When I was a kid, realism is all anyone wanted out of video games. Virtual Reality was the buzzword of the times. If an enemy acted realistically, that was amazing. If a character’s portrait in a cut scene looked anything like the real thing, we were in awe. As graphics got better, the dream became closer to reality. Games like Flashback and Heart of Darkness wowed gamers with photorealistic graphics, crude by today’s standards, but jaw dropping back in the days when Kurt Cobain was still smashing guitars.
Even though graphics were getting more real, the gameplay was still crazy. Cloud and Sephiroth may look like real people in the cut scenes, but obviously no human could really wield that giant sword. This was a happy medium, but it never really set right with me. I preferred the awesome summons animations and the scenes with WEAPON and other unreal events. You know: stuff I have never seen.
This was crystallized for me when I saw the preview for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Being a huge FF fan, I was so pumped…until I saw the preview. Sorry, but I was not that impressed to see CGI people. Because I know what people freaking look like! I haven’t ever seen a dragon or a giant robot destroying a city, why not concentrate on that?
This leads me back to video games and today’s dilemma. Let’s look at Grand Theft Auto IV. I have loved every GTA game, even the PSP versions. But GTA IV, I only liked. And I think it has to do with its new found, reality-based perspective. I like the story of Niko Bellic and I think he is a fantastic character. But in attempting to tell a story and show Niko as a sympathetic hero, the gameplay aspect was severely diminished.
Niko Bellic would never join a gang and engage in turf wars, right? So that feature from San Andreas was gone. Niko’s appearance can’t be changed like CJ’s, as they might affect the story. There are fewer weapons and no buildings to buy, so money just sits in your wallet. The tons and tons of side missions present in every other game in the series are nowhere to be found.
In order to make the game more realistic, the cars all react as they would in real life, which caused even veteran GTA players to suddenly drive like a 15 year old girl with a learner’s permit. and those awesome crashes you used to walk away from are gone. The police are much tougher, which is fine, but if I draw my gun by accident, I suddenly have a whole SWAT team on my ass. Liberty City is larger and more detailed than ever, but there isn’t anything to do except drive around and look at the sights.
All the things I have just listed are ways that Rockstar attempted to make GTA IV more realistic. But you know what? None of those things are FUN. I play games for fun. And GTA IV, for all its shine and glitter, is too realistic to be fun.
Now take Saints Row 2, instead. Nothing in that is realistic, but it is all FUN. I can’t stop playing the game, I can’t stop doing side missions and I like running around and causing havoc simply because it feels like a giant playground, while Liberty City felt like a prison. Realism is not always the way to go.
Look at the Prince of Persia’s new graphical style: it is gorgeous! I don’t really care for the gameplay, but I could look at those graphics all day long. On the other hand, take a gander at Fallout 3’s beautifully rendered and highly realistic landscapes. Lovely and horrible to look at, all at the same time, with realistic features, like drug addiction, but all done in a way that does not hinder fun.
So you see, there is no one right answer to whether games should be more realistic or more fantastical. Developers should take it on a case by case basis to decide what style fits their game. But when the developer’s drive for realism gets in the way of a gamer having fun while playing your video game, that developer needs to go back and play Donkey Kong, Pac-Man or any GTA before IV and remember why we play games: because they’re fun.
What do you guys prefer? Realistic graphics or wild, crazy stuff you have never seen before? Reality based gameplay or no rules/no worries, just fun?