OPINION: The designer's need to forget reality

OPINION: The designer's need to forget reality

By Matt Plotecher

May 6th 2011 at 12:03PM

Game designer Matt Plotecher on gaming's struggle between fact and fiction

It used to be the purview of philosophers to decide what reality truly was, but these days anyone with a video game system and some time on their hands can start asking the immortal questions of what is reality and what is merely illusion.

Games provide a unique approach to defining reality for a user through their interactivity. Movies, television, books, and most other forms of media use a more passive approach; they tell you what the reality is, whereas games ― especially video games ― allow users to learn what the rules of reality are through observation and experimentation.

One of the first things to consider when talking about reality within games is to note that reality and narrative are not the same thing.

For one thing, while it can be debated whether or not all games have some form of narrative, all games, in some fashion or another, do contain their own version of reality.

In the case of games, reality is just the set of rules that defines the user’s possible interactions with the system, while narrative is the window dressing for that system to provide context for better understanding.

Reality and narrative, though, are still closely tied together. Narrative plays a huge role in setting up a player’s expectations about the game and the type of reality one can expect.

Even in games where the narrative is little more than melodious chimes and dazzling particle effects, such as our “Pegland” arcade game, its visual and audio cues construct the basis of what type of reality the player can expect.

In general, a game uses one of two approaches for dealing with reality:

· Map it out as close as possible to what we experience in our everyday life

· Toss it out the window and create a fantasy world where principles like the laws of physics are not always welcome

In the first case, the narrative and reality are strongly linked, although not rigidly. In the second case, the two elements are disconnected, and can have as little to do with each other as they want.

Consider a realistic first-person-shooter such as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. A lot of time and effort are put into the graphics, sounds, and physics engines to try and give it as realistic a feel as possible, so that you really feel like you’re on a capsizing ship, in a crashing helicopter, or partaking in a massive firefight.

But, the game also blatantly, deliberately, and joyously ignores the reality of what happens to the human body when it gets shot.

In true reality, people perforated by several dozen bullets cannot fully heal themselves and magically eject the bullets from their flesh merely by crawling into a corner and taking a few deep breaths. But, displaying that in the game would severely cramp the fast, action-paced feel of it, so reality is trumped by gameplay. And for good reason.

Let’s consider the other case, where reality is far more loose and fluid.

A game like Braid throws most of normal reality to the wind. You can fall a great distance without any injury, time flows forwards and backwards, and most people I’ve met in my life have been rather unsuccessful in their attempts to walk on clouds.

Moreover, reality changes in each world you visit; each world has a different set of rules by which time and physics operate. And yet, this lack of coherent, real-life reality does not result in a morass of chaos and confusion; players quickly learn how each world operates ― that is to say, how reality works in each place ― and accept its capricious nature without a second thought.

The public, even non-gamers, have come to accept loose reality in their games, borne from the early days of video games, where graphics and processing power was so limited (especially by today’s standards) that all video games were abstract by circumstance. Two floating vertical bars in space are accepted as paddles in Pong; a single mobile gun turret sliding under four bunkers is the only defense our planet has in Space Invaders; and a yellow circle missing a pie-shaped piece becomes a spunky protagonist in Pac-Man.

Games were built within the confines of the technology, and often a strong sense of reality was one of the first things to be dropped. And why not? People have been playing board and card games for ages; these are highly abstract games, and over the centuries, the human brain has become wired to associate games with “the laws of reality do not fully apply here.”

This lends an insight into one of the reasons that physics-based games such as Angry Birds, Line Runner, or even the fake physics game of Flight Simulator became so vastly popular: having been trained to accept that games do not accurately represent reality, when we are shown a game whose primary mechanic does, in fact, accurately portray an element of physics, it comes off as fresh, innovative, and new.

We approach games with the expectation that strict reality is not present, and thus are pleasantly surprised to find mechanics that line up with our experiences in the real world.

To continue with Angry Birds as an example, it matters not that these are wingless birds being launched into ramshackle structures holding severely deformed pigs.

What matters is that the core mechanic of firing an object from a slingshot is something that behaves like what we would expect in the real world: trajectory, velocity, inertia― these are traits we are all inherently familiar with from our everyday life, and given the opportunity to play with this knowledge in a video game is a treat that has a distinct appeal.

So, loose reality is an advantage. Some would say it’s a necessity. But does this mean, by extension, that strict reality a hindrance? As I pointed out in my Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare example, it would be a major drag to the player if the game were effectively over the moment they were hit by a single bullet (unless the gameplay then shifted to a Trauma Center: Under the Knife style of play, but I still doubt that would be accepted readily by people expecting a combat game).

Likewise, in Angry Birds, strict reality dictates that the hollow-boned, wingless fowl would be as effective as a projectile as a handful of sand, but doing so would destroy the core mechanic.
 
No mass-market consumer game has ever tried to completely depict reality as true to life as possible, but in all honesty, who would want to? Unless the game is meant to be a training simulation, most people play games for the same reason that they read books or watch films: escapism.

Sure, you can always learn something and walk away a better person from the time involved, but in the end, the draw for escapist media such as games, film, and literature is to experience, if you will, an alternate reality.

What would it be like to be an NBA star? What would it be like to be part of a secret organization looking to save the world (or take it over)? What if you could ride dragons, fire lasers from your eyes, or build a city from scratch over the course of a century?

In the case of games, reality is usually customized around one central idea, and everything else bends to make it work. In the end, that’s really what reality in any game is all about: placing the core mechanic in high relief, so the player can fully experience and enjoy this visit into a world not like our own.

[Matt Plotecher is a game designer at Arkadium]