February 07, 2005 | Category:

Games, Part 1: Realism

(Editorial note: yes, I spacked up the title. It should be part 2 and a constraint in my CMS stops me from changing it immediately. It will remain as it is anyway, for permalink consistency).

Twelve years ago or so, Christmas morning, little Johnny excitedly rips through his presents. Among them, a shining bastion of a console: the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, or SNES to its friends. Super Mario World was the game to playing, and play it he did. Here was a game that was a truly a step beyond what had gone before. Not because of its richer graphics (although the sadder among us no doubt remember the mode 7 rotation and dozens of background layers) did it stand above previous titles.

No, it stood out because it brought a rich new set of toys to play with: yoshi, spinning worlds, the ghost houses and lots more. The whole generation of games was full of innovation (see Pilotwings and F-Zero for examples).

Eight years ago or so, another generation was under way. This time Johnny thought Super Mario 64 was the most revolutionary game. It represented a real step forward in so many areas. Worlds seemed to be real for the first time, various skills allowed exploration in small steps, and Johnny felt more involved than ever. Mario was a genuine avatar.

A few years ago, we got another generation. This time, however, there was no major upheaval. Sure, there were great games, but nothing substantially different. More solid lighting, certainly. Better effects. A huge increase in the number of polygons on screen. None of that really mattered though, it wasn’t all that different. Somewhere in the transition between hardware periods revolution had been killed in the pursuit of realism.

The pursuit of realism had long been a goal, and an admirable one at that. An obvious argument is that the more we recognise the worlds we see in games the easier they are to empathise with and enjoy. Are games necessarily about that though? Does it really matter if we immediately recognise the game world as being similar to our own? Simply put, no.

As far back as games have existed, there have always been large levels of abstraction graphically that were profoundly easy to cope with. Pong, Pac Man, Centipede. Hell, games have been around for centuries that have one foot in reality but are marvellously abstract. Checkers, Go, Chess. We don’t need things to be completely familiar to enjoy them.

That this pursuit of realism has all but killed innovation graphically (with the exception of a few rare titles) is not important though. More consistent rules and better toys (the gravity gun from Half Life 2), tiny graphical details (being able to see the weave on clothing, for example), opponents who better realise their role; immersion is the new revolution.

Where Mario World gave us a few wooden trains to play with, Grand Theft Auto gave us the complete Hornby back catalogue (and enough explosives to destroy it). Wolfenstein might have left us shoot monsters, it’s Halo 2 which lets us play with them. While Johnny might not remember this generation as being all that different from the last superficially, it is. He just needs to immerse himself.