Opinion: Is Realism Making Games Less Fun?

by on October 8, 2014

It started right around gamescom. Like the rest of the PS4 owners out there, I had frantically downloaded P.T. (the playable teaser that eventually became the Silent Hills/Norman Reedus/Kojima/Del torro teaser) and was creeping round dark corner after horrible dark corner, wondering just what had happened to me. How had I become such a wimp? I used to love horror games, and Resident Evil 1 through 4 will forever be on my list of “best games ever” – but here, now, I can’t play this bloody game. It’s horrific.

That FOX Engine is, without question, incredibly impressive. So much so that there have been clever alterations to captured footage that shows it in a new light, looking photo-realistic. It was rightly lauded as a masterstroke in marketing, but unlike everyone else, I’ve been left wondering if I’ll be able to play Silent Hills when it eventually comes out, because it looks too real.

Back in 1996, Shinji Mikami’s glorious survival horror was the talk of the town. But at no point did anyone cry out “this looks so amazing, it’s like real life”. Sure, it looked fantastic at the time, but it didn’t look real. As much as that first Zombie encounter still gives me the willies today, even then I wasn’t fool – this was a game.

Fast forward too many years and it becomes clear to me why I enjoyed Saints Row 4 more than Grand Theft Auto V: Volition’s game is all about fun, fun, and more fun – and at no point are you ever taken out of the experience by it attempting to look or feel too realistic. And I started to wonder, is realism making games less fun?

I didn’t hate GTA V, but I didn’t love it anywhere near as much as (it seems) everyone else did. The writing didn’t do much for me, but the most jarring thing was the physics. I’ve always found GTA cumbersome to actually play, and the animations of the characters always had that uncanny valley vibe to it, and if you happened to run into a wall, the bizarre ragdoll effect is laughable, but for the wrong reasons.

As a series, GTA always delighted in the bizarre. Indeed, that Saints Row cribbed so heavily from the universe but delved deeper into crazy is telling in that both series went in very different directions. Yet I know which excites me more as a gamer. I know which one I’d rather spend an evening playing. I’m not going to pretend that GTA V is true to life, and it’s full of strange characters that add depth to (it was a great game, and scored incredibly highly across the board), but it just wasn’t for me.

Sticking with the open-world theme, inFamous Second Son comes to mind. Another game that feels hamstrung by realism, yet involves super-powers. Why can’t I climb that Seattle Space Needle whenever I want to? Why can’t I treat it like the Crackdown agency tower and have fun with it using my super powers? Put simply, because licensing. Load up Second Son or First Light and you’ll see a splash that informs you of the copyright relating to the Needle, and I’d bet that’s why you can’t climb it. Second Son’s entrenched in Seattle, the city is one of the stars of the game, yet the attempt to create a realistic digital imagining of the place is at odds with the super powers that should make the game enjoyable. Specific buildings force your character to stand atop a pointy tower (like in the Assassin’s Creed series) yet seem somehow disconnected from the world you inahabit. It’s weird.

But what about Skyrim’s Tamriel? There’s a world you want to explore. It’s as fake as my ID was purchasing that copy of Resident Evil, but it unlocks just as many pleasant memories. There’s a world you want to explore in detail, finding hidden places that only exist in this fantasy realm.

And it’s not just games that are heavily based upon exploration and territory. What about The Crew? The big selling point is that you can drive across America. In a video game, good lord, what bounteous joys you sell to me. Who cares? Why the hell do I want to traverse a huge amount of space in my car, but perhaps more importantly, if I did, how many times am I going to want to do that before I’m bored to tears. Content is more important than a vast space, so developers (and I aim this at all of you), please stop bragging about how we can reach the tree in the distance, because that means absolutely nothing to anyone but you.

All of my complaints, you’ll note, are aimed at games with a realistic bent, and I’m not saying that all games that attempt to look realistic are inherently bad. But another recent game that suffers from being pretty tedious, is Watch_Dogs. It looks pretty enough, and hurrah, a real-life Chicago, but did it live up to anywhere near the expectations we all had for it? Hacking was reduced to holding a button, yet that was surely more fun than if Ubisoft had made you have to hack a set of traffic lights in real time. It had to retain that gamey feel, or it would have been awful.

I grew up playing games at a time where they couldn’t look realistic even if they tried. Skool Daze on the spectrum looked like a piece of shit, but I never grew bored of throwing things at teachers, or writing swear words on the blackboard before scarpering to the girl’s school for further japes. Mario is (rightly) one of the best and most successful game series’ of all time, yet we don’t see Peach call the police and tell them that an intruder is trying to kidnap her for the umpteenth time – it’s just a game. In fact, platform games remain as beloved as ever, yet haven’t ever really felt the need to transition into our realm. Rayman Origins and Legends didn’t need the power of a new console to make them look incredible, and even Valiant Hearts (which used the UbiArt engine, too) ran just fine on older consoles, yet they were rightly lauded as gorgeous looking games that played as good as they looked.

There are a lot of angry people these days, but I just want to play games that let me escape into other worlds created by imaginative people who want to tell a tale of fantasy. Games can be art, but they don’t always have to be. And I don’t hate realistic looking games (I will play Gears of War any time you ask me), but I worry that, at the moment, a new-gen graphical sheen appears to be enough to satiate people, and justify a new set of consoles. I want innovation and imagination. I want to play a game and be blown away by something new, not just a shinier, better looking game on a shinier, more expensive console. Don’t you?

As always, our opinion pieces here on GodisaGeek are just the thoughts of a single writer. We’d love to hear what you think, whether you agree or disagree – so hit up that comment section, below.