Unreal tournaments
What if the snozzberries don't quite taste like snoz...
PC gaming is apparently back, which means I feel I can write about gaming again. Today we have an interesting question: how "real" should video games be?

There are several ways to look at this.

The first holds that video gaming should be as realistic a simulacrum as possible — in other words, that it should be the next closest thing to the Metaverse we have. In the perfect world, this line of thinking goes, video games should be indistinguishable from reality.

On the other hand, of course, doing this raises some problems. What are the emotional or mental repercussions of mowing down hoards of people in a hyperrealistic simulation of violence? Is it needlessly desensitising? Will it, you know, give troubled high school students ideas?

Too, where do we get the processing power necessary to do all this? There are diminishing returns in increasing graphics power — getting from 8-bit Mario to 64-bit Mario is a lot easier, computationally, than getting from 64-bit Mario to, say, a character from Crysis. Characters in Crysis, however, can be simulated on a $1000 home PC. Characters in, say, Avatar — cannot.

There are, therefore, a number of justifications for not going an ultrarealistic route. For one, it's not worth the flops. Two, it's not necessarily what people want — we're told time and against that gaming success comes from gaming innovation, not raw graphics (witness Plants vs. Zombies, The Sims, World of Goo, etc).

A third argument is that hewing too closely to reality stifles imagination and creativity. The thinking is that, when we didn't have the ability to generate photorealistic graphics, we turned to more fantastic elements — a plumber who eats mushrooms to double in size. A blue hedgehog. Grues. Stupid fucking frogs who couldn't fly themselves out of a wet paper bag.

Like George Lucas or James Cameron, when we got the power to do what was in our heads, it turned out that what was in our heads without those restrictions was a lot more boring than when we had to innovate around technical hurdles. We get universes that are insanely beautiful, with no attention paid whatsoever to storytelling (Crysis, Far Cry 2). We get formulaic, uninspired pastiche (Brothers in Arms: Hells Highway).

The blending of storytelling and gaming seems, at best, to fall into heavy-handed "look at me I know I am art" bits like Modern Warfare 2, or the increasingly dark-and-gritty Rockstar games. With limited narrative exceptions — Bioshock, for instance — engaging gaming and graphically-intensive gaming appear to be opposing forces (Psychonauts, World of Goo, Portal).

Nominally, the rejoinder is that this does not have to be the case — that something can be both beautiful and imaginatively transportative. I'm not quite sure.

When we talk about androids ("artificial persons," if you prefer the term) we encounter a phenomenon known as the "uncanny valley." Noting that the uncanny valley is not necessarily rigorously scientific, it goes something like this: as the resemblance to humans increases, our fondness for synthetics grows. Hence an industrial welding robot engenders less of a positive emotional response than does Johnny 5, who is itself less appealing than C3PO.

As the resemblance gets closer and closer to an actual human, though, the small differences become increasingly apparent, to the point where we find the android less appealing (Star Trek's Data; zombies, Christopher Walken, Robin Williams). This is noted as one of the reasons why CGI-heavy films like Polar Express can occasionally seem "off": they get almost everything right, but what they get wrong is glaring, and subconsciously unsettling.

I wonder if there is a similar phenomenon in gaming. If you're a fat, moustachioed plumber getting his kicks by stomping the living fuck out of turtles, who cares if the start of the level is an invisible wall you could run into forever? For that matter, who cares if giant fish leap out of the water and eat you? You're not being taken out of the illusion, because the paradigm has already shifted wildly.

On the other hand, imagine yourself in a photorealistic world, with realistic bullet drop and combat models that have been developed in cooperation with the United States armed services. Suddenly, there's a hoard of enemy soldiers ahead of you. Why can't you duck down that alleyway? Why is the dumpster there an impenetrable obstacle? Why can't you kick in the door of a house and hide until the soldiers pass?

I wonder if it is not the case that gaming falls into an uncanny valley of its own, where the focus on unflinching realism, even setting aside the notion of "fun" or the narrative strength, hoists the game on its own petard? Perhaps it isn't just about the cost-benefit analysis of increasing graphical horsepower. Perhaps it is literally that, at a certain level, making things more realistic makes the game less compelling?

Any game developers out there who can share their thoughts?
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