As Mystery Science Theater 2000 says, “If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes, and other science facts, just repeat to yourself ‘It’s just a show, I should really just relax’.” Realism does not always have room within the realm of fiction, yet often I see many indie devs strive to make their game “realistic.” Bullet drop, dynamic weather, understated physics. After all, “gritty, dark, and realistic” is the new trend these days, it is only natural that these themes gain popularity and traction. Despite this, if we look to the reasons behind the success of gritty reboots and realistic near-simulators, we can also find the key to making fantastical and whimsical games as well.
Realism Can Work Against the Game
Games are built off of mechanics, and as mentioned in an earlier article, the sum of your mechanics influence the feeling and engagement of your game. Developers who strive for realism however, will find that the real world will end up dictating certain elements and mechanics, and this does not always work to the game’s benefit.
For example, let’s say you’re playing a videogame, and you currently have 50 ammo on you in total, and 25 bullets in the current magazine. If you shoot three bullets and reload, you now have 47 ammo and 25 bullets in the magazine. In real life however, you would have 25 bullets in the magazine, but no extra ammo left over. If you toss a magazine away early, you are also tossing away ammunition early.
If you are playing some sort of survival game such as STALKER or Silent Hill, games which are designed to be stressful and place emphasis on resource management, this realistic element works well and adds to the game. For PVP heavy shooters like Call of Duty or Battlefield however, this doesn’t. An element of PVP shooters that is often overlooked is that of “anticipation.” An elegant example of this is Team Fortress 2’s Heavy class. The Heavy requires time to spin his minigun, forcing players to predict when skirmishes will break out. Finding the appropriate time to reload in a game such as Call of Duty requires player anticipation and threat assessment in a similar fashion. Having a penalty to reloading such as in real-life thus drastically changes game balance.
Mechanics Differ from Reality
Mechanics are the rules by which your game live by, and directly dictate how your audience will play the game. Sometimes mechanics might appear unrealistic, but may be essential for promoting proper player behavior. Often times we know these things as “game logic.” Why do red barrels explode? Why does standing still heal you? Why can that guy get shot 20+ times and live? Making a fun game comes first, and sometimes you need to fit the narrative of your story around your mechanics, and not the other way around.
People play games for escapism. Games are an avenue for adventure, excitement, and fantasy. Implement mechanics that give player agency, freedom, and power, instead of taking them away. Sometimes the player should feel powerless and weak, but make sure your game is designed around those emotions before you implement the associated mechanics.
The Suspension of Disbelief
Just because you have unrealistic “gamey” elements doesn’t mean that they have to be unbelievable though. People never question why Mario collects mushrooms or golden coins, or why Master Chief can pull off superhuman feats. If you give proper context for your mechanics, you can make them feel believable for that world.
Many game worlds such as Uncharted or Call of Duty feel very close to ours. As such, they are normally held to a standard closer than ours. Worlds with sci-fi or even supernatural elements such as Halo or Metal Gear are held on a different standard however. Master Chief regains health by staying still because he has SCIENCE shields unlike generic soldier #1829. Big Boss can instantly recover from a broken arm because his world has a guy that can control bees with his mind.
When implementing a certain idea and wondering whether or not it’s believable, compare it to other events or ideas in your world. Time travel might be a stretch in Star Wars, but warp travel is not. Give context and limitations to your world, and your audience will willingly overlook unrealistic details.
In the end, realism only matters in real life. It is better for something to appear believable within context than for it to actually be possible. “Gritty” and “dark” reboots of popular franchises have gotten popular not because they are more realistic, but because they provide a different, sometimes more consistent, context for events. As always, context is key. Keep these ideas in mind when creating your game, and you can get your audience to overlook even the silliest of plot points if executed correctly.