Later this year, the long awaited Half-life 2 should find its way onto store shelves. Soon after that, the engine that powers Half-life 2 will be used in any number of games, probably spanning several game styles and genres. This engine is remarkable, featuring one of the most realistic physics models in gaming to date. It is almost impossible to read a preview without the author drooling over the realism and detail of the game.
And then we look at the ever popular Quake and Unreal Tournament. Realism? Seriously… realistic is not an accolade either of these games ever tried to achieve. Any game where you fight with blobs of green slime and struggle to defeat big ugly brutes dripping with lava will never win awards for accurate simulation. Despite that, Unreal Tournament and its sequels are considered to be among the absolute best first person shooters of all time, and the Quake family has practically achieved legendary status.
Consider Warcraft 3. Some have knocked Warcraft 3 for its cartoonish style artwork. The game, these critics seem to think, should be darker in color, with the buildings in proportionate size to the units. Otherwise, it just is not, well, realistic enough? Naturally, purple skinned women riding on the backs of panthers to fight against giant spiders and walking dead is perfectly believable. Happens every day. But those building dimensions… no, no, that will not do. No one will ever believe that the purple skinned women came out of a building that small!
All this to say, is realism really worth it? In some games, I grant you, it is necessary. Any game which professes to be taking place in the real world and that limits itself to that world must by definition be as true to the way things are as is possible. Except, of course, when it gets in the way of game play. And realism often does get in the way of game play. For instance, pick any World War 2 era first person shooter. Off we go on our mission to, say, destroy the power generator for a command center. Off we go, hiking to the command center. Rats, we just got shot by an enemy guard. Oh well, off we go hiking to the command center? Oh, yes, we are injured. Well, make use of whatever the miracle medical supply is in this game, and away we go. Click the mouse, and in all likelihood, our avatar is back at full health and hiking away to the command center. The fact that the character is using only realistic weapons and will get hurt if he falls too far is all well and good. But tell me, when did the army gain the ability to instantaneously heal most wounds on the battlefield? Any wound that requires more than the most basic care typically requires a trip behind the lines to the hospital before the soldier can return to combat. Miraculous healing is not on the list of skills soldiers had in World War 2, or any other era for that matter. Realism would dictate that a single bullet wound, or even just a sprained ankle, would require a trip back to the field hospital. Instead, in nearly all games, anything other than death is a mere annoyance. To make the game otherwise would make the game less fun, less playable. Thus, reality takes a backseat to game play.
So, to what extent do we really need realism to have a good game? Civilization 3 is a great game, and the diplomacy in the game is flat out weird when compared to how foreign relations works in the real world. For instance, if nations went to war over spying, as they do in Civ 3, Canada and the US would be embroiled in constant warfare with each other. If being Secretary-General ensured world hegemony, then the current center of power is in Africa. The diplomacy in the game makes the game fun, but realistic it is not. Nor does it need to be. Likewise, there is nothing realistic about Diablo 2, except perhaps the limitation on how long a player can run. Despite that, I have never heard a complaint that the action in Diablo 2 just does not work with reality. Great games do not need to be realistic. They need only to be great.
Realism has its place. It is somewhere behind game play, quality, replayability, creativity, and design. But realism also has its drawbacks. Who wants to take a potty break in the middle of a battle with Lister? Do we really need to walk for twenty minutes after spawning to get the place in the game where the action is? Does it really matter that no one cares how many helpless nations you crush? No, no, and not really. The point of gaming is not always to be a part of a simulation. Sometimes it is to put reality aside for a bit. Simulations are well and good, and personal favorite of mine… but great games do not have to be simulations. They need only be great.
Though it would be nice if someone could come up with a decent diplomacy model…