Suspended Belief: Why Do I Care Whether Games Are Realistic?

Suspended Belief: Why Do I Care Whether Games Are Realistic?

Big-bucks game studios spend millions of dollars and deploy cutting-edge hardware and nifty programming techniques to make games look as “realistic” as possible. Yet whenever I see one of these titles my immediate reaction is: “I don’t believe this for a second.” What’s going on?

Last week, I was showing my PlayStation Vita to a gaming enthusiast friend. In truth, I haven’t touched the Vita much since Kotaku editor Mark and I had a slightly disappointed launch-day discussion of its merits (or more accurately, its lack thereof). But my friend was very keen to check out the handheld console, and particularly Uncharted: Golden Abyss. So I watched him play.

His complaints were along the lines of “using these ropes is too difficult”. That’s only to be expected on a newly-encountered device. My (largely unvoiced) objections were more fundamental.

“Why is it that every point on this cliff that you need to jump to is mysteriously lit up? How come you can fall down that abyss and then keep playing two seconds later? How is it you can shoot 17 guys from behind a pillar but they never hit you? Why does this game LOOK LIKE THE REAL WORLD AND YET IN NO WAY RESEMBLE IT, DAMMIT?” I had to pause and make myself a cup of green tea. It was an unexpectedly intense moment.

Those objections wouldn’t occur to me in a game that didn’t look somewhat like the world we know in the first place. I have no grounds to argue about the physics in a kart racer or the internal logic of Tetris, and I have never done so. But when the faces have been carefully chiselled and the dialogue endlessly scripted and the polygons re-sculpted for maximum gore and beauty, it’s evident that my demands for “reality” go right up. It looks like the real world, so I want it to act like the real world. One life, tough choices, actual pain, and a high chance of failure.

That doesn’t seem like a typical reaction; no-one hanging out for the next instalment of Call of Duty is thinking these thoughts. How did I get that way?

Maybe it’s my upbringing.

Bring me a helmet

The first computer game I ever played, more than three decades ago, was Helmet. This was a Game & Watch title from the dawn of Nintendo’s glory, and I only got to play it by accident: my schoolteacher stepmother confiscated it from one of her pupils in class, and the Kidman clan got the benefit until term ended.

Helmet‘s entire plotline is this. You’re an LCD man who has to cross from one door to the other, dodging an endless sequence of tools (hammers, spanners, screwdrivers) that fall from the sky from an unnamed source. Once you’ve crossed, you do it again, and again, and again. When you have died three times, the game ends. That’s it. Two buttons; no backstory; no motivation; no logic whatsoever. I loved it, and was hopelessly hooked from the first hammer to the cranium.

Beaten down by endless demands from myself and my siblings once Helmet went back to its owner, my father bought a copy of Octopus, an equally simple Game & Watch title. A little later, I invested a ludicrously large amount of pocket money in a handheld replica of Pac-man. I was addicted, and I never stopped to ask just why the yellow dude had to munch down all those pills.

In this era, nothing looked remotely photo-realistic; that era of gaming was at least 15 years away. Most of the Game & Watch titles featured human protagonists (if you ignore Donkey Kong II and Donkey Kong Jr and the rubbish Disney titles), albeit in monochrome. But the scenarios made no sense anyway. You endlessly gassed bugs away from plants. You collected oil in a bucket. You juggled until you died. You rescued hundreds of bouncing babies from a burning building. I was happy, and I didn’t question it.

Cauldrons, Clifford and Crash

Looking back, it’s evident that nearly every game franchise that has sucked up any meaningful chunk of my time throughout my life has been firmly based well away from reality. In high school, I distracted myself from studying with long bouts of Cauldron II on the Amstrad CPC6128 (if you don’t know it, there’s no point finding out now, frankly).

This game — in which you played a bouncing pumpkin collecting tools in a giant castle built from witches’ hats in order to escape — so occupied my psyche that years later, I went to the effort of mapping out the entire thing in an emulator. This made it very clear that the whole game was, in every meaningful sense, impossible and illogical and ridiculous. But I loved it regardless.

I used to write simple games as well, and these were equally unrealistic. One of my more notable creations was Mountain, where you had to fight your way across a single, largely-static screen while avoiding a single obstacle that was clearly visible. I still think Myst stole that idea. But you wouldn’t believe in either of them as instances of the real world.

At university, the only title I played (much — I spent a lot of time working on my slightly NSFW thesis) was Bubble Bobble on my brother’s Master System. I loved that game (the constant beer references undoubtedly helped), but it had even less connection to a recognisable world than the bouncing pumpkin.

Fast-forward to the PlayStation era, and I wasted a lot of time on kart racers. As well as developing an unexpected facility for Crash Team Racing, I became quite literally the world expert on Muppet Race Mania, a long-since-forgotten PlayStation Mario Kart clone where you can race the Muppets around a variety of courses based on their movies. It was indifferently reviewed and largely ignored. So, ever perverse, I wrote an in-depth guide to the whole shebang.

Yes, this was the man I had become. I would happily race in the guise of a puppet character in a racing car that looked like a plane against a fashion-obsessed pig and a paranoid frog, using chickens as weapons. But if you asked me to try out Grand Theft Auto, I’d immediately wonder why a conveniently-placed helicopter didn’t blow you up after you’d shot or run over the fifth innocent bystander.

And it seems the man is not for turning. I can remember, quite distinctly, someone from Microsoft showing me Halo on the original Xbox at the Australian press launch back in 2002. They wanted me to be thrilled; I was somewhere between indifferent and appalled. The rot had well and truly set in. Sure, it looked real enough in a cybernetically-enhanced way, I simply didn’t believe it for a second.

I’m a freak, I’m a weirdo

I know, I know: around these parts, this entire line of thinking makes me seem Neanderthal. Maybe it’s time for me to apply for my pension and start watching Antiques Roadshow, or collecting vintage Sega Master Systems.

I’m well aware that most Kotaku readers don’t feel this way. Many of you are so invested in specific franchises that your commenting fingers explode with rage if those franchises don’t deliver exactly what you expect (yes, I’m thinking of that much-disputed ending in Mass Effect 3 again). Whatever side of that particular debate you come down on, one thing is clear: these are not worlds which people find unconvincing or unimportant. I’m not experiencing a universal emotion. But I don’t think I’m experiencing a unique one either.

Now gaming is a mature environment, it’s only reasonable to expect that its audiences will diverge. The same is true of movies, which are more than a century old as a commercial medium. People who enjoy the Transformers series won’t get a kick out of The Iron Lady. Twilight fans aren’t queuing up for Prometheus. No-one over 12 wants to see Alvin & The Chipmunks 3. But titles in all those niches continue to appear.

That’s a good thing, as is the ability to recognise that your tastes are not universally mirrored. And maybe that’s what my counter-reaction to Uncharted: Golden Abyss and its predecessors really represents: a market where I can reject a title but still find plenty to play and enjoy.

So I’m not suggesting anyone should change their mind. Just remember that the disbelievers are out there too. We’re happy to enjoy a game featuring bouncing pumpkins, but when Nathan Drake or Master Chief strolls in, we’re strolling out. You can scorn us and pity us, but we’re not going away. At least not until hammers start falling from the sky.


  • tbh I got annoyed with the gunplay in Uncharted and gave up. Pouring a magazine of ammo into a guy’s exposed face and him not dying just ruined the epic adventure feel of the game for me. You can get away with it in, say, Halo, because they’re space aliens with space alien armour!!!1, but in Uncharted they’re a bunch of random guys in singlets…

    • Don’t know what game you’re playing but Uncharted has always been one shot headshots on an exposed guy, in facts the complaints are ‘if you don’t headshot’. The fact that you’ve said “pouring a magazine” suggests you were missing and refused to believe the game didn’t auto-aim for you.

  • I agree with the point that any attempt at photo-realism in games just makes it seem odd. One of the earlier examples of an attempt would be Doom 3, and its physics on some objects. Great, I can shoot something, or run into it, and it will move around, but what about all the other objects?

    I think the difference here though is between suspension of disbelief(which would be accepting the above faults in a case), and acceptance of fantasy(which is more related to the Muppets racing game). Certainly an interesting thing to think about, anyway.

    • Exactly what I was about to say. There is not one gun in the whole Uncharted universe that will not kill with one shot to the head. They get around this seemingly easy way out of a gunfight by making the enemies ACTUALLY MOVE! Imagine that! You are playing through a CoD campaign, when mysteriously, the things coming out of your gun don’t hit the things you are aiming at because the enemy, oh I dunno, took cover! There would be riots in the streets!

  • Interesting perspective.

    I’d probably suggest *any* created fiction (movies, games, books, whatever) involves a necessary suspension of disbelief, since characters and settings regularly act in all sorts of crazy and unrealistic ways (and because by definition they aren’t real :P) but perhaps gaming is a category above this because so much of what we see and play is engineered and interactive, and there’s a dissonance between the super-realism of the environments and the obvious concessions that make up gameplay – a HUD, respawning, linearity, whatever. The closer the designers edge towards realism the more problems it creates, and those additions for the sake of usability are probably needed what a game is conceived as, at least currently (unless Uncharted were turned into a hyperealistic gorge simulator with no HUD and one life?).

    I don’t find this especially jarring (and indeed, actual realism would make games alternately horrific and boring), but it’s interesting to see there are people who do find it a problem. I think it’s fantastic that more abstract gameworlds can coexist with the increasing drive for realism, and in many cases make a more engaging and affecting game (Journey, say).

    Some of the best quirky game experiences I’ve had have been entirely unrealistic (KOLM, and that other game about a person’s life and death), and it’s probably proof of how enduring the concept is that they continue to be popular.

  • Balance in all things. Fun VS Realism. You think Drake could climb a cliff carrying an assault rifle, a pistol, several ammo clips for both of them, some grenades, a book and some artifact or another? No. Some realism needs to die so that enjoyment can be born.

    • Yeah when I read “β€œWhy is it that every point on this cliff that you need to jump to is mysteriously lit up? How come you can fall down that abyss and then keep playing two seconds later? How is it you can shoot 17 guys from behind a pillar but they never hit you? Why does this game LOOK LIKE THE REAL WORLD AND YET IN NO WAY RESEMBLE IT, DAMMIT?” I had to pause and make myself a cup of green tea. It was an unexpectedly intense moment.”

      I was like, why would you ask those questions? Why does it matter?

  • Enjoyed.

    Every game has some elements of realism in it’s world. Even Tetris has baasic gravity, and objects can’t overlap. The games in the article have rudimentary people and other items and physics.

    I guess what Angus are saying is that he has a threshold level of realism in games, beyond which he just don’t want to play it any more. But there needs to be SOME realism, you have to recognize some aspect of reality for your mind to associate with to make it enjoyable to play.

    Personally I think that unless a game is sold as a simulation, the developers can make what ever omissions/tweaks they want to make it enjoyable.

  • Any time a new game is lauded as being “realistic” it invariably begins to look dated in a few years anyway. Jeez, I remember the first time I saw Wolfenstein 3D and thought it looked realistic, then of course Doom rolled around the corner. Graphics aside, a genuinely real-world game wouldn’t be fun at all: you’d have limited carrying capacity, not be able to run without being tired, and one bullet could kill you instantly. On a side note, sometimes when walking around, I often compare my real-life movements (following paths, walking around obstacles) to my in-game traits (running in straight lines, jumping over boxes). I don’t think humans will ever really become completely engrossed by virtual worlds… except maybe The Matrix.

  • Some people consider games to be art. But nobody criticizes surrealists or abstract artists of being unrealistic. Nobody criticizes a sponge for living in a pineapple under the sea, either. No movie, ever, has causes the suspense of disbelief. In the lowest levels of your psyche, you are not convinced.

    I personally don’t think the object of a game should be to recreate reality. If a game convinces you that it is real, I think that says more about your psychological state than the quality of the game production. If the ultimate objective of a game is to allow escapism, then surely forgetting about the real world is the mark of success. And who hasnt played a game for a few “minutes” and suddenly found out that hours or days have gone missing.

  • I agree to an extent, but truly realistic games are considered niche.
    Tell me Angus, did you play any of the ARMA games, Microsoft Flight Sim, America’s Army or Trainz?
    Even STALKER did its best to attach realism to an unrealistic situation (weight limits, scraping and trading, barter, etc)
    Hyper-realistic games are filed under the “simulation” heading because they’re designed to give the average Joe Couchpotato a chance to experience something he never would but may be interested in. They’re not, strictly speaking, games.
    Games are fun and too much realism in a game (sniper picking you off from 10km away with no warning) tends to frustrate.
    Life isn’t fair. Games, to a certain extent, are. Or at least internally consistent.
    If you prefer abstract games, great.

  • Games would be incredibly boring if they tried to be entirely realistic. Although, the same can be said for a lot of films. Especially action movies. Why is it in action movies the bad guys seem to hit everything but the protagonists when they are firing machine guns at him? How can he walk away from explosions without so much as a scratch? Fall from great heights with no broken bones?

    If anything, game devs are taking their cues from Hollywood when it comes to being unrealistic. As time passes, more sophisticated technology comes about which makes action scenes in films or games look more realistic. If they never improved, people would become bored with the whole thing and it would no longer be profitable.

    I think you may have way over-thought this. I don’t think we need to have complicated philosophical discussions about video games. That’s a level of nerdy pretentiousness even I’m not willing to try.

  • I think it’s two things. First – when we were younger, we played simpler games. We just happened to live in a time where simple games were the norm. Adults back then would have had to play the same simple games.
    Which basically means that as we grow older so the gaming and computer technology develops and grows.
    Thus as we get older we play newer games that look prettier.

    The second reason is what do you want from a game. Some people like playing Final Fantasy with cat eared people and bosses that look like a compass crossed with a brick wall. Where as others prefer a realistic combat simulation or a super realistic driving simulator to allow them to do something they cannot do in real life.
    Personally I’m happy with both. I like super realism because that’s the kind of person I am, and that’s what I’m interested in. But that doesn’t stop me playing WoW or funny indy games or mario cart.
    The thing that annoys me is making a game that appears to be realistic but isn’t. Your example I think is more of a technical one, Is it possible to use the PS3 hardware to allow jumping from any ledge? Could all that fit on one Blu-Ray? (for example).
    It’s a delicate balance between what is considered fun and what is considered realistic. At the end of the day, it’s the same with action movies. We know that cars don’t blow up like that. We know that pistols have about 8 rounds not 100. We know you can’t jump a 10m gap etc…. But we still watch them.
    Realistic and non realistic games are like the difference between an action movie and a documentary.
    But I do agree that there shouldn’t be an action documentary….

  • “Maybe it’s time for me to apply for my pension and start watching Antiques Roadshow, or collecting vintage Sega Master Systems.”

    Do this. Both Antiques Roadshow and Sega Master Systems are rad. Don’t let anyone tell you any differently.

  • Hey Cauldron! I remember that. I also remember it was horribly difficult, as were most games back then I guess =(

  • A question: do you think you would enjoy games if they truly were “realistic”?
    The possibility wont arise for atleast another 20 years of computing advancements, but could you imagine yourself enjoying a game that looked and acted very much like real life, only allowing the player to do things that they wouldnt normally do IRL?

    • I’d love that. It’s what I’m waiting for. Much as I gravitate toward more fantastical games, a fully realistic life simulator would be incredible. I mean, if nothing else, the ability to drive a car like a total lunatic without fear of real consequences would be amazing. Or just playing mean pranks on the virtual people and watching them react. It’d be the ultimate playground. It would also probably be banned because it would allow people to practice getting away with crimes (ie. unlike GTA, it would actually function as a “murder simulator”).

  • This isn’t just a “realistic portrayal of limitations” issue (I love the STALKER games for the difficulty and “realism”) but more so that many games have a really bad skew of realism and anti-realism.

    For example, Drake monkeying around like Spideyman, that’s pretty cool, fun gameplay, he’s a super fit hero.

    Having a bad guy take a magazine clip to the face, in the sake of “difficulty”? Not only is that blatantly immersion-breaking anti-realism, it’s also destroying the credibility of Drake as the gun toting protagonist.

    I despise any game that merely tweaks the damage input/output on higher difficulties, if the vanilla game is fairly realistic. The Halo series for example would not only increase enemy health (which is fine, space armor!!!1 and all that) but they would become a lot more evasive and bolder in their actions.

  • Great read. I think it would be sort-of impractical to make a perfectly realistic game. Maybe it’s just me, and I don’t know why.

    Going to check out that thesis in a bit.

  • Great article and I relate hugely. I’ve considered such things myself, such as how I don’t mind ‘stupid’ AI in a 2D platformer, for instance (don’t even notice it) but it drives me crazy in a 3D game. If I jump down behind an enemy in a sidescrolling platformer or shooter, I don’t complain about the ‘stupidity’ of the enemy not knowing I’m right behind it and turning to shoot me, but it’ll necessarily annoy the crap out of me the closer the game is trying to seem ‘realistic’. It’s basically the uncanny valley, but with regards not just to graphics but game mechanics; once a threshold of realism is reached – but without reaching the ultimate goal of being genuinely life-like – it intuitively seems wrong. There’s something about earlier games and their minimalistic graphics that allow your imagination to fill in the gaps better too, I think. The more work the game tries to do for you, the less easily the gaps that ARE still there can be filled by the player.

    And yeah there’s something to be said for ‘less is more’ when it comes to story, too – most of my favourite games of all time have had the character dumped into a situation and forced to survive and/or progress, with minimal story, or story maybe pieced together throughout the game via clues or what have you. I realised this when I fell in love with Dark Souls and then subsequently tried to play Kingdoms of Amalur and couldn’t bear the weight of the damn STORY…

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