Realism Kinda Sucks
Updated: May 29
Snap to Reality
Realism in video games is a pretty recent fetish, not really gaining it’s legs in first person shooters until the console eras that brought us the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360. This is very like because it was the first time one could produce the pure processing power needed in order to provide a “realistic” experience, but you certainly can’t decouple it from the geopolitical giant that was the Global War on Terror, well at its height as we began to see more and more shooters aim for that true-to-life mark.
While we were gazing at experiences from the middle east on the news, we likewise began to crave our chance to get in on the virtual action on our games. ArmA grew in popularity, Operation Flashpoint launched, and even the US Military wanted a bit of the hype by letting loose America’s Army as a free to play game. As I write this, I am getting notifications to join my friends on Insurgency: Sandstorm or watch them stream Ground Branch.
But I don’t play Insurgency too much. It’s a great game, but all-in-all I just don’t come away from that game with the same satisfaction that others give me. There are many reasons for this, but most of it boils down to just one opinion of mine: Realism kinda sucks.
I know I’m going to induce the rage of the Extremely Online and the Terminally Tactical. This is just one dude’s thoughts on a blog that gets less than 100 views a week, after all. The barrier to entry to writing opinions about popular media is exactly none. However, I think I have some interesting observations on just why it is I find to be less fun. Hear me out.
Boring Gameplay as a Mechanic
First, I think most games that aim at realism purposely throttle back the action. When I play some games with a realistic bent, I often have this sensation that my character’s limbs weigh triple. Reloads, crouching, and movements feel painfully slow. In games where one is supposed to be controlling a very competent or even elite Soldier, I find the sluggish controls of swapping magazines like I’m wearing a 1940’s diving suit to be very frustrating.
I’m no operator, but I can change my AR mag in about a 3rd of the time it takes most operators in “realistic” video games to. And I don’t even practice that often. When a super duper snake eater in other games swap mags like the blink of an eye I can abide rather easily under the premise that they’re larger-than-life professionals. Plus, it’s much more fun.
Some of the “feel” of a firefight is that frantic energy and pace. Characters moving like they just got out of bed after having ducked a string of automatic fire just doesn’t strike me as consistent with the action on screen. A game is there to impart an experience, after all. If the goal of the developer and the wishes of the consumer are a very sterile, apathetic approach to the heat of gunfire, then well done. I suppose that’s just not me.
Another pacing issue I find is traveling. I spent some time in a Light Infantry Battalion. I’ve had the experience of walking between points over long movements. It’s not a particularly entertaining venture and translates even worse in virtual form. At least when I’m walking around in Skyrim there are plenty of little easter-eggs and points of interest along the roads. Walking through a couple kilometers of the same tree textures and renders for the sake of “realism” in Operation Flashpoint just leaves me uninterested.
This also draws a lot of attention to these items of forced realism. Walking for 5 minutes to your next point in the game makes me think about pretty much just that: how long it’s taking. Likewise with the gunplay and manipulation. It’s attempting to recreate an experience, but it’s so focused on recreating trees they seemed to have forgotten to construct a forest.
I can see the counter-argument there. How does one construct a forest if not by amassing trees? I would say that it’s done by having a goal in mind for experience foremost. Which leads me to what I think the truest issue is: Can the experience even be truly simulated?
A Flawed Venture?
I used to be really, really into racing games. I had a chair and wheel setup that I constructed in front of my TV with a folding table so I could play Gran Turismo and later DiRT with as much of that “real feel,” as possible.
I’m not much of a racecar driver in real life. I’ve done a couple autocross and snow rally events in a junkyard Jetta and my old Civic Si. But that experience gave me a pretty big epiphany about simulations.
Virtual experiences I’ve had racing cars actually translated to skills that helped me become better at driving real cars. And I’m far from the only person who’s felt this. For a few years, Nissan and Polyphony collaborated in a competition to find the best Gran Turismo player every year and give them a shot at racing real cars. How’d they do? Well, check out Jann Mardenborough, who after winning the GT Academy spot in 2011 went on to take the pole at numerous real races in many professional international divisions. Virtual experiences that led to real results.
Real pilots have to log long, arduous hours in the flight simulator machine before they’re allowed to hit the skies for real. Fighter pilots have commented on the accomplishments of games like DCS and how uncanny the resemblance can be at times.
However, I think this all breaks down when applied to shooters.
Again, I’m no operator. But I was in the National Guard for 12 years and trained plenty enough with running around with a rifle compared to the average person. I think about how driving cars off-road in DiRT actually helped me drive my old beater on an ice stage; reconciling that with having played plenty of shooters, I realize that in either my Army time or even just my own range time, there hasn’t been any instance in which a virtual shooting experience helped me actually shoot.
I’ll introduce this concept: I think that the quality of a simulation is measured by how much skill can be transferred from a virtual experience to real-life skill. I think this can be applied to many, many different games. There are games that are simulations to the point that they’ll help you get better at completing the real task, and there are games that are simulations in name only - where the tag is an advertisement for difficult, arduous controls. They will not help you get good at doing the actual task, but the tag lets the audience know that gameplay will be tedious.
Doing LARP shit requires a lot more than can be input via controls. That’s likely why vehicle-based games do simulation the best. In both play and real, the physical inputs are identical. The physical input of running to cover, crouching, controlling your breathing, and squeezing off a controlled pair are vastly different from a video game to life. Without some major, major breakthroughs in virtual reality, I simply think that military experience cannot be sufficiently simulated.
To which I ask that if true simulation cannot be achieved, what’s the point of the simulation?
The Answer to that Question
When actors are playing real people in biographical films, there are lots of decisions to be made. Does one lightly evoke their more popular elements, or go for an uncanny resemblance to make you feel like you’re watching the real person?
A great example of capturing just the right elements without going fully towards a carbon copy is A Beautiful Mind, the 2001 film in which Russel Crowe plays John Nash. Nash was a brilliant mathematician and an Nobel Laureate, and the film details his struggles with paranoid schizophrenia.
Russel does not try to play John perfectly. Instead, he gets the mouth position, the speech pattern, and the general “feel” of the way John spoke and held himself. There wasn’t much emphasis that seemed to be placed on mimicking the vocal quality, or every last mannerism. Just the important elements from John that Russel could use to evoke the idea that he was the essence of John. This allowed the point of the story, his intellect and his mental disability, to shine through. The journey of the movie was John’s discoveries and hallucinations, not his posture and appearance.
This is what I think the answer to gun-guy games really is. Really consolidating down to the key experiences that make a gunfight feel like a gunfight and dialing those up to evoke the experience, rather than a strictly clinical facsimile of the surface elements.
The slick gunplay is what makes Call of Duty the game it is. Since the first Modern Warfare, the formula and feel remains largely unchanged. When one aims their rifle with intent to shoot, they can often tunnel-vision hard. CoD’s ADS style is to not block out the edges of the screen and fill the entire view with just the reticle. You get your red dot tube in the center, and that makes the player tunnel-vision on just the small, center portion of their screen. Likewise, the gun manipulations are competent, and fast. You’re playing tier-one dudes - and it feels like it.
Yes, there is the reflexive jumping. God, I’ve always hated that. Ever since SOCOM: Navy SEALs. I understand it’s a game but the jumping to avoid fire is so silly all I can think about when I see it is just how silly it is.
But for all the gimmicky and wacky stuff that we see in Modern Warfare, it still seems to deliver an experience that’s not only fun, but seemingly within the realm of actuality. There are elements of the movement and the screen focus that makes aiming down the sights and squeezing off rounds just “feel” right. And I think it’s the same thing that makes Russel Crowe “feel” like he’s John Nash without trying to be a clone.
At the end of the day, it’s all taste. Some really enjoy the experience they get from ArmA. If that’s what butters your bread, go for it. I’m just a loudmouth on the internet.
For my own taste, however, I would definitely like to see games that focus much more on delivering the experience of what the real thing feels like as opposed to focusing on faithfully recreating visual or surface-level aspects.
There are games that do this. For my favorite example, check out my Love Letter to Wildlands. As to others, I’m still replaying old catalogs and finding bits and pieces as I go. If you’ve got suggestions, or complaints, I invite you to join our discord. This is a blog, sure, but it’s a means towards a community. That’s the real goal. If you want your opportunity to call me an idiot to my face, here’s your invitation.