That’s Not Very Realistic

“That’s not very realistic.” Have you said this about a game? Or perhaps a passer-by said it to you while you were playing? I’m guilty of saying it. For some reason, we have this mindset that certain aspects of games should mirror reality to a firm point of accuracy. This complaint arises for graphics, mechanics, physics, and possibly any other aspect of a game. The realism mindset impacted the game industry in more ways than one. It has fueled more powerful graphics, influenced game mechanics, and bothered countless players across all sorts of message boards.

People mostly consider more realism to be mean better graphics. When we look at the progress graphics have made, it’s hard to argue with the results. However, as graphics get better they suffer from two noteworthy problems. The first problem is price. A game console costs a fair amount of money, as of writing this, a new PlayStation 4 (PS4) can be purchased for about $270 USD on the low end. Recently, the “PS4 Pro” was released—a more powerful version of the PS4—which can be purchased for about $400. However, the only prominent changes are threefold:ps4pro

  • The PS4 Pro hard drive is twice as large as PS4.
  • The PS4 Pro supports 4K output while PS4 doesn’t.
  • The PS4 Pro has a graphical processing unit that is twice as powerful as PS4.

That’s more than a $100 difference and the headline is “better graphics.” Better graphics requires a more powerful console or computer, which needs to be paid for.

Consumers aren’t the only ones paying for it either. Game developers need to spend more time and money making the graphics what they are. Obviously it’s worth it otherwise the companies wouldn’t do it. In the end, it’s not much to complain about; the games that are getting released are beautiful. These beautiful and realistic environments greatly increase immersion. Video games, especially, are a dynamic art medium unlike anything before it. If you can immerse your players in your world, you can keep them entertained for days, months, or even years. When it comes to games, the more immersion the better.


The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Environments aren’t the only aspect getting graphical improvements, character graphics have been improved significantly over the years. The image above is from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt which was released in May 2015. As the title indicates, it is the third game in The Witcher series. The first, simply titled The Witcher, was released in October 2007. The second, The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings, was released in May 2011. All three games are available on PC, Witcher 2 is also available on Xbox 360, and Witcher 3 can be played on Xbox One and PS4. The Witcher is a great series to show how well the character graphics have updated throughout the years.


Geralt of Rivia: The Witcher, The Witcher 2, and The Witcher 3


Triss Merigold: The Witcher, The Witcher 2, and The Witcher 3

The Witcher’s Triss and Geralt are a bit difficult to look at, while the versions from The Witcher 3 look amazing. It’s hard to tell by the image, but the facial movements of characters in the Witcher 3 are equally amazing, capable of showing expression and emotion. As character graphics march closer and closer to realism it inevitably brings discussion of the second problem, the “Uncanny Valley.”

The concept of the uncanny valley was introduced as “Bukiminotani genshō” or “eerie valley phenomenon” in 1970 by Masahiro Mori, a robotics professor. It was later that a link was connected between this phenomenon and writer Ernst Jentsch’s concept of “the uncanny.” Jentsch’s concept was originally elaborated on by famous psychologist Sigmund Freud in 1919. To define the uncanny valley, we will turn to Wikipedia:

“In aesthetics, the uncanny valley is the hypothesis that human replicas that appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings elicit feelings of eeriness and revulsion among some observers. Valley denotes a dip in the human observer’s affinity for the replica, a relation that otherwise increases with the replica’s human likeness. Examples can be found in robotics, 3D computer animations, and life-like dolls among others.”


Billy from Tin Toy

The uncanny valley hasn’t been a large issue in video games, but it is something that game developers need to be mindful of. It has been argued that we have moved above the uncanny valley but there is no hard evidence to say one way or the other. In the end, it’s a perception issue. The uncanny valley has, however, been an issue in the film industry for almost thirty years. Possibly the first film afflicted by the uncanny valley was Tin Toy, a short film produced by Pixar in 1988. The perpetrator in this short film was the horrifying creature Billy.

Games have clearly far surpassed Billy, but superior graphics have also instilled that unnerving feeling. Since Tin Toy, other famous films have seemed eerie to moviegoers. Most of these movies can be traced back to ImageMovers, the film studio that brought us The Polar Express, Mars Needs Moms, and Beowulf; each of these films have been criticized for the uncanny valley. I can attest to Beowulf. When it was released to theaters in 2007, I saw it in IMAX 3D. At first, I had no idea it was computer-generated imagery (CGI), no one had told me and the graphics were very convincing. After sitting through the first several minutes, it hit me that they weren’t real actors and I felt uneasy—looking at it was eerie.


Beowulf from Beowulf

Even though the graphics look great, it is risky for video games to get this good. Game designers need to be aware of players’ feelings. If the uncanny valley constantly inflicts uncomfortable feelings to the player then the designer will have a harder time controlling player’s emotions during gameplay.

As I mentioned earlier, graphics aren’t the only aspect slated for realism. Video game physics are always criticized. I personally had someone complain about the game Infamous while I was playing it. In a game where you acquire super electricity powers, the lack of fall damage was apparently just too much. Another, more notable game, is No Man’s Sky, a game developed by Hello Games and released in August 2016. This game has been complained about for almost every reason imaginable, especially its realism. When No Man’s Sky was announced, it looked amazing; beautiful environments, seamless space travel, an infinite play space, and a hint at online multiplayer. When it was released it seemed to fulfill everything, until some players tried to find each other. While live streaming, these players were in the exact same location but they didn’t see each other. That was it, No Man’s Sky was accused of false advertising, considered a terrible game, and retailers issued plenty of refunds.

In the midst of these complaints, other players tried to discredit the rest of the promises. Some complained that the play space wasn’t really the size of a universe while others complained that a planet, like the one shown on the trailer, wouldn’t actually generate. One person took the trip to circumnavigate a planet on foot, it took them approximately 40 – 45 hours to complete. Another person claimed to have walked half way around a planet and it only took him 12 hours (as the game has no way of measuring distance, it is impossible to tell if he actually traveled the full half way). Some people took this information and tried to use it to claim that the planets aren’t realistically planet-sized.


From the No Man’s Sky trailer

What these planet-sized realism complaints don’t take into consideration is something a lot of players don’t know. Characters in video games don’t move at a normal human pace. An average human walks at 3.1 mph and the average running speed is the same as the average biking speed at about 15 mph. The fastest man alive, Usain Bolt, was clocked at nearly 28 mph. Compare this to most games where your character moves normally at about 12 – 15 mph, and sprinting speed can be around 30 mph. In some games and under certain circumstances, max foot speeds can reach 35, 50, or even almost 90 mph. Players don’t want to spend all day walking, so it makes sense for the game to speed you up.

When it comes to No Man’s Sky, only Hello Games can tell us the size of the planets. However, a common tactic used in tandem with speeding up the player is, in fact, shrinking everything else. Have you ever looked at a town in a game and thought it was crazy how small it was? Think back to the original Pokémon Red and Blue. Pallet Town literally had only three buildings: two houses and a science lab. What was in your house? A living space with a table, bookcases and a TV, and one upstairs bedroom. There wasn’t a kitchen, bathroom, or even a second bed for your mom! Fast forward to the most recent Pokémon Sun and Moon and the towns and buildings have significantly improved but aren’t much closer to real life. The areas in which the player travels in Sun and Moon also feel distinctly small, traveling from one town to the other in mere minutes. Here’s the kicker, that’s okay; in fact, it’s good. If the islands of Alola were actually the size of the islands of Hawaii, and the player really could only walk at 3.1 mph or bike at 15 mph, our poor main character wouldn’t get anywhere. To bike from end to end on one of the smallest Hawaiian islands, it would still take an hour and a half. In any game, lengthy travel time is a burden on the player. Even in games with a focus on exploration or discovery (which Pokémon is not), it’s important to keep points of interest close enough to each other for the same reason. Speeding the player up and shrinking everything else is just good gameplay.

Speaking of good gameplay, gameplay mechanics are all too often nitpicked for realism. Nevertheless, good gameplay should always trump flavor. For example, the outfit of Link from the Legend of Zelda series consists of a thigh-high tunic, white tights, sensible brown boots, and a ridiculous hat. So how does he keep an inventory of bombs, a boomerang, grappling hook, glass bottles, a bow, a quiver of arrows, a hammer, musical instruments, a net, jewelry, and a live chicken? This isn’t explained in-game. You can probably find some fan theories but it is ultimately pointless because it doesn’t matter how he keeps it. The Legend of Zelda gameplay is better served if Link has access to his items and when it comes to realism, as Cee Lo Green put it, “forget you.” In King’s Quest (2015) the main character Graham wears a red cape and also has an inventory of outlandish proportion. The game aptly solves all flavor issues by stating that his cape “has a lot of pockets.”

Some other games with inventories have created mechanics to limit carried items. Whether it is done specifically for flavor reasons or gameplay balancing, it doesn’t matter because it can solve both. If we look at Witcher 3, Geralt can carry any and all items but once the total weight of your inventory crests your weight limit, you move at a snail’s pace. The flavorful way the game increases his carry weight limit is by equipping Geralt’s horse with saddle bags. Carry weight limits are common in Role-Playing Games (RPG) considering that loot is an intrinsic and important feature. Other RPG’s will go so far as to limit the use of fast-travel functions while over encumbered or even stop the player’s movement entirely. Once you have all that loot the best way to get rid of it is to sell it. This brings up another realism issue, shops shouldn’t have an infinite amount currency to purchase your ill-gotten gains. When it comes to this topic, most game designers agree with that. In the Witcher 3, merchants have a limited amount of gold on their person to trade with. The “weight limit” and “merchant gold limit” plug realism breaches but, more importantly, they also balance the game. If a player could carry everything and sell everything, it would greatly increase the player’s wealth. Depending on how the loot is divvied by the game, it is possible that this increase happens so sharply and quickly that the player could purchase all the best items immediately when they become available. This would wholly remove the challenge and reward of progressing your character.

Video games aren’t the only games that suffer from realism complaints. Magic: the Gathering, the Collectible Card Game (CCG) has a variety of realism issues that players like to point out. Here are some famous issues:

Tell me, how exactly would an ooze creature get the benefits from these boots?

Mitotic SlimeLightning Greaves

How would this bird make effective use of this sword?

Squadron HawkSword of War and Peace

And how in the world does it take only fifteen squirrels to defeat a giant eldritch horror?

Token - Conspiracy - Squirrel 1/1Emrakul, the Aeons Torn

The answer to these questions is simple; better gameplay. An ooze can wear boots because the boots shouldn’t say “can only be equipped to a standard sized humanoid creature with feet.” A bird can use a sword because the sword shouldn’t say “can only be equipped to a standard sized humanoid creature with arms and dexterity appropriate to that of one who can wield a sword.” Limiting what can be attached to a creature based on size or type adds way too many words for a game already peppered with depth and complexity. Finally, fifteen squirrels can defeat a giant eldritch horror because the horror shouldn’t need 1,000,000 attack and health to feel intimidating and squirrels shouldn’t need fractional attack and health to feel small—especially in a game where players only have 20 life points.

Any experienced game designer should look at all of these complaints and think most sound preposterous. Yet many game designers consider realism too much. If you have a mechanic that involves equipment, it’s okay to have an ooze wear it. You don’t want your players to think too much about minutiae. If you have a town or city, it’s okay if it is the size of a cul-de-sac neighborhood. You don’t want travel taking forever and boring your players. As for graphics, do whatever you want. It’s okay to have 2D sprites, cell shaded models, or as realistic as possible 4K 3D. Make sure your graphics work with your game, expanding it without hindering the experience. Game design decisions should be made in service of the gameplay and not to make a perfect simulation of real life. As a matter of fact, some players play games to escape real life. As always, keep your game fun. If you do, most players will forgive a lack of realism.