Why realism in games matters

Writers have spent many many column inches discussing immersion in games. That is, if people can agree on what it actually means.

Immersion is some kind of quality that a game can have which makes it easy to lose yourself while playing it. Some people call it flow. Others call it a compelling narrative, or even just a cool IP that players want to be a part of. There’s probably more than one type of immersion – being immersed in game mechanics isn’t quite the same as being immersed in your in-game life/ story.

Compared to that, realism in games gets short shrift. Of course people can’t really cast fireballs, dragons don’t exist and couldn’t fly even if they did, space lasers don’t go pewpew in the blackness of the vacuum of space , and so on.

That’s a misleading definition, though. Realism in games is about being true to a genre, about NPCs acting and developing consistently, and about players being able to work out some values of cause and effect within the game world. Or in other words, a game world can build its own realism and then be consistent within that. And if a game has that sense of realism then the player can use RL logic to figure things out.

Here’s an example. In Dragon Quest 9, I picked up a quest from a cat. It said, “Meow meow meoooooooww!!!” and a quest went into my quest log (much like a real cat actually, although in that case it would have got bored and gone to sleep long before you figured out what it wanted).

So the logic of both the game play (you wouldn’t get a quest that was impossible to figure out) and the fantasy game world (magic exists, why not talk to animals?) says that at some point I’ll be able to learn how to speak to animals and can then come back and talk to the cat again. And now, although there is no quest in my log to say ‘learn how to talk to animals’ I will be looking out for opportunities to do that. In fact, my character just learned how to train as a ranger, and was told that it would help me communicate with monsters. Is a cat a monster? I don’t know if the game thinks so, but clearly I need to try this out.

So the more consistency, genre coherence, and realistic world building in the game, the less a player needs immersion breaking tutorials and quest pointers to figure out how to get to their goals. It’s the realism which gives players a chance to figure out anything on their own, other than by random trial and error. Can you make an educated guess at how to help that NPC, or do you need quest text that says ‘kill ten rats’?

This doesn’t need to be subtle. If I see a wagon at the side of the road and the owner says, “Oh no, my horse has cast a shoe,” then I don’t really need a quest to go and find a blacksmith … do I? I just need a motivation (maybe I need that wagon) – and it doesn’t necessarily have to be an immersion-breaking quest reward (why exactly does that wagon driver want to give me a halberd and what was it doing in there anyway?)

I’m not sure though if this type of realism lies in the past or future of MMORPGs. Older games were more likely to try to do this, to create worlds which were more self consistent (even if they failed). Modern ones prefer to make their gameplay very separate, to have long quest lists with explicit goals and rewards. But even so, realism is that quality that makes a world believable. Without it, there might as well be no world at all.

8 thoughts on “Why realism in games matters

  1. That made me think. When I play an adventure I try to solve every puzzle without using the Internet or any other kind of out of game help.

    When I play WoW I always have WoWhead open on my second monitor and I never every read a quest text. I just enter the title of every quest into WoWhead.

    Why’s that?

    • I can’t answer that! I always read quest text when I play a game for the first time, and I can’t understand why you’d go straight to the offline guide without even trying to do it without 🙂

  2. Pingback: False Expectations « Procrastination Amplification

  3. IMO the more oldschool way of RPGs which motivates you a lot less explicitly to do certain thing, is the more immersive way to construct a fantasy world. simply because it’s a lot more ‘realistic’ that you would hear things when traveling and then need to explore further yourself, instead of being tossed quest scrolls by NPCs with exclamation marks on their head everywhere.
    like Kring, I stopped reading so many quest texts years ago in WoW. I also agree with Wulfshead’s recent article on EQ3 where he states that we’re being overloaded on quests, rather than making them something special.
    to me immersion has to do with a certain authenticism – even in a fantasy world I would rather discover secrets and quests myself and make experiences by self-motivation, rather than the game babysitting me all the time in case I might miss something (oh noes.)..

  4. I absolutely agree, Spinks! The first thing I noticed when I started in Northshire Abbey was how unrealistic the mobs were. Their lack of common sense makes you wonder how their species ever got out of the primordial soup.

    And you’re spot-on about the loot, as well. What on earth are elemental creatures doing carrying plate armour? Why are goblin engineer quest-givers keeping axes and wands and whatnot in their pockets?

    As for the big yellow exclamation mark over the heads of some NPCs, I’m afraid this credibility disaster is because so many players are even stupider than the mobs! Some adventurers are destined to find their way back to the primordial soup.

    It seems players want more help with quests, not less. Hence the yellow “!” and “?”, hence the success of QuestHelper and Blizzard’s decision a few months ago to put quest locations on the map. I think many players would like a Martin Fury shirt in the mail.

    • Clearly Green-quality or better weapons or armour are of no use to NPCs. They either don’t have the skill needed to wear them (hence why they are so weak and need your help with everything) or they already have better gear (boss NPCs?). They keep sacks of these glass-bead-equivalents around so that they can convince silly PCs to do their bidding or help them in their hour of need. NPCs have a completely different economy, where Rotting Bear Carcasses and Troll Sweat are the most valuable items ever, and green or better gear is worthless.

  5. I certainly agree. And I also agree on the semantic problem here.
    It is just lovely that at some point in a typical gameplay vs virtual word debate somebody says: “Fantasy isn’t realistic in the first place.”

    That is the point that you should stop discussing, because somebody doesn’t want to be convinced.

    To circumvent the problem I usually use the words ‘credible’ and ‘consistent’ to express ‘realistic’, because, let’s face it: Fireballs, indeed, are not realistic. But they can be credible in the appropiate fantasy setting, while sudden supernovae may be not 😉

  6. There are so many elements of an MMO that must break “realism” simply due to the fact that it is multiplayer. You can’t impact the environment too much because it’s my environment, too.

    So the “realism” of the environment suffers. Maybe in that single player game I can burn buildings down, and they stay burned. Monsters stay dead, and areas are saved from a menace.

    But there’s nobody REALLY there to see or know that I did it. In my opinion, the most immersive/realistic quality about MMO’s is the presence of other players.

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