Realism and Gameplay

Nov 27, 2010

When should realism be compromised for gameplay? Turned around: when should gameplay be compromised for realism?


Gran Turismo 5 came out this week, the latest in a realism-centered racing franchise that began in the late 90’s, and ARMA, a military simulation following the Operation Flashpoint series from 2001, continues to see new sequels and expansion packs. Microsoft Flight Simulator has been around longer than Windows. Although there’s clearly an audience for simulations, this article isn’t about them; because realism is explicitly the developer’s ideal for simulations, there’s little debate about when to compromise realism for gameplay in a simulation: only when it’s absolutely necessary.

Cinematic Games

In cinematic games, of the sort increasingly prevalent in the 3D FPS and third person adventure market, realism is often a desirable impression, but not a reliable source of decision making. Bootlaces coming undone, guns jamming, and enemy soldiers easily overwhelming the player with sheer numbers, though accurate, is rarely the sort of experience that improves what makes the game enjoyable or memorable.

Believability, authenticity, or even something as loose as internal consistency are often the guideline here. This metric is no different than we see in films, which makes sense given the deliberate effort by games of this sort to emulate cinema.

Real boxing is not nearly as dramatic as it is in Rocky, real sword fighting is not nearly as intricate as it is in Pirates of the Caribbean, and full time soldiers aren’t as hopelessly inaccurate in real life as they are in a James Bond film. The goal in such cases is entertainment, and the partial impression of realism is maintained mostly because it gives the action a relatable, recognizable background.

In the case of cinematic games, realism is little more than a veneer. It doesn’t matter to the audience whether the weapons really work that way, whether the enemies would actually behave that way, or whether the boss could really keep fighting after taking such a tremendous beating. It’s largely a matter of putting on a spectacular show, in a way that doesn’t require the audience to learn or adjust their mental vocabulary and cultural logic.

Abstract Videogames

At first glance, it might seem like realism is as antithetical to purely abstract games as gameplay is to simulations. However even Tetris and Bejeweled have “gravity” (or something crudely like it) and make it impossible for physical objects to overlap. In such cases, realism can serve as a source of inspiration for ideas that can be easily understood, but all other decisions hinge on gameplay without regard for reality.

Consider the ball/brick/paddle collision relationships in Super Breakout on Atari 2600 (play mode 3, rewritten in Flash). As I explain to an irritatingly pompous, art snob level of detail (…3 years ago…) in my journal article for that remake, for Breakout it’s in the interest of gameplay that collisions do not behave as physical collisions would lead us to expect: no spin, no elastic reflection, no collision with the side of bricks, no collision with the underside of the paddles, and so on. Most people that dislike this type of game have never played it, only inferior derivatives of Arkanoid, which itself was among the first to ruin the gameplay by allowing ball collisions with the side of bricks (removing the dramatic escalation that made getting a “breakout” feel like a knockout in boxing).

In abstract videogames, nothing should be added on account of “how it would really work.” If it makes the gameplay more enjoyable, borrow from it; if it instead dilutes what makes the gameplay works, or seems to have nothing to do with what makes the gameplay works, simply ignore it.

The lack of realistic visual anchors in an abstract game generally means that players come into it without the same sort of prior assumptions that are brought into cinematic experiences.

Cartoony Videogames

For games more grounded in the visual language and culture of cartoons – Super Mario World, Street Fighter 2, or Kirby’s Epic Yarn – realism is just one more source of affordance. Affordance, as covered in previous articles about difficulty and level design, is how expectations are communicated to the player.

Where realism and affordance overlap is that realism is often the assumed functionality, until the game does something to demonstrate otherwise. Ex. stepping over a cliff edge will result in falling, and falling a non-trivial distance will cause death or injury. Things in the background, due to physical separation, will not affect things in the foreground. It’s impossible to move through a solid wall. And so on.

Blatant violation of those assumptions – not just absurd characters and settings – are one mechanism that helps establish the universe as cartoonish.

Of course, “realistic” in a cartoony universe is somewhat overridden by how other cartoony universes in videogames as well as other media have adjusted those expectations. We’re led to assume that death is impermanent, healing of injury is complete and instantaneous with proper artifacts, and countless large objects can be carried without encumbering movement.

When a cartoony game demonstrates a level of realism atypical of what’s expected in a cartoon universe – as Media Molecule did for LittleBigPlanet, Petri Purho did with Crayon Physics, or Nesky and I did for Topple – the effect can be the sort of unexpected delight that cartoony universes risk losing when situated too firmly in their own conventions of “cartoon reality.”

Violating expectations – where expectations are the player’s assumptions of how reality will work in a given context – can be a source of inspiration for the gameplay. Bugs Bunny used to pick up a hole from one thing, and attach it to another; the Road Runner used to run clean through a painting of a tunnel; SpongeBob blows bubbles in elaborate animated shapes. Likewise, when Mario doubles in size from eating a mushroom, when Dhalsim punches across the screen, and when Kirby takes on the powers of enemies by eating them, the magic is in the breaking of assumptions.

Other/Hybrid Videogames

Is Team Fortress 2 cinematic, cartoony, or abstract? World of Goo? Rock Band? What about sports games? It doesn’t really matter how they’re categorized, as they probably borrow elements from each. So long as it’s clear that they aren’t attempting to be pure simulations, all we can say for certain is that emulating true realism probably isn’t desirable. Instead: some mixture of exaggerated authenticity (borrowed from cinema), selectively ignoring reality (borrowed from abstract games), and the deliberate inversion of expectations (borrowed from cartoony games) is what makes sense for those – and for that matter most – videogame universes.

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