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Editorial: An Appeal For Unrealism

Unrealistic Expectations

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“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.

Let’s have this: “THE ULTIMATE UNREALISTIC SOLDIER SIMULATION!”

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.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and general hero of humanity.

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