Is Excessive Realism Killing Gameplay?
I am currently annoyed with a big trend in gaming at the moment - the gradual death of fun in videogames due to improved realism. Before the flamers warm up the fires of vitriol let me clarify; games are fun, just not anywhere near as much as they used to be. I picked up the excellent Saints Row 2 the other day, and discovered two things: firstly, it is a far better game (in the purest sense) than Grand Theft Auto IV, and secondly, it recalls the reasons why I play: out-and-out fun.
Saint's Row 2 is puerile, it's outrageous, it is at times sick and degraded - but it is also unbelievably entertaining. The first time you spray buildings with sewage, or run around with a rocket launcher taking out helicopters, you remember the reasons Grand Theft Auto III was so excellent: it let you do things you wouldn't normally do, and freed you from realistic constraints. The joy was in the rebellion, so to speak. These are also the same reasons many found Grand Theft Auto IV to be a letdown, as the developers seemed to be so focused on making a car crash realistic, they forgot to add a lot of substance to the gameplay.
Realism is currently a huge expectation: people expect hit related damage from guns, realistic tactics in war games, and believable opposition, alongside picture perfect graphics and credible sound. But in reality, doesn't this take us away from the point of gaming? I mean, sure, Modern Warfare 2 is visually impressive, but am I the only person who has moments online where a) I long for a laser rifle or hover tank; and b) get really fed up of other players who believe that realism equates them to a real sniper/soldier? Surely, if you want to really prove your skills, shouldn't you sign up for the National Guard?
The truth is, realism perpetuates the belief that there is a correlation between one's ability to, say, play Forza and actually drive race cars. And gaming doesn't need that anymore than it needs jippy kids on Xbox Live. In fact, it surely only encourages them, and as a result, put more people off of gaming as a whole.
Realism also kills design, or the ability for game designers (who are a seriously canny bunch of artists) to knock out their own inventions, often in the realms of the impossible. While an accurate office building is impressive to depict, it also kills any sense of exploration or individuality. Look at the original F.E.A.R.: a great game, with a great concept, let down by very repetitive environments, textures and areas, all in the name of realism.
Sure, there are tech marvels to be had from overt realism (see Heavy Rain, for example), but often these games are something of a flash in the pan: many agree Crysis is a visual benchmark, but how many people actually play it for the combat? For me, some of the best games I have played recently have been fantastically unrealistic, such as Flower. Here is a game where you play a puff of wind, opening flowers in the countryside, yet I am hooked. I don't need photorealism, I am perfectly happy with bright colors, trance music and the ability to soar around doing my own thing.
The point I am trying to make is that we shouldn't accept realism as a major reason to accept a game: truly excellent games should be able to thrive regardless of the quality of the tire treads or bullet physics, as in reality, these don't actually add anything to gameplay. And this is an unbelievably important word, as it was created for gaming itself, instead of being cribbed from another medium. Gameplay is the purpose of a game; without it, you basically have either an interactive movie, or something that gets very old, very quickly.
So, designers, please: bring back the silly stuff, we love it. Give us Giant Head Mode, rocket packs, alien worlds, over-the-top magic spells, and playable Oddjob. You only have to look at the message board opinion on Zombie Mode for Call of Duty: World at War to see it works. Gaming needs its own identity, and this can only be achieved if we stop applying unnecessary rules to what classifies a good game: good gameplay, tight (yet relevant) scripting and ease of play should be well above accurate exploding barrels.