Risks of Realism in Game Design
Why the pursuit of realism can hinder playability
Creating more realistic experiences in video games has been a never-ending quest for developers since the Atari days. And, over this past decade, we have seen numerous games that attempt to simulate elements of the real world as realistically as possible — game engines are increasingly enabling developers to engineer graphical fidelity that is remarkably close to real-life. But I think it’s fair to say that this pursuit of realism can often get in the way of both accessibility and playability. It leads me to ask the question: is there such thing as too much realism?
“If once we were able to view the Borges fable in which the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly […] this fable has now come full circle for us, and possesses nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra. […] It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own: The desert of the real itself…”
- Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation
Deserts of the real
At their very foundation, video games are abstractions of real-world actions (for example, fighting/combat, flying through space, or even solving physical puzzles). This point of abstraction is fundamental to all video game design.
Given this basis, realism in a video game isn’t a binary on/off switch that developers can toggle: there are many degrees of realism across a game’s various systems, and the perception of a game’s realism can vary depending on the way these core abstractions articulate. For example, Borderlands arguably features more true-to-life shooting mechanics than Fallout 4, but neither game is at risk of being described as “realistic” in terms of combat. Other games employ artistic references to realism — such as the historical settings and military unit seen in the Age of Empires series — in preference to developing more realistic physical mechanics.
It wasn’t really until this last decade that game engines enabled creators to depict almost photorealistic facsimiles of characters and environments in digital worlds. It wasn’t just the visual representations of worlds that more closely mimicked real-life; core mechanics — the digital abstractions of real-world actions — also became increasingly grounded in reality.
Perhaps the most salient example of this trend is the survival genre; players now had to actively manage a set of artificial constraints — that is to say, constraints that need not exist at all in a digital simulation, unless the goal is to craft an experience that more closely mirrors real-world constraints. Monitoring and responding to stimuli like hunger, physical injuries, and limited inventory space became popular design tropes.
As I mentioned at the outset, realism in video games has often been seen by developers — and consumers — as a desirable goal in and of itself. But as various games have indeed become more realistic, new challenges have emerged.
Making art playable
A key component of any video game — I’d argue, the key component — is playability. What do I mean by that? Put simply, playability is connected to the ability for a player to enjoy their engagement with a video game, especially in terms of its gameplay mechanics.
(Editor’s note: Interestingly, there are people who would argue that video games need not be “playable”, “fun” or even “entertaining”. Whatever else these people are describing, I’d argue it’s not a “video game”. For the purpose of this article, I think it should be safely assumed that a core tenant of video games is to provide enjoyable interactive experiences.)
The challenge here, then, is that the goal of making a game playable is often in direct conflict with the goal to make it realistic. If you doubt this proposition, then simply consider some obvious examples: there’s a reason, for instance, that most first-person shooters don’t deal with “realistic” constraints like gun jams or broken equipment — this would obviously frustrate players who want to focus on the shooting, which is the core abstraction that this genre deals with. Another example is inventory space: it might not be realistic to have a Mary Poppins-style backpack that can carry your entire home’s furniture as well as the kitchen sink, but in practical playability terms, it removes a constraint that is completely unnecessary in a digital world (and which itself is not likely to be enjoyable — constantly dropping and switching gear for lack of storage space can be a painful experience if not carefully implemented).
A very recent example of a game that strives for realism in many respects is Red Dead Redemption 2. I haven’t played the game, but I’ve spoken to many people who’ve played it, and I’ve watched a lot of videos online — there are clearly many elements in the game that are designed to “simulate” what it would have been like to live on the frontier in America near the turn of the century. In committing to that realism, Rockstar have built a framework of abstractions that are actually not so abstract — that is to say, basic actions in the digital world closely mirror basic actions in the real world, and in doing so, they can (by design) import real-world tedium (for example, walking around at a “realistic” pace, waiting for Arthur’s animations to finish and being unable to skip them, and so on).
There are, of course, players who absolutely love this commitment to realism. But a great many players have pointed out that their love for the game is actually hindered by these tedious subtleties — that they’ve found these mini-realisms to be more bug than feature, so to speak.
Enjoying the ride
When discussing this subject, I’m reminded of something legendary game designer Sid Meier wrote in the Sid Meier’s Pirates! game manual. He discussed the question of whether or not he should have included scurvy in the game as a constraint for the player to deal with. On the one hand, scurvy was a real-life disease that plagued life on the high seas for a long time in human history. But in the end, Meier determined that he just couldn’t come up with a way to make scurvy interesting from a gameplay perspective — for this reason, the idea was scrapped.
This is why I always champion playability over realism in games, at least personally. I think it’s always preferable to play a game that is more fun and enjoyable if that means some elements of realism are sacrificed.
Of course, there are people who prefer more realistic “simulator-like” experiences, and there are whole genres of games that aim to be as true-to-life as possible, especially in terms of replicating specific experiences (flight sims, for example). Often, these experiences import a great deal of realism in the form of constraints that the player must respond to — the extent to which the game is less convenient or accessible for the player as a result is often the extent to which fans love such titles. Of course, it’s also true to say that these genres tend to be fairly niche as well.
For game developers, it’s important to be careful when purposely making your game more difficult — or, at least, when adding artificial constraints — in the pursuit of realism. The less playable your title is, the less people are likely going to want to play it, which will ultimately impact the potential size of your audience.
With all of that said, I think it’s time to leave you with a question.
What are some realistic elements in games that really drive you crazy? Can you think of games that nailed realism but were still highly playable?