Surrealism: A Fork In The Road

A big topic nowadays is the “direction” of the games industry. When examining the next-gen console race, this is often approached in terms of technological power vs. game-play and innovation. I believe it has been made abundantly clear in which direction each company is heading, but for those of you who have been on spelunking excursions for the past 2 years, it is Sony’s PS3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 on the path of power, Nintendo’s Wii meandering in the other direction, alone. Within this grand framework, however, is another fork in the road. It is the question of realism vs surrealism.

It can certainly be argued that in its infancy, the games industry was changed radically, and propelled into the public eye by a little game called Super Mario Bros. This is one of the earliest examples of a game that created a legitimate world in which the content of the game was contained. It was not simply a screen, an arbitrary ‘space,’ a table, or a ‘board.’ This was an expansive environment (relative to other offerings at the time) with characters, landmarks, and new paths all unfolding as the game progressed. It responded to the gamer’s actions, and displayed change, accordingly. However, it never sought to be realistic, and never attempted to emulate the real world. Sure, certain rules of reality and familiar rules of physics were in place, but the composition of the world itself was completely fantastical.

Since that time, games have evolved. Now, developers are capable of rendering fully three dimensional worlds with photorealistic appearances. Games are no longer visually limited to 2-D drawings, so they often try to recreate the 3-D world we live in. I question whether this is the right approach, or if it is a practice that removes much of what makes (made?) gaming so enjoyable in the past.

People play games for many reasons – one of which is to remove themselves from the outside world, even if only for a short time. In this case, the most appealing of games will be ones that are not directly linked to the world as we know it, but are imaginative creations with new details to uncover, new rules to learn and new concepts to explore. The real world can frequently prove to be boring in routine and drab in appearance. Representing that sort of setting in a pass-time intended to be fun seems somewhat counterproductive.

The presentation of any game can be quite important. In conceptualizing a game, I think it is necessary to consider what type of mood will be created for the gamer by the subject matter of the game, in conjunction with the visual representation on-screen. If each of these two aspects can be split into either realistic or fantasy then there are several combinations available. The most harmless, of course is a fantasy theme in fantasy images, and is barely worth noting, as it is in no way objectionable. At the opposite end of the spectrum is realistic subject matter in a realistic graphical style. This type of game creates the most intense atmosphere, as it provides no attenuation of the content in question. It is this type that has time and time again been used as an avenue in presenting grim yet glorified history lessons, by recounting real-world events such as World War II. (Are there enough WW2 fps yet? Maybe we could use about 37 more…)

A simple method of diluting such an effect is to mesh realistic and fantasy elements. A game with heavy themes can instantly be softened by displaying it in an unrealistic art style. A couple of games that make use of this technique are XIII and Killer 7. Had it been presented in a photorealistic manner, the latter would have likely had trouble ever being published – due to ‘extremely controversial’ subject matter. The surreal, cartoon-like presentation of these games belies their content, and almost excuses them of it.

Lastly, there are games that provide a realistic visual presentation, while maintaining a fantasy setting. Games like this, such as The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, rarely cause a stir at all, as the images are completely offset by the absolutely imaginary backdrop. If we are to examine the biggest “stir” of the modern games era, we must look no further than Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas – a game that caused more uproar than many of us would care to see in this industry. Furthermore, if we classify it in our grid of realism and fantasy, it falls squarely in the category of realistic theme AND visual style. It is no wonder it was such a victim of assault by much of the less-informed media community.

The final issue with maintaining realism in games is the limiting factor it places upon gameplay opportunities. There is far less one can do if completely bound by the restrictions of reality. A completely realistic game will never embrace the joys of casting a lightning spell on an unfortunate foe, nor will it see a man scale a building in short-order, using nothing more than his body and his INSANE acrobatic talents. As a matter-of-fact, if I REALLY wanted to be a stickler, a realistic game could never have “health packs” that instantly healed the protagonist, nor could that particular character be shot more than once or twice before dying. After being killed, of course, the game would be over. This is realism. There are no extra lives…

OK, so that is a bit extreme, but still, the point is that realism is limiting. A fantasy world allows for a poetic license of sorts, with which a game designer is free to grant abilities to his characters, and create items and situations that couldn’t possibly exist in the real world. Ostensibly, this adds a certain feeling to these surreal games that a realistic game could never offer. It is a feeling of discovery that applies not simply to what is around the corner, selected from a definite set of POSSIBLE elements, but one that applies to the very fabric of the game world – what EXISTS in this place of INFINITE possibilities.


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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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