September ’12 Round Table Entry – Eschewing Realism

Last minute Eric as always. September’s BoRT topic, run now by Alan Williamson, theme is New Horizons. The blurb is as follows:

2K’s Chris Harmann recently said that achieving photorealism was the key to opening ‘new genres’ of games. Without discussing whether or not this is true (it isn’t), what genres or subjects have games left uncovered, and what should they be focusing on? Alternatively, if photorealism isn’t the limiting factor on the diversification and evolution of gaming experiences, what is? Were Belgian Eurodance group 2 Unlimited right with their assertion that, in fact, there are No Limits?

In a way, realism is the limiting factor of video games, but not in the way Chris Harmann asserts that it is. Striving for realism is limiting video games innovation and imagination, not only because developers in their efforts to achieve it end up consolidating the pool of ideas in a very well worn, idealess mire of brown and gray.

Unlike other mediums that are have found ways to convey complex thoughts, ideas and concepts with deftness and subtlety in whatever measures are needed, games seem unable to do the same. The games that at least contend to go after complex ideas (or at least more complex ideas eg. Braid, Bioshock, Metal Gear Solid) tend to do it through massive info dumps and expository sequences. Some do it better than others by making it optional or tie their mechanics into the thematic resonance of the work, but even those examples trip when it comes to making the play a direct expression of the ideas.

The more I look at games and the more of them I play I’m beginning the think that geek culture’s need to have things explained as a complete world is holding back the medium. Now shooting Orcs with fireballs isn’t realism or could even contend to be real, but the more that game act like magic is a science the more it gets bogged down in the minutia of a world then the ideas of a work.

How much time is spent on the metaphysical justifications of the Shift mechanic in Driver: San Francisco? No time whatsoever, zero, nada. Why? Because it wasn’t needed. It was explained and demonstrated how it worked to the player in how to use it, but nothing in the game ever explained how it worked in world. It’s never even directly stated that he has it because it is a dream. That is the implication, a heavy non-deniable implication, but an implication nonetheless. It’s then used to explore a number of different ideas, nothing that complicated, but it never says any of them out loud. If the rule in passive fiction is show don’t tell, then games its do don’t tell. That is how Driver: San Francisco operated. It allows the player to perform the metaphor through the dynamics of play in the game.

A more recent example of this is Mark of the Ninja. They wanted sound to matter to the guards’ behavior towards you. They could create a highly difficult system of having the noise matter for the whole screen or some complex sound based initiative by creating the sound the guards heard. Klei Entertainment’s solution is far more elegant and much more dynamically interesting, but to do it they had to abandon a realistic portrayal of their world. They visually animated the sound waves. You can’t see sound, but by throwing that to the wind Mark of the Ninja has a much more realized Ninja simulator and Klei can do far more interesting things with it.

Had either of these games gone for total realism they would have failed utterly in what they tried to do, but probably wouldn’t have tried to do the interesting things that make them worthy of our fascination in the first place. In mulling over this topic I came to the conclusion that the worst thing that every happened to the Super Mario franchise was the codification of the elements into a mythology. The early games were levels that had elements to make it one of the greatest pieces of surrealist artworks of all time and they all had meaning. While they look crazy and everyone just writes them off as “oh those kooky video games” if you look at where the symbols come from there is meaning behind them. The Japanese mythology behind the Tanuki suit and the Kappa’s (now Koopas), mushrooms to make you grow right out of Alice in Wonderland, invincibility granted by the heavens (symbolized by a star) or coins to buy yourself a new life are all symbols to convey meaning quickly to the player. They were used mainly to let the player know good things verses bad things and their general use, but such a system could have easily been extrapolated out.

But as the series has gone on, it is constrained by its previous entries and as of the latest games are bringing back all the nostalgic elements because they are nostalgic. Where they were once symbols referencing other ideas or concepts of outside culture, they are now merely referencing themselves for no purpose. The series is having trouble coming up with new ideas or concepts because the world of Super Mario Brothers is much smaller than it once was when it had the infinite space of possibilities. The games are at their best when they throw in things for no reason instead of trying to explain what was put in.

I’ve been reading a lot of people becoming exhausted or tried with the new entries and giving the reason there isn’t anything new or innovative in them. What I think they are saying is that there aren’t any new ideas in them. They are treading on the cultural capital of the games that have come before them instead of coming up with new concepts. Mario 64 gave us 3D, but it also gave us an infinite staircase and magical paintings you could jump into like portals. Super Mario Galaxy, while limiting the series in the long term by explaining and detailing concepts i.e. making the world more real, it introduced the idea of a cosmology to the series.

I don’t mean to pick on the Mario franchise. I’ve been playing Super Mario World recently and having a blast. Instead I’m using it as a case study of a series that eschewed realism and logical coherency from the very beginning and was better off for it. The ideas didn’t have to make sense together in a physical sense that a world implies, so long as they made sense tonally, thematically and/or stylistically as a work of art.

As much as one can give context to imbue meaning into the mechanics and play of a game, it is still what they player can or cannot do, what they can or cannot interact with and how that truly matters. That is the great boon of a medium, but it is also the great hindrance. If you want to convey ideas in a video game, you have to do it via what the player can do. The more you try to have it makes sense as a fiction that can be told rather than done, then you are limiting what you can explore with regards to meaning. Books can write out the inner thoughts of a character, movies can show the inner turmoil on an actor’s face, neither technique will work in a video game because they don’t allow the player to do anything. They are downgraded to context instead of the meaning of a work. However, when taking a less realistic route and allowing the player to interact with things that are representational instead of strictly physical within the fiction the more that can be done.

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