Restrictive Gameplay: What Happened To Realism?

The video game industry seems to constantly be striving to inject more realism into games. It is hard to read about upcoming games for more than five minutes before eying some claim of vast improvements in this area. It appears that the focus, however, is primarily on the visual and aural recreation of what is “real.” Conceptually, realism and authenticity are all too often cast in a secondary light, playing second fiddle to the moneymakers – eye and ear candy.

Suspension of disbelief is a key part of enjoying many games to the fullest. Take Psychonauts, for example. It is an absolutely stellar game, yet defies nearly every rule of logic and reality we have all grown to understand. Obviously, children don’t go to Psychic Camp, then slap doors on people’s heads and dive into their minds, but gamers don’t need to believe that, and are not expected to. Blatant transgressions of the rule sets we carry in our head are easily forgiven. They don’t come across as a cheat, or a cheap trick played on our mental grasp of the world. It is the little things that become the most jarring, and sometimes even frustrating.

One of the most commonplace of these infractions is the conjured boundary, or, as it is more well-known, the invisible wall. One of the greatest games of the previous console generation, though in most ways ahead of its time and truly evolutionary, was a culprit of this heinous crime. Resident Evil 4 could lay claim to one of the best graphical presentations of any game up to that point. Gnarled trees cast shadows on the rolling landscapes they dotted, flames flickered, enemies moved in a frighteningly authentic manner, and when they stared Leon in the face, you could all but feel their breath. It looked REAL…and the audio was just as convincing.

Also included in RE4 was a context-sensitive action system that allowed the player to interact with the environment in a number of ways that would otherwise be impossible to implement. It could only go so far, though, as each of these actions must be specifically programmed. They were not procedural behaviors, after all (but that is for another article).

Photo - Leon does all kinds of neat things with the A button

The restrictions of Resident Evil 4‘s gameplay are found in its linearity. As Leon travels through the game’s various locales, he is ALWAYS guided along a pre-defined, pre-DESTINED path. This is understandable when one considers that in any action-adventure, there is some sort of story to be told. The player must advance through it, much like a novel, and the developers must divine a way to keep those players moving in the right direction.

How NOT to do it, is just what they discovered. DO NOT build a path, bounded by a collection of arbitrary obstacles that would otherwise be easily circumvented, especially by a highly-trained, international law-enforcement agent. Many of the limits of Leon’s environment are such insignificant obstructions, it is almost laughable that his progress in those directions is impeded. For example, there is a gate leading out of the village that requires a special (spoiler-free) “key” to pass through, and Leon is compelled to acquire it. Why did he not simply climb over the embankment just to the side of said gate??? The man can run up walls, for cryin’ out loud! (that one has slight spoiler characteristics)

The inability to cross a boundary that is illogically impassable, just because someone couldn’t come up with a good reason to disallow such a negotiation is frustrating. It is that simple. Gamers don’t play because they long to feel the angst of frustration. Games are meant to flow seamlessly, without distraction or reason to be questioned.

Sometimes a breach in realism is okay, however, even in a title that is expected to push the envelope in that department. If cars in racing games inexplicably show absolutely no damage after a crash, it may be odd, but it is not inhibiting to the gameplay experience. If on the other hand, a certain level of damage makes the car suddenly blow up, with no in between information (a la visible dents, smashes, breaks, etc), then there is a problem. When inaccuracies in what is “real” affect gameplay, either hindering the flow of progress or keeping the gamer guessing, design is flawed.

Photo - This is what happens when a Lamborghini crashes at high speed

Humans, as observers of the world around us, have these ingrained rules that we have cultivated with life experience. If these rules are broken by a game, thus altering our natural behaviors within that game world, then the focus of attention has been drawn away from what was originally intended, and redirected on the aberration from what we already know to be true. A simpler version of Leon’s earlier dilemma is when a character comes across a chain-link fence, and just CAN’T muster the strength to climb it. He must find the gate in order to continue. Anyone with all their limbs can climb a chain-link fence.

Another category of behavior-altering in-game observations involves selectively variable results for a single, repeated action. The ability to jump off some [equal height] ledges but not others, the ability to jump some [equal size] gaps but not others, and the ability to break some doors but not others are all examples of this kind of inconsistency. It is one of the most frustrating types, because the gamer is kept in the dark until performing trial-and-error experimentation on these objects.

Some time spent with games like Resistance: Fall of Man reveals another pervasive error in video game design, as it pertains to conceptual realism. It appears that grenade blasts do not damage single-pane glass windows, let alone doors and the like. It is strange that so many games present locked doors, often made of a simple material (like WOOD), to gamers who tote shotguns, heavy machine guns, and even rocket launchers. Since when does a rocket launcher not blow the SH*T out of a wooden/metal/concrete door… or even a wall?

I’m glad to know that in REAL life, if I should ever come into possession of a rocket launcher, I will be able to blast through whatever my little heart desires.


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Author: Eddie Inzauto View all posts by
Eddie has been writing about games on the interwebz for over ten years. You can find him Editor-in-Chiefing around these parts, or talking nonsense on Twitter @eddieinzauto.

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