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When Does Realism Count?

One of the biggest appeals to video games and fictional experiences in general is that we can leave the real world behind. Besides the joy of gaming, we game to get away from the stresses of everyday life for awhile and immerse ourselves in another world. After all, to be considered escapism, we must be escaping to or from somewhere. Does that mean that realism is a negative aspect of games, or is there a need for a certain level of realism to give us the best experience? When should realism be sought out as a feature in selecting games and when should it be avoided?

By their very nature, games are unrealistic. In film school, I often heard that film is like real life with all of the boring parts edited out. In video games, they were never added in the first place. Games are centered on a core gameplay loop. You are given a goal, and then obstacles are placed in your way. Every system that a game puts in place is implemented to service the overall design. Nothing is out of place, and every little thing has a purpose (or at least it should). In contrast, the real world is chaotic, and the purpose of things is much less defined.

So why is it that “realism” is a selling point for so many games? The most obvious push for realism comes in the form of better graphics. Naturally, games with higher resolution textures and lighting effects have a “wow” factor that makes them more appealing to the eye. While graphics aren’t the be-all-end-all, there’s a certain expectation that AAA games are expected to uphold. This is constantly changing with new technology and hardware, which makes these expectations hard to define. Generally speaking, most gamers can see a game’s graphics and estimate when the game was released based on the visuals. Does that mean that realistic, cutting-edge graphics should be considered a requirement?

Not quite. It seems surprisingly rare for graphics to be mentioned when games are discussed these days, unless they are especially great or notably atrocious. Some of the most popular games today such as Minecraft and Fortnite use purposefully cartoonish graphics to achieve a particular style. Indie titles often avoid high fidelity graphics in favor of a more artistic style to simultaneously save production budget and stand out in the crowded marketplace. You won’t see many people complain that these games don’t look photorealistic. Even games like ARMA 3 and PUBG, where realism is a selling point, aren’t exactly pushing boundaries. There really is no modern incarnation of Crysis, which was renowned at its release for hardware requirements that brought PCs to their knees. Physics systems were a selling point for Half-Life 2, but nowadays, as long as the physics don’t stand out, they go largely unnoticed. Oftentimes, they are a source of amusement when things go awry. NPC AI has largely stagnated over time, and realism is only expected from animations, not necessarily NPC behavior, which is just as robotic as ever.

So instead of the game’s visuals, AI, or physics, when people refer to realism in games, they are usually describing survival mechanics. When your character has to eat, drink, or sleep to survive, the character you play as might feel more like a living, breathing person. (I’m still waiting for the survival game that requires you to dig a hole to defecate in, but I digress). Some level of realism brings us in and keeps us playing. Games like Minecraft, even with the blocky look and worlds populated by magic and monsters, are full of mechanics that have roots in the real world. Need glass for your house? Make it by melting sand. Need to make something out of iron? Mine some ore and melt it. Of course, the game doesn’t go into great detail about the process, but it doesn’t have to. The presence of these mechanics is as realistic as it needs to be without boring us or taking us out of the game.

Much like film, realism in games does not reflect the pace of normal life. Games like Call of Duty or Battlefield claim to be realistic (Nazi Zombies and Advance Warfare notwithstanding), but it’s really just an appearance of reality. The textures of weapons and uniforms conform to reality, but the game itself is thoroughly unrealistic. War has been described as months of boredom punctuated by moments of acute terror. Modern warfare bears little resemblance to a match of domination on Nuketown, nor should it. These are primarily games after all; they’re supposed to be fun. Bogging them down with the boring aspects of real life would be a missed opportunity. After all, we play these games using keyboards and controllers, not our actual bodies. Even VR has us interfacing with the game world through peripherals that feel unnatural. Motion controls always felt more like a choreographed dance than organic movement (when they actually worked, that is. Often times it felt like flailing in the abyss). We are far from the days when real life and virtual reality are indistinguishable. (Or are we? *Twilight Zone theme song plays*)

There are some aspects of games that are unrealistic, but we are trained to accept them for the sake of convenience. There’s usually a heads-up display to give us information on our character’s well-being, as we clearly can’t feel pain through the pixelated screen and need a health bar to tell us when we’ll die. You can survive a few bullets to the chest without emergency surgery because one-shot kills don’t give you a chance to retaliate. Injuries are only temporary and broken legs don’t take weeks to heal, because you’d have to be crazy to waddle around on crutches in a video game. These unrealistic aspects take away the inconvenient parts of real life so that we can focus on the fun parts. I’ll take a health bar over feeling genuine pain any day.

So what good is realism, then?

There are plenty of times that realism makes a game more compelling. Bethesda RPGs, despite taking place in fantasy landscapes, are so appealing because their massive open worlds allow you to go wherever you like. There’s something alluring about being able to interact with each and every small object in the game, from paintbrushes to forks. The amount of detail in those games makes them feel like you’re living another life. You feel the freedom to embrace the fantasy.

Some games fully embrace realism. Kingdom Come: Deliverance is one such game. It’s a historical game that went to extreme lengths to ensure that the medieval period was depicted accurately. In this game, you play as a blacksmith’s son, named Henry, whose village in the Kingdom of Bohemia is wiped out by an invading army of Cumans. As Henry, you go from living a peasant lifestyle to becoming a successful knight. As an RPG with an emphasis on realism, Henry has absolutely no combat skills at the game’s outset. You must acquire these skills by training as the game progresses. Henry can’t even read, since most people in the middle ages could not either. Even the alchemy is historically accurate, taking inspiration from archeological discoveries of alchemy tables where alchemists searched for ways to turn various metals into gold (although the potions you can brew are not so realistic, but alchemy in-game has to be good for something, unlike real life). This emphasis on realism gives the world an authentic quality that is one of its best features. Bringing history to life in this way, without magic or idealism, is refreshing. It demonstrates that games have a unique ability to bring the past to life that can’t be matched by any other medium. In this case, realism gave the game world a reason to exist.

Game worlds need to have their own internal logic that makes sense and is consistent. Whether or not these worlds need to be realistic is up to the individual game. Realism has its benefits, particularly to survival and simulation games, however, it can be a hindrance to other genres. But if these games create their own logic, then in essence, they create their own definition of realism. The more detailed the world, the more “real” it is, and the easier it is to escape into it. And the easier it is to escape into it, the sooner we can forget the pains of everyday existence and have fun, because that’s what games are about.