Any game enthusiast who goes onto the internet is familiar with this particular topic. Everyday, someone, somewhere in the world argues that “games are not realistic enough.” Although this assertion is made often, it is a somewhat disingenuous one. When game players say that they want games to be more realistic, that is not exactly what they mean. They are referring to a similar, yet together different topic. This week, I am going to discuss realism in games: Why realism is an unrealistic goal and what gamers are actually asking for.
First off, I am going to start with a statement that will sound like common sense when I say it: A truly realistic game is never going to exist. Furthermore, nobody truly wants realism in games. A truly realistic game would be a game where the protagonist would die after taking a few bullets, health regeneration would take weeks, the player would have to maintain some source of income and pay bills/rent as they go through the story, etc. This would not be an extremely compelling game. This would be real life. This would be a chore. Also, programming and rendering this would be a complete nightmare. It would take many years before we got close to completely realistic and commercially available simulation programs. Players do not want to play through real life, they want to play through interesting and dramatic, yet believable stories.
That is the key. The audience does not want a realistic story. They want a believable story. That is a subtle, yet distinct difference. A believe story is one that might not be in line with the rules of the real world (and indeed, often will not be depending on the genre), but it does have its own internal logic, or continuity, that is rarely, if ever, broken. Even if it is broken, it is only in small, minor ways that do not have a significant impact on the world. This applies not only to the world itself, (as in, how its technology/magic works, political alliences/treaties, national pollicies, etc.) but also to the characters how populate the world and take part in the events of the story.
For example, in Fallout: New Vegas, the NCR, who is equipped with guns and hi-tech combat armor, is in a battle against Caesar's Legion, who is equipped with machetes, chainsaws, and football equipment (as armor). In real life, the NCR would dominate against Caesar's Legion. There would be no question: A bunch of semi-trained marksman would destroy a group of the best-trained melee specialists in football pads in a straight fight. However, by the systems in the game, this makes sense. Using melee weapons and/or unarmed are perfectly legitimate playstyles in New Vegas and many players use them (myself included). So when the Legion is shown to be in a stalemate with the NCR, players will not question it. While unrealistic in the real world, this still makes sense by the game's internal logic. We might question the motives and rationale behind the two factions, but we do not question that such a stalemate is possible.
This continuity extends to the factions for the most part. Going back to New Vegas, this is mostly done very well. The NCR has a believable motivation because they wish to annex New Vegas to both spread their democratic ideology and to gain the resources of the area, notably Hoover Dam and the electricity generated by it. However, they have a streak of over-expanding and spreading themselves too thin. Meanwhile, Mr. House wants to keep control of New Vegas in order to keep making profits from the NCR and use that profit to advance humanity technologically and possibly space-ward. The trade-off is that he will not tolerate any faction who openly opposes him and will instruct the player to eliminate most of the minor factions in the game. These are both interesting motivations, goals, and drawbacks that the player can wrap their head around, understand and possibly support.
However, the Legion does not have a similar consistency. Caesar's Legion is a faction that subjugates tribals and adds their men and women to the army and the slave workforce respectively. They are also known for rejecting advanced technology in favor of primitive weapons like machetes and chainsaws and basic firearms like repeaters and SMGs. The tradeoff being that while the concept of individual liberty and freedom does not exist, the people are generally safe because bandits wouldn't dare to cross the legion. With regards to behavior, members of the legion are taught the ills of the society of the NCR and of New Vegas. They shun anything to do with these things in favor of a less advanced, and more demanding lifestyle, hoping to destroy the NCR and Vegas. With regards to their soldiers and general populace, this is fairly consistent. However, when you get into the upper echelons of Legion society, it begins to falter. Firstly, something that the player is able to discover as the game goes on is that the Legion utilizes systems of spies in both Vegas and the NCR. Far from shunning these places and demonizing them, the higher ups place people in places where they can influence the people there and possible steal some of the intel/technology in the area for themselves. As if that was not enough, with a high enough Medicine skill, the player and diagnose Caesar with a brain tumor. His response to this would naturally be to avoid modern medicine and try to heal himself through more primitive means or even to prepare a successor. Nope! Instead, we asks you to fix his Auto-Doc (Its a robot doctor.) so that he can use advanced technology to heal himself, going against his core anti-technology principals.
Going on the anti-technology front again, this continues to be illogical when the player asks why Caesar does what he does. He wants to use the ancient Roman Empire as a model to form his own. Thus, we reverts to using old technology. However, this does not make sense to those who have even a surface level understanding of history. The ancient Roman were not anti-technology. In fact, they were about as pro-technology as you can get. The shamelessly ripped off any good/useful technique/technology from their neighbors if it meant that they could do better. So by abandoning technology, Caesar is spitting in the face of the very system he is trying to emulate. Everything he does seams to contradict something else he is doing. The net result is that he breaks his own internal logic and becomes a caricature that no sane person would get behind. For a world as beautifully crafted as the one in New Vegas, this is tragic.
Realism as the dictionary describes it will never be a part of video games and for good reason. However, this does not mean that gamers are wrong to keep asking for games to be realistic. In fact, it is important for the audience of game developers to keep them honest and make them abide by their own internal logic. It is still very important to maintain a level of consistency and believability with the world and the characters. This is just another part of storytelling. Game developers would be wise to remember this.