The Quest for Realism in Modern Gaming
In amongst all the press hype around the next gen consoles there’s one statement that has stuck with me more than any others. This is the Xbox One’s claim that its games will ‘push the boundaries of realism.’ This one claim has got me thinking about a number of things. Firstly I’m wondering what they actually mean by that claim (what exactly is it that can make a virtual interaction feel ‘real’?) but also, why is it that a sense of realism seems to be such a sought after quality in modern gaming? Of all the ways Microsoft could choose to plug the gaming element of their new console they have chosen to go down this route, boasting that its games ‘are so lifelike, you’ll swear they’re real.’
And Microsoft aren’t the only ones. During the recent E3 conference, Square Enix released the new trailer for Final Fantasy XV (previously titled Final Fantasy XIII Versus) and I was not the only person excited and intrigued by the tagline ‘a fantasy based on reality’. From a Final Fantasy game we have come to expect an array of different fantastical and mystical landscapes and story-lines but yet here we were watching cut-scenes from what looks like a very contemporary city with characters riding cars and eating soup. Of course the large monsters roaming around the city did slightly remove it from a ‘real’ modern city but, even so, Japanese titles in general are rarely associated with their ‘realism’, yet this massive franchise has decided to move more clearly in that direction and I think that says a lot.
It barely seems that long ago that we were more than happy to move a pixelated face along a 2D maze eating small white dots, but with massive leaps forward in technology it seems we are eager to push that technology to and beyond its current capabilities, creating worlds and characters that look and feel as realistic as cinema. But is that really all there is to it? When people talk about a game being ‘realistic’ it seems they are often referring primarily to good graphics, but I reckon there is much more to it than that. You can have a game with the best looking graphics ever but that in itself does not guarantee that it’ll be a good game, it doesn’t, in my opinion, even guarantee that it will feel ‘real’ as an experience. Much more important than that is the ‘realism’ of the entire, overarching experience.
At the end of the day, if all you want from a game is to look at good, ‘realistic’ graphics then, hey, just watch a film, or maybe even go and look at actual, real stuff. To me that is not the heart of a ‘realistic’ gaming experience (although sure it does add to it). For me it is much more about wanting to be drawn into and to believe the world of the game, whether that is a completely fictitious world or one based on our own. The word ‘immersed’ is thrown around a lot and there’s a reason for that, we want to be transported out of our sofas and into a virtual reality that we can feel connected and involved with.
There is of course a big question here about whether games encourage escapism or activism, that’s a very loaded question and one for another blog post, but what I will say is that for a game to feel truly immersive and ‘realistic’ I feel that there needs to be elements of humanity and truth within it. It’s not enough for the graphics to look real; the way the world of the game and the characters of the game interact with themselves also needs to feel real.
I find this all really exciting because when this works at its best it creates extremely profound experiences. Don’t misunderstand me, I think it’s completely OK for a game to just be fun for the sake of just being fun, it doesn’t have to always be deep and meaningful. But what is completely not OK is to assume that it never could be, because that is just wrong. One of the best examples of this is Heavy Rain. I don’t think I have ever felt more engaged and immersed in a story than when I played through this game. Not just because visually it was amazing, but also because of the depth of the plot and humanness of the characters.
I am still very much developing my thoughts on all of this, but through this process I have reached somewhat of a personal epiphany: here is another thing that links my love for gaming and my love for theatre. Theatre that captures me most is theatre that forces me to engage with an alternative reality in order for me to challenge my own ‘reality’. I love theatre that can make me confront thoughts or feelings that I would not usually consider (or want to experience) in my day to day life. For example, theatre can make you experience grief and sorrow in ways that feel safe or it can bring forward ethical or political questions that you would not usually think about, it can take you to any location in the world, it can take you to a warzone or it can bring you to a world of its own imagination.
I believe that video games can do the very same thing. This is where I believe that ‘realism’ in gaming really gets exciting. I want to play games that can connect me with their ‘reality’ so that I can feel more connected with my own. So kudos to you Xbox One, I just hope you’re not assuming that really great technology alone will be able to achieve the ‘realism’ you boast about.
Post by Dan Thompson