades to stun civilians instead of killing them) etc.
    Yeah i know it had it’s flaws, but for me it was one of those games where i REALLY felt like in a future/alien world.

    • Enkinan says:

      I loved ME1 as well, and tired of 2 very quickly. I never even bothered with 3.

  16. derbefrier says:

    First Person shooters seem to suffer from this the most. I mean we went from BFGs, Plasma rifles, flack cannons, disc launchers to…….. assault rifles, assault rifles and more assault rifles. I enjoy a realistic experience from time to time but my most memorable gaming moments are the bouncy room in serious sam, conc grenade courses in TFC and alll the stupid fun stuff in between. I agree less realism more fun.

    • Baines says:

      One of my disappointments with Borderlands was that for all its hype of 50 bazillion guns, and talk of things like pistols that shot rockets and bullets that slowed enemies and such, the guns ended up being the same old FPS designs. The weirder stuff was restricted to uniques, the “randomization” was so controlled and limited, and level was so important.

      The end result was a fantasy world with matter creation, teleportation, time distortion, guns that shot electricity and mininukes, produced weapons that all felt structurally the same. Sure, your gun might shoot electricity, but it shot it exactly the same way as a different gun shot fire, which was the same as another gun shot explosives. It even had the modern FPS weapon classes.

      I’ve said before that, excluding uniques, Modern Warfare 2 may have had more mechanical variety in its weapons that Borderlands managed, which is pretty sad. For example, while Borderlands might have had some “wacky” rocket launchers, it didn’t have the behavioral differences that MW2 had between the SMAW, Javelin, Stinger, and RPG.

  17. Yglorba says:

    Although Saint’s Row IV is one example, I think the best example is actually its granddaddy, GTA3.

    Part of what makes the GTA games so much fun is that they know that the idea is to make a world that feels realistic in a few key ways, while completely abandoning it whenever it would make the game less fun. Failing a mission? You can just do it again, everything resets. You died or got arrested? Here, it’s a slap on the wrist, let’s take away your money and the weapons you can find everywhere. Vehicles have a noticeable tendency to “right” themselves when partially flipped, and notice that your character is completely invulnerable while in a car — as long as you get out and get clear before it explodes, you will take no damage no matter what happens to it.

    (And the fact that every single car explodes when crashed shows the same idea — they reflect cinematic reality, because that’s what’s fun, rather than real-world reality.)

    I think part of the reason GTA is so popular is because it feels like the game is on your side — like it’s designed by people who actually want you to have fun rather than people following some arbitrary checklist. Can you imagine how terrible GTA would be if it were more realistic on any front?

    • killias2 says:

      I’m not really a huge College Humor fan, but this video seems relevant: link to youtube.com

    • Rizlar says:

      Can you imagine how terrible GTA would be if it were more realistic on any front?

      You mean GTA IV?

      Semi-serious, I did enjoy that game but they definitely let the playfulness slip, to it’s detriment.

      • RedViv says:

        GTA V has “improved the realism”, as far as many comments on it seem to read. So there’s that.

    • iridescence says:

      I an kill hours driving in Euro Truck Sim. Trying to follow all the traffic rules, enjoying the scenery and making money. Fun doesn’t always have to equal “Wild&crazy blowing shit up like a Michael Bay movie!”

      I have this dream game where it’s just you’re going on a road trip across the US and you meet people and talk to them and help them with their problems. No explosions, or ninjas or zombies. Just human interaction and narrative. I wish I had the skill to make it. It would obviously never have GTA’s market but I think it could be a good game.

      • Javier says:

        Haven’t played it (yet) and don’t know much about it, but perhaps Kentucky Route Zero could be sth similar to what you imagine?

        • iridescence says:

          Yeah, it’s on my list of games to check out when I see it on sale. Looks interesting.

    • Napalm Sushi says:

      Even so, what I’ve really wanted to see from the GTA series for some time now is a return to the absurd, surreal, neo-retro cyberpunk setting of GTA 2.

      A gang literally comprised of lunatics that have taken over an asylum. A street war between a utilitarian technocracy operating out of a local science institute and a trailer park full of heavily armed rednecks. A mission requiring you to kidnap people in the guise of a bus driver so the Russian Mafia can process them into hotdogs to feed its troops in their war against a militant Buddhist movement.

      It was beautiful in the most deranged fashion and an archetypal example of what this article is encouraging, and I mourn its fading from the gaming public’s collective memory whenever the GTA franchise is mentioned.

  18. GiantPotato says:

    I agree that realism isn’t an end to itself, but I don’t think it’s possible to experience the thrill of unreality unless the constraints of reality are being observed. Things like realistic physics don’t exist to make games more boring, they exist to create the contrast that is necessary to define the fantastical elements of your world as something special. So I would say that the problem isn’t an excess of realism in games as much as it is a homogenization of that fantastical element.

    • Grygus says:

      Yeah there is a lot of fun in Saints Row IV, but what makes the game great is that the NPCs and the city itself are mostly playing it straight.

  19. zin33 says:

    i think its because its way easier on a creative / design side to approach something that its well established rather than make lots of stuff up yourself and make sure they make sense in their own world
    and also the consumers. most people just get turned off instantly by unrealistic / crazy stuff. not sure why but thats how it is

  20. Jerppa says:

    I have no idea why, but this article made me want to play Mortal Kombat.

  21. U-99 says:

    I think that’s happening because people get lost and frustrated in unknown world very fast. That’s why you have to include such a stupid thing as shotguns in 23-d-century-Mass-Effect-battles. Serious, shotguns. In 23d century, with galactic battleships. Why not ‎Smith&Wesson’s then?

  22. Gap Gen says:

    I’m unsure critiquing Bioshock Infinite for referencing the past is a particularly good way to make your point, unless you just picked Ken Levine’s name out of a hat. I don’t think Infinite would be stronger if it dropped the historical allegory. But sure, it’s good to be silly sometimes.

    • pilouuuu says:

      I think Bioshock Infinite would have been better if the historical allegory was actually well done. Oh, people are racist in Columbia. And then there’s barely any mention about it.

      I don’t need games to believe realistic, but I need the reality in games to be believable. Why after the enemies show up in BSI all the citizens simply disappear? That could have been solved if they showed people running towards their houses for hiding. But, no. They just disappear. A game about four dimensions with cardboard cut-outs characters which are totally one dimensional.

      • Gap Gen says:

        Possibly. But this isn’t a problem of trying to do realism, which is whay John was talking about.

  23. Wulf says:

    Damn it, Jon. I swore I’d never post here again as I didn’t think there was anything left to say. And then you go and do that. How am I supposed to respond to that?


    So, I feel that what’s happened is that as technology has increased, we’ve become more enamoured with reality because it was something we’ve never properly emulated before. So from a technological standpoint, it was interesting for the people making it. Before, creativity was common because there was no reason to emulate reality, you couldn’t do a good job of it anyway, so why not be odd instead?

    So now we have a contemporary sea of gamers who’ve never played a NES game, as someone’s pointed out, who wouldn’t understand any of this. I remember the Saints of Rage mission, you know what I’m talking about; I thought it was singularly brilliant, yet I also realised that the vast majority of those playing games today wouldn’t get it. They wouldn’t get most of what I personally loved about that game, because Saints Row IV wasn’t very contemporary, it was a bizarre and unexpected throwback to a very different time.

    Another mentioned Mass Effect, and I remembered having a lot of fun with that. The third game especially. Perhaps I had so much fun with the third game because it was so oriented around super powers. I wasn’t just a krogan in multiplayer, I was the Superman of krogankind. I was faster than a speeding bullet, and it was great. I had a lot of fun with that.

    So, anyway, realism.

    When developers started tooling around with that, they found that there was a huge audience of people out there who’d want it. I don’t think everyone is born creative, I really don’t believe that’s the case. In fact, I think that a very pervasive form of small-mindedness is commonplace. Thus, the average person wants to play a human doing human things, going out of their known world only enough to kill people and be rich — that’s as far as their imagination goes. Thus, to them, a game where you’re, say, a badger looking after her kids is utterly stupid. It’s impossible for them to understand how that could possibly be entertainment.

    It’s interesting because it’s such a very particular kind of small-mindedness, one that applies directly to the straight, white, cis-male mindset. Even Gone Home was too peculiar for the majority, have you even seen the Steam forums for that game?

    So, developers struck gold with realism. See, you have this person who is, yes, small-minded. Their life is that they work, they shop, they come home and watch reality TV, and they play games about reality with only small margins for fantasy allowed. This kind of person accounts for most of the people playing games, and anyone outside of that (like it or not) is a minority. You have to deal with that, it’s the truth. The average person has never written anything, drawn anything, created anything, or even imagined anything. They’re perfectly content with very normal lives in this reality of ours.

    Thus you have AAA mainstream developers that cater to them, specifically, and what they want. It’s a truth that they are the biggest audience, they’re where the money is. See, if you have a homogenised sea of wallets that you can reap with one strike, why wouldn’t you? At least from a business standpoint. So you create your Calls of Duty, and your Grand Theft Autos, and these people buy them.

    The mainstream is currently more about making a product now rather than making a thing, and there’s a distinction between the two. A product tends to have PR drones buzzing around, it’s focus tested, and it’s designed to sell to as many people as possible. Whereas a thing is just a thing, and your reasons for making it could be very different. If we’re lucky, that thing might be bound up in a person’s passions, and we might have the luxury of walking through another person’s mind and experiencing their fantasies. Creative people do have some pretty rad fantasies.

    So this is why I don’t look to the mainstream much for entertainment any more, because aside from the odd mutant, most mainstream institutions are creating products. That’s fine, they’re businesses and they want to make things that sell. I don’t have much fun with those, though, and I can’t say that I ever did. From the beginning of this era, from the Tomb Raiders and the Hitmen, I wasn’t particularly inspired. It wasn’t for me, it was for them — the normal people.

    So I’m going to drop that topic for now and probably come back to it later. I’m just going to do a rough segue into something else, except it isn’t really a segue, it’s just me leaving one topic hanging and moving onto another.


    I loved the deathclaws from Fallout. No, not just because they were beastmen, even though beastmen are rad. No, it’s more that they had the potential to be something interesting, so I actually ended up fleshing them out a bit. I was genuinely sad when they were removed from Fallout canon, just to embrace a more normal, Wild Western variant of that setting. I didn’t stop wondering about what sort of culture they’d have had, though, were they given a chance.

    I wondered first of all how they’d raise deathclaw babies. Now, due to the vast variance in deathclaw intelligence from even early youth, going anywhere between gaunt genius and burly brute, I figured that raising them like you’d raise human children wouldn’t be wise. Furthermore, clutches of deathclaw eggs seemed unattended in New Vegas, with the parents quite a distance away from them, but near enough to keep an eye on them.

    So perhaps a pen would be the best option — a plot of land sealed within a spherical energy dome. Within would be the tools for learning, and for surviving. Everything about any kind of topic would be present, so that the deathclaws could strike out individually. I figured that the kind of nurturing approach that a human mother would have would be so overbearing that it would drive a deathclaw insane, as lizards tend to be more independent. So they’d be left to figure out how to work together by themselves. The pen would be monitored, with intervention only if it’s absolutely necessary.

    The plot of land would be large enough to allow any loners to have their space, but artificially introduced obstacles within the pen would encourage teamwork. The children would be ready to leave once a group had figured out how to actually shut down the energy sphere and move beyond it. At that point they’d be rounded up and the situation would be explained to them, with the clutch kept together under a single teacher.

    To a human, that might seem vile. Like they were treating their children like laboratory mice, yet it might also be the only effective way to raise a deathclaw properly, because that’s how their species does things and they don’t have the familial attachments that mammals would have. I’ve had this little set of ideas rattling around in my head since Fallout 2. And I have plenty of other ideas of how a deathclaw society would work, too. I think personally a meritocracy would suit them best, with each deathclaw serving a role based upon the talents they procured.

    That’s what they could have been. Sadly, Fallout ended up trying to appeal to more normal people, so elements like that were stripped out. Obsidian has some great writers, no doubt, but I’m sad that they’re not very creative. Either that, or they’re not interested in being creative because there’s no money in that. So I’ll leave that there.

    There’s a lot of room to do interesting things with settings and species, but the thing is is that you need to budget this and aim it at particular demographics. Personally, whenever I’m presented with an odd setting/race, I’ll eat it up, it’s a guaranteed sale. I’m in a position where I don’t feel very normal, I never have, to the contrary I feel alienated by normal people. It’s entirely impossible that I’m insane, but then (believe it or not) there’s plenty of scientific evidence that mild insanity and creativity do go very much hand in hand.

    And I doubt that I’m the only person out there that thinks like this — as a person who craves novelty rather than realism and reality television. I know I’m in a distinct minority, that’s a cloying realisation that I can’t ever get away from. So I accept that. Still, strangeness and unrealism must sell to some as otherwise there are some independent developers out there who’d be bankrupt all ready.

    What I look for these days is instances of someone showing me how odd their mind is, how peculiar they are, and thus I gauge how entertained I’ll be by that. I look for people who’re creating the kinds of games they want to play, as creative people, rather than simply trying to create a product. I’m quite bored of products, honestly, because they do feel artificial, methodical, and without the soul and personality that I’d otherwise hope for. They’re plastic and static, like toys.

    And they’re very, very normal.

    I couldn’t believe that Saints Row IV was a thing, honestly. It was a love letter to gaming of ages past, and it was completely honest about the nature of the character and what they do. I especially liked how it called out that many heroes in video games really aren’t that different from villains. I mean, in the average RPG, you’ve probably killed innocent people and robbed poor people as par the course, so I don’t think of RPG characters as heroic. But one-dimensional heroism is what a normal person likes, thus a game will often push the idea that the player is always a hero. Dragonborn et al.

    I didn’t feel patronised by it, but I did have fun with it. And I want power armour that gives me super powers in reality, too.

    So that’s that, then. I doubt anyone’s actually going to read all that, and I wouldn’t blame you. I certainly couldn’t. I’m not quite as interesting as Jon. And this won’t be commonplace, it just happens to be a topic that I really care about, as I feel that with the obsession with the perfectly marketed product, creativity in the games industry is kind of dying off, with indies being the old guard keeping it alive. I do worry about that, it plays on my mind.

    But I feel there’s always going to be groups of people who’ll just get so fed up of making products, so much so that they’ll gather a band together and with a song in their heart and a batshit crazy idea in their head, they’ll set foot down the path of Kickstarter and I’ll have far too many things to back.

    • Sheng-ji says:


      OK seriously, I think you have some kind of superiority complex – you literally believe that a straight white man who watches popular sport and drinks beer has a lesser imagination to your own. This is not true, just because they don’t appreciate the same things as you doesn’t mean that they are inferior to you in any way what so ever and just because you don’t appreciate the things they do doesn’t make those things inferior.

      I’m not going to deny that I love your ideas about the death claws – I love the way you think about how they would work – I do the same – but this mindset is not for everyone and not having that mindset does not indicate a lack of creativity.

      • ffordesoon says:

        You haven’t met Wulf before, have you?

        He says things lots of people here would probably admit to agreeing with, but says them in such a way that agreeing with him makes you grind your teeth. That’s my experience, anyway.

        • Sheng-ji says:

          Pretty sure I said exactly the same thing to him last time I saw one of his posts! He might be correct, if he’s limiting his scope to only games – but then, who’s being small minded. That cis white whatever he said may be really into mixing music and an absolute wizard on the decks in a way Wulf perceives as only discordant noise. That’s what I’m saying!

      • Enkinan says:

        I remember really enjoying being able to create and play Deathclaws in Fallout: Tactics multiplayer. That game dropped the ball in many aspects, but it had it’s moments.

    • Telandria says:

      I registered for the sole purpose of agreeing almost 100% with Wulf. While I think he’s a little unfair/hyperbolic (sp?) on the subject of how many people have attempted to creating things of their own, his experience has been largely the same as my own. I’ve met many a gamer who doesnt have a creative bone in them, and they care nothing about going out of thier way to explore or experience new things. They also tend to *really* hate artsy games of any kind – either artistic experimental games or games that are good for making art.

      His point about Going Home is particularly apt, I think, when it comes to pointing out how many gamers often have no desire to explore ‘the other side’s point of view’ so to speak.

      Gaming is a great way to vicariously experience things we could never truly attempt in reality. It doesnt need to be realistic all the time, and the focus of big AAA companies on it is whats indirectly promoting the indie / crowdfunded groups. I rarely buy big titles anymore, because I like my escapism unrealistic.

    • Stardreamer says:


      Welcome back, old son! We’ve missed you!

      • YogSo says:

        Yeah, yeah, welcome back Wulf, etc.

        Can we have Wizardry back too, please?

    • Gap Gen says:

      “So, I feel that what’s happened is that as technology has increased, we’ve become more enamoured with reality because it was something we’ve never properly emulated before. So from a technological standpoint, it was interesting for the people making it. Before, creativity was common because there was no reason to emulate reality, you couldn’t do a good job of it anyway, so why not be odd instead?”

      Counterpoint: When photography became a reality, painting moved away from realism because realism was so achievable, whereas before it took real skill to do something lifelike. Not a 100% analogy, but still, it’s not necessarily true that being able to faithfully reproduce something means you’ll do it.

      Secondly, I don’t think creativity or lack of it is innate. Creativity is learned, even if certain people have more innate talent than others. It’s encouraged by parents, by schools, by the people you associate with. I also disagree that being boring is necessarily anything to do with gender, race or sexuality. Granted, being creative is more likely to lead you to deviate from the norm, and perhaps the reverse is true to some extent, but if you want counterexamples, feel free to browse the wealth of art and culture created by straight white men that human history has provided us (and this isn’t to denigrate people who aren’t, but simply to suggest that the argument is a little weird).

      Perhaps I missed your point, though; it’s a long post, and I might have got lost somewhere. (EDIT: Also I have no idea if any of it was ironic, and if so, sorry for being dim)

      Also, everyone play Rayman: Legends, damn you.

      • The Random One says:

        It might have been one of the evil College Apocrypha, but I remember a teacher in college saying that photography was one of the things that helped vindicate impressionist painters. They were mostly shunned because their works weren’t lifelike, but then photography showed that the real world was in fact blurred and indistinct when in motion.

        • Gap Gen says:

          Interesting! Granted, camera artefacts aren’t 100% the same as visual artefacts (cameras have a finite exposure time, which causes streaks when things are moving), and there’s also the psychological effects on vision that artists can capture but camera’s won’t, but it’s true that cameras don’t produce a “perfect” image (insofar as something that captures a stream of photons can be perfect).

    • skalpadda says:

      Welcome back, Wulf. My scroll wheel has missed you.

    • Tyrone Slothrop. says:

      This is one of the most embarrassingly self-serving posts I’ve read on this site (which given the unbearable pretence of many PC ‘master race’ types is certainly an achievement) replete with a tonne of vague, baseless prejudice and assumption. People who have different tastes to your own, the ‘normals’ are small-minded automatons who lack a creativity of mind and spirit necessary to ascend to your astoundingly bold affection for a game about a comic-book alien invasion of Earth? Oh, if only they were as keenly learned as yourself and realised that a pixelated 2D fighting segment was in fact a clear allusion to a pixelated 2D fighting game. Would your tastes be merely that, I would have not the slightest issue but to just externalise so much wrongness upon your own creation of a monolithic Other that you foist as a metaphysical strawman speaks to an entirely unironic small-mindedness on your own part. These are people who merely decide to play a different video game to yourself not opponents of abolitionism.

      It’s also notable that in a post in large agreement with the what I think to be the rather simplistic appeal for less realism, you seem to praise one of the most realistic games ever made in the form of Gone Home, which I adored, but it dealt with an atypically realistic topic in a superlatively realised grounded environment.

      As for Walker’s thesis here, I can’t really gather much enthusiasm for the proposition, I personally think there are far too many fantasy and sci-fi games, though in a point of agreement I do contend much of the problems with the former come from a lack of any genuine fantasy or fantastical elements, preferring woefully tired genre tropes and motifs. Imagination, creativity and insight are inarguably positive needs but they feel as tautological as virtuosity or merit and it’s simplistic to ties those purely to outlandish endeavours. In considering a swath of games, there are actually remarkable few that take place in a contemporary setting outside of a battlefield (Battlefield and Call of Duty) or distraught exotic paradise (Tomb Raider and Far Cry), fewer still are games without any supernatural or technologically supernatural elements and almost none which engage with their setting as comprehensive examination as something like Deus Ex or Dishonored, examining and critiquing societal structures and centres of power or speaking to the human condition.

      I think ultimately this critique is provocative but it’s as ridiculous and shallow as Saint’s Row IV (an unnecessary reminder that this is in my opinion), consider demanding there to be less realism in film or novels and the ensuing implication whether intended or unintended that there’s something banal and constrained rather than brilliant and profound in say, Vivre Sa Vie or The Master. That even amongst the wonderful vibrance and creativity of Bioshock: Infinite there’s a level of internal coherency and reality that is considered odious enough to warrant desiring its removal. Gone Home alone invalidates the appeal and more accurately reposits it as a more admirable desire for more interesting, creative, compelling experiences.

    • MajorManiac says:

      Hi Wulf. Its good to see you commenting again.

      Please don’t be put off by negative comments as, I presume to speak for others when I say, many of the hive-mind nodes really value your input.

      I understand where you’re coming from in that I too have been forced to grow up slightly ‘differently minded’ (if thats a real term) due to having a learning disability. So I understand that feeling of us and the ‘norms’. Those people that like X Factor, Soap-operas and Popular music. But I think, as with all things, its not black and white, and there is a whole spectrum of people in this regard. I know this is an obvious thing to say.

      Anyway, welcome back and please stick around, RPS now has a block option for all the snot-nosed little-tikes that sometimes befoul the comments section.

      • guvuhmann says:

        you know, soap operas and pop music are both very misunderstood things. and people who either have no imagination or absolutely no interest in these things, often see them as being meaningless.

        there’s no shorthand for this kind of stuff. what you like says nothing about how you look at things.
        the types of things a person likes don’t say anything about their imagination.
        imagination turns the ownership over to the imaginer, the thing becomes unimportant.

        people can look umimaginatively at both imaginative and unimaginative works of art. both are the same.

        so the shorthand stereotypes and cliches that you are both talking in here just speak more to your own smallness in looking at things, i’d say.

    • guvuhmann says:

      right on, except the part about what people are actually like out there.

      but right on with your points about this. in a very big weird nutshell, yes indeed.
      This same issue comes up with me and comic book movies. Why, I wonder, when you have source material that has managed to make the unbelievably, awesomely and very cosmically weird part of everyday culture, would you want to make a Batman movie where he wears armor and can’t move his neck?
      and people say movies like we get are ‘realistic’ but even the film makers never say that, they say they want to do things in a more realistic setting. And it’s disgusting to see everyone act like this is something new and act like this new Batman is some kind of improvement over the 60’s TV show or previous Batman movies.

      I get a feeling that a lot of people see an evolution to an end inside art. Like they think, ‘well back in the 60’s, when we were primitive and living in caves without CGI, that cheesy Batman might have been good enough, but now, in the modern age, we as an audience are simply too sophisticated for such things.’

      That’s the kind of strawman that I just can’t help stopping and whacking with a stick a few times whenever i see one sitting there on the side of the road. That really gets my blood going. And it’s only half a strawman, to be fair to myself. It’s a man-straw, I guess.

      But I want to see Captain America get stuck in hideous dimensions, fight Nazis who summon demons and ride genetically experimental hell wolves. I wanna see the disembodied Red Skull seducing modern day minions into giving him a new earthly vessel thru black magic rituals. Comic books in their full glory, mean so much more than action movies. They aren’t stories about guys punching each other or having weird daddy issues all the time. I mean, they are, sure, but that’s not what they’re really about. If you look at them the same way you’d watch a David Lynch movie, people would realize that it’s a terrible shame to cut off their weird extra limbs and all the soap opera related qualities that the action movie crowd is so dismissive of and/or terrified by.

      But it’s not necessarily a lack of imagination, it’s more like a stylization of the times. Just like new ‘Batman’ isn’t new at all, we just need to look at the history of Dracula and vampires in general in film.. young pigs grunt like old pigs grunted before them, said Matt Groenig. every generation looks back at the last bunch of vampire movies and thinks, wow, people were so cheesy back then. and then every generation also has a counter culture that looks at what’s going on ‘now’ and says..’wow, people are so cheesy right now.’

      it’s hard not to be most disgusted by what’s around you, mostly cuz it is the stuff that is actually around you.
      I don’t know, I just wish they’d make a real comic book movie, Avengers came pretty close, I think. But I wanna see the weird stuff. gimme David Lynch or gimme death.

  24. jonfitt says:

    I sent an email to Jim a while ago moaning about this. I don’t know why, I just needed someone to moan at. I should have picked John!

    Anyway, special mention probably should also go to Ice-Pick Lodge, who do the sort of thing John is talking about.

  25. ffordesoon says:

    As someone who thinks realism is generally kind of boring, I agree wholeheartedly.

    Whatever else you want to say about Japanese games, they understand this.

    Take Mega Man. Nobody has ever seriously asked the following questions while playing it: where are all the weird animal and person-shaped robots coming from? How do they operate? Why does Dr. Wily build only eight Robot Masters? Why does Dr. Light not build eight Mega Men? Why is Roll there? What does she do? Etc.

    Nobody has asked these things because they do not matter. We might ask them idly, after the fact, but the answers do not matter materially to the game. We just accept that things are the way they are and go from there.

    Same with most Japanese games. Even the Japanese games that do explain things don’t really explain them. Vanquish doesn’t dick around explaining why your suit can do what it does. It just gives you an acronym or two and says, “You can do zoomy acrobatics in it and slow motion shooting and stuff ’cause it’s fun goddammit.”

    But no, we need everything justified and explained and measured and weighed, because God forbid we question the reality of a game where we kill a hundred thousand people and get treated like the savior of the universe.

    I think the realism obsession comes from several sources within and outside of the game industry. There’s the constant desire to have better graphics on the part of publishers and developers; the desire for better writing, which has for some reason been interpreted by the industry as “more grimdark EMOTIONS-a-thon, less interactivity, because movies”; the general homogeneity of interests among professional game developers (and yes, being more inclusive would ameliorate that); and, most depressingly, the weird post-9/11 trend of being so ashamed of enjoying escapism that we create escapist fiction that’s ashamed of itself.

    There’s a place for realism, of course. Arma is neat. But inconsistently applied realism is awful.

    • guvuhmann says:

      the cool thing that a lot of old Japanese games show is that well done nonsense means more.
      in the void of reality surrounding games like Mario and Pacman, people often felt forced to seek out their own disparate clues to bring some kind of order to it.
      and that was left for us to figure out, which is a lot more fun than wikis and cut scenes and all this expository crap that is shoveled onto us now. everything has to be explained or else everyone freaks out it seems like.
      talking raccoon in space? sure, just don’t explain it. once you explain it, it suddenly becomes dumb.

  26. Wulf says:

    Eh. Since I’m writing on this.

    If anyone’s curious what I’m working on — I’m kind of toying with the idea of a trash nexus world at the moment. Essentially, reality is a construct, and there are programs of a sort which keep the form of reality intact, as without that form it degenerates into chaos. There are elements within reality that happen before their time, as reality occurs at a slow pace, and they pose a danger to what we know.

    There are nexus points all across reality which lead to a sort of purgatory realm, and dangerous elements are compelled to cross through them by whatever means possible. One such exit point exists here on earth as the Bermuda Triangle, yet there are many others. These lead to a pocket reality, a junkworld, where everything that’s considered a danger to the form of reality is laid to rest. It’s a dangerous place which doesn’t really have that many rules, and the peoples there have had to band together to face whatever dangers may arrive, at any given time.

    A friend and I are toying around with this and fleshing it out as time goes on. Here’s one example of it, right here. Yes, that is a D’ni plane, because we felt like it.

    Who knows what will become of it, but it’s a fun idea to toy around with for the time being.

  27. SRTie4k says:

    The irony in this article is the fact that modern military shooters, despite their claim to be ultra-realistic, are entirely fantasy for 99% of those who play them. The “ultra-realistic” war-based shooter depicted within those games is not any reality most people will ever get to experience. It’s something they’ve maybe seen on TV a handful of times in their lives and read about in newspapers, magazines or online.

    Fact is, if you have not been in a combat scenario, your own reality is one that cannot truly comprehend what it is actually like, and therefore the whole concept of combat is nothing but a fantasy to you. Those games may claim to be realistic, but to most, they are a reality that will never be substantiated.

    • MrUnimport says:

      Surely realism isn’t in the eye of the player but a property of the simulation? I’ve never been bungee-jumping but it wouldn’t diminish the realism of a bungee-jumping sim if it were me who was playing it.

  28. liquidsoap89 says:

    I’d say we’ve got plenty of unrealistic games already. Games like Asura’s Wrath, Minecraft, that indie game where you move a 2d character around by moving a 3d characters view…

    We just also have a lot of “realistic” games too, and that’s completely fine!

    Hell, you can walk around on the bottom of the ocean forever placing doors on the ground to get oxygen in Minecraft

  29. Tei says:

    Realism is Ok, but what about Flavour and Style? we want these too.

  30. MrUnimport says:

    I’d like to question the defence of ARMA I keep seeing here. Isn’t an attempt at simulating reality in all its banality the least imaginative thing a person can do or play? I can’t help but suspect that if it were Steam’s best-selling game there would be crowds of folks bemoaning the spiritual emptiness of anyone who would spend so much time doing so little, walking so slowly, and shooting so few people.

    • maturin says:

      “Isn’t an attempt at simulating reality in all its banality the least imaginative thing a person can do or play?”

      Reality in all its banality? That sounds like the phrase of someone who is tired of life, for starters, but you also seem to suggest that the reality of war and combat (which ArmA tries to simulate) is banal and unimaginative.

      On the contrary, games and entertainment are banal, a mere pastiche of reality with dire limitations in both scope and detail. Reality itself is endlessly complex and interesting, both spurring and demanding the dedication of our attention and imagination. Ask the Syrian rebel who used his I-pad app to aim a mortar and tell me again about banal reality. Then ask me about how I had to use a shitty field compass to aim a howitzer because I forgot to pack batteries for my rangefinder. And therein lies the point. ArmA is not a technical, rivet-counting simulator (as anyone complaining about magazines, tanks and flight models will point out) but an experiential simulator. More than any other game, it brings the complex array of reality’s problems, its sheer diversity of scenarios into the gamespace. Realism is dull in games because it limits the scope of possibilities; in ArmA it provides them. When things go hilariously, unexpectedly wrong for some minute reason and we have to change the whole plan; that’s drama.

      And ArmA was indeed the top seller on Steam in the form DayZ, which included a good 70% of the realism that makes for good gameplay: the parts that could be better called limitations, solutions, opportunity and freedom.

  31. Nate says:

    This would be one of those subjects where it’d be awesome for RPS to have a point-counterpoint. Because realism (or verisimilitude, if you’d rather) is also really cool, but it’s easy to forget exactly why it’s cool.

    Just like almost always, what’s great is when there are enough good games to scratch all of our itches. And I believe that is the case :)

  32. Cinek says:

    Realism is great.
    If you don’t overdose it.
    Always remember that games are just that – games. Games are not suppose to be a second work that you go to when you finish with the one that gives you money.

    On the other hand though – games with some weird aberrations, like un-physics can be even worse than games with too much realism.

    • Dozer says:

      Games which pretend to be work are GREAT when I’m out of work, or unfulfilled at work.

      I remember playing Solitaire and watching YouTube videos until 3am because my job – copying clinic appointment outcomes from a paper sheet to a computer, because the doctors can’t bear writing the clinic outcomes straight into the computer themselves – was such a meaningless joke. Stacking up all those cards was on some weird and broken level a fantasy of actually doing something useful – ‘hey I made all those cards go away! Woo! Look at my cumulative Vegas-style scoring – if I clear them all again in the next three games, it will be positive!’ Cheap UK-supermarket vodka helped this mindset considerably.

      By ‘great’ I might mean ‘an indication of completely deteriorated mental health’.

  33. stavka says:

    In my opinion all types of games must exist, its wrong to think that because i hate realism lets only do unrealistic games, or if i hate Soccer, lets only do NHL games. Also, analysing what exist, are much more true unrealistic games than true realistic simulators. So don’t be fear of “realistic this” or “realistic that” because many times are only advertises.
    For example even Arma is a joke as a realistic simulator, vehicles there are almost as real in physics and systems as in Bad Company 2.I recommend everyone that not believe to check the difference in tanks between arma and steelbeasts pro, or the Mi-8 between Arma and DCS Mi-8. Even as soldier simulator it have many faults, the AI have a weird brutal precision in very high distances without any scope (also not realistic only hard, and many in situations harder is not more real). These was only examples. Manytimes i feel the Arma as a duck, he can swim, walk and fly, but not as good as specific ones.
    To conclude about Arma, the Arma III is even a bigger joke calling it a realistic simulator, with fake vehicles that are as real as any vehicle in Mass Effect 2 (pure imagination). So, don’t worry that soon even Arma franchising will be like any other arcade game.
    What is important is to evaluate the true features of the games or simulators and his fun factors for what you want to do with them. Exist boring and fun in all kinds (realistic or unrealistic).

    • iridescence says:

      Such reasonableness….Are you sure you belong on the internet? :)

    • Dozer says:

      The licencing fees for imaginary vehicles are much lower. Also no-one arrests you and throws you into jail for taking photographs of imaginary things :)

  34. Notebooked says:

    This reminds me that I’m annoyed there isn’t any word for ‘realistic’ that applies to things that aren’t realistic, worlds that run on fictional yet functional logic where every part seems to fit into the whole. ‘Atmospheric’, maybe, but that’s most often used for suspenseful atmospheres.

  35. bigjig says:

    This is why I generally prefer Japanese games over western ones. I tire of the constant need for “grit” and “realism” in games. A little more “fantastical”, a little more “colour”, a little more “fun” is all I ask.

    • skalpadda says:

      While shooters purporting to give players a true experience of the gritty realities of war can sod right off I’m even more annoyed by games (and other things) that claim to offer us the fantastical but fail to offer anything but the mundane.

      Come experience our magical land of fantasy and adventure! You can be whatever you want, such as a human, a short human or a human with pointy ears! You can even play as a man that looks a bit like Ron Perlman, except green! Or a woman that looks a bit like Ron Perlman except green! Explore wondrous landscapes, like a forest and some mountains! You will fight rats and bears and wolves! Then you’ll fight big lizards! Sometimes with Wings! And you’ll fight Ron Perlman, except he’s green! You can even shoot lightning from your hands!

      Well, that’s all fine and it might even be a lot of fun, but it’s not a magical, wonderful or innovative experience unlike any I’ve had before, is it? I did in fact shoot lightning out of my hand just this morning when I touched the metal railing outside my door and while it did make me jump it was hardly a mind-blowing original experience. I haven’t fought a bear or a wolf but neither is more than a two hour drive away and I don’t need magic to arrange it. With enough effort I’m sure green Ron Perlman isn’t out of the question either.

  36. Jason Moyer says:

    I want some ultra-detailed simulations of completely fantastical worlds/situations. Something like Thief touches that a little bit with the whole magical arrows/invisible in shadows thing, but I’d like to see similar things done in settings that are even less grounded in reality.

  37. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    Yes! Sometimes realism is ok. Just not all the time.

  38. Turkey says:

    Try turning your consolebox on once in a while. There’s this country called Japan… Well, I don’t want to ruin the surprise.

  39. JamesTheNumberless says:

    Best article ever

  40. MDevonB says:

    I feel I’m missing something here. Like I’m reading a rallying cry for a store that sells coffee, or someone lamenting the lack of self-propelled carriages. Aren’t there already reams of not just unrealistic, but utterly fantastical, games out there in the wild, with even more in production? Absolutely nothing has clicked with me on this.

  41. cpt_freakout says:

    More of both! The thing with realism is that lots and lots of people are still enchanted by graphics-as-gadget, which is to say graphical capability as a way to enjoy the mimesis of the world that ‘we humans’ are able to achieve. Once upon a time it was a painting on a wall upon which a bird tried to pick some fruit up; now it’s the bobbing of a soldier’s head trying to be still for a headshot. Some of the most interesting moments in these things, apart from the whole unrealistic mechanics of them (which is to say it’s all code in the same way the painting was just exactly that), are when it completely glitches out and the whole ‘realism’ cover is blown to bits. Stuff like falling through the earth, and so on, which in my opinion makes games (funnily) interesting in the ways they have to cope with being, well, just a bunch of code, a specialized little system. Enter the impassable little mounds of dirt, the tutorials, the screen messages, “invert / don’t invert mouse Y axis”, and whatnot.

    In the end I like realism in the same way I like fantasy, because I know they’re both whack-out of mind. However, I guess the trend should revert eventually, and we should be seeing more surrealist(ic) games, especially with the success of many an indie game that goes back to the early Nintendo/Sega kind of bonkers (a plumber saves a kingdom’s lineage, a blue hedgehog fights against utilitarian science to save his inexplicably smaller friends). Also, while I like this demand, how do we non-journalists support it, apart from writing our approval here?

  42. Rao Dao Zao says:

    I think there is a balance to be struck. I agree that some games are rather too po-faced, but I don’t think “lol so random jelly gun xx” is the answer either.

    Realism is not necessarily required, but some degree of plausibility and internal consistency most definitely is. Even the wildest games like GIants: Citizen Kabuto still work within their own context.

    I grappled (perhaps not entirely successfully) with the issue in a blog of my own fairly recently: link to raodaozao.net

  43. iridescence says:

    Plausibility is a better term than realism. You can set whatever rules you want but after setting them you must stick to them. If, in your word, bullets heal you, don’t make them suddenly not heal you with no explanation just to make a given boss fight tougher.

    Now, in “real world” games, plausibility’s a harsher mistress. I don’t want to see English knights fighting with katanas just because some dev thought that might look cool. It’s totally implausible and takes me out of the experience. Anything that reminds you in big neon letters “THIS IS A VIDEO GAME!” is bad and should be avoided in real world games striving for any sort of plausibility.

    If you want to make something wacky and crazy, better to go all out like Saints Row does than to have a game that’s 75% plausible which only serves to make the rest more glaring.

    • Bart Stewart says:

      Plausibility is precisely the term — and the design goal — I’ve been suggesting over realism.

      Realism is about selecting things and processes from our world and trying to model them in a game world. That immediately creates three problems:

      1. Your models will never be good enough for some people.
      2. The bits of reality you did model will never be sufficient for some people.
      3. The only things and processes your world actually needs are those that specifically support the story of that unique invented place.

      Given those, the most useful goal for the developer of a game with any meaningful amount of worldiness is that everything in it feels plausible — that whatever is there contributes to the logical coherence and emotional meaning of that imaginary place.

      That said:



  44. RedViv says:

    I miss the day of highest quality non-realistic games. Nowadays we are lucky if we get one a year, and even Japan doesn’t deliver any more.

  45. strangeloup says:

    I certainly like realism in an imaginative setting, if that makes sense. Something like Fallout springs to mind; it’s in a crazy 1950’s post-apocalyptic future, but everything there still works more or less how you’d expect, if a bit run down and janky, with some sci-fi tech that’s largely extrapolating on what already exists.

    Compare that to, say, CoD: Modern Warfare, which I picked up for a song recently having heard it’s the bestleast-worst of the contemporary ones. That’s no less fantasy — and, imho, you don’t recover health by getting your breath back, you do it by wiping jam off your face — but it’s an infinitely more tedious flavour.

    I speak only from the experience of MW’s campaign, but as it’s primarily played for multiplayer, one that endlessly appeals to me in that area is Team Fortress 2, in substantial part due to its unrealistic, cartoony nature. It makes me think of a sort of cold-war Itchy & Scratchy, and often has moments of spontaneous hilarity.

    Another area I think that suffers from too much realism, along with the manshoot genre, is driving games. Again I’m referring to console games for the sake of argument, as I’ve not played an awful lot of driving stuff on the PC, but the argument still stands — while the likes of Gran Turismo might be technically excellent and reproduce real-world vehicles (that, notably, the majority of people will never get within ten yards of) with great verisimilitude, it doesn’t appeal to me anywhere near as much as the future aesthetics of Wipeout.

    In conclusion, fuck realism, give me bright colours and crazy stuff to do.

    • guvuhmann says:

      yes, TF2! the article’s author can always take comfort that his jetpack jelly guns might always just be one TF2 update away.
      the first and probably only game that made me actually play online with other people.

  46. Bojangles says:

    Why can’t we have both?
    I like sim racing, because I want to be a race car driver but that is a silly unattainable goal.
    I like sim shooters because it’s exhilarating, but I don’t want to be killed or kill anyone.
    The list goes on.
    Realistic games offer a chance to roleplay and experience things that you normally wouldn’t, and I think that it is someone more exciting if you know that what you are simulating actually happens, or something close to it happens. However, this doesn’t mean that I don’t like fantasy worlds that have no connection to reality whatsoever. Different types of games give different experiences, and I think they should all be welcomed. We shouldn’t use realism as an indicator of a good game, but as a genre, and talking down to people who like realism by saying that they just don’t have the imagination to play the type of game that they like is incredibly small minded.

  47. stupid_mcgee says:

    You know what my favorite part about the CoD and Battlefield series is? The rocket jumping. Hence why I don’t play either one of them.

  48. botd says:

    I want to echo what others have said, but perhaps with a less judgmental tone. AAA games are realistic because that is where the money is. A large part of the population only enjoys fiction that takes place in a semi-modern replica of real life. It is why TV is dominated by cops, lawyers, doctors and people from New Jersey. I am sure we have all met that person that upon watching some blockbuster goes on and on about how cheesy it is. This was superheroes and comic books at one point before they managed to have cracked into mainstream acceptability. However, they did that by shedding a lot of their eccentricities and it is part of why big screen adaptations are often disappointing.

    But I digress. Video games went through a similar butterfly phase when, hand-in-hand, FPS and graphical fidelity came to dominate gaming. Shooting people in realistic settings works for a lot of people. The similarity between one realistic FPS and another also helps because people are generally more accepting of familiar things. Even though I play a wide variety of games it can often be a fight to get out of my comfort zone and try something new and I am sure we are all afflicted by this conservative impulse at certain times.

    However, I find it a strange time to write this article considering the arrival of waves of indie developers that have started to push the envelope again after a decade of stagnation. Maybe a few years ago we could have decried all the AAA games sucking money from more interesting projects, but today we have a surplus of ways to get money into the hands of people with the talent and ideas to try something new. I, for one, am looking forward to the next few years.

  49. Porpentine says:

    In my GaymerX talk I spoke on how much I admire Increpare’s Slave of God for being willing to paint the visible world with an emotional dimension. Realism is not realistic, and not everyone sees the same thing.

    Realism usually just means the reality of the dominant culture, or their idealized version of it.

  50. The Random One says:

    Wait, those ideas sound familiar… *pulls off John’s mask* Gasp! Peter Molydeux! Whatever, let’s make a jam based on those games anyway.

    I agree entirely, and saw the SRIV reference coming. SRIV is, perhaps, the most unrealistic gangster simulation. Games are in a space, shared only by books, comics and animation in the realm of narrative media, in which it’s precisely as hard to make a completely fake thing as it is to make a completely real thing. This is space that should be explored.