Friday, January 28, 2011

Be Careful What You Wish For

Compare and contrast these two articles.

I think by now, we all know and understand the dangers of "realism" such as it applies to modern games. The shit-brown and grey colour palate has lost any vestige of novelty that it once had. The iron sights of the M-16A4 assault rifle and the AK-47* have become tired and know the drill

*or AK-74 and other models/derivatives thereof.

Although Yahtzee writes that Peter Moleneux is to be admired because he still lives in a time when the games industry produced auteurs, and that gaming today suffers because this is no longer so. I think, however, that Moleneux and the shit-brown shooter collective share a key problem. It's realism, or at least, the promise of realism.

Different games and different developers have this problem for different reasons, but it's the same problem: "realistic" doesn't equal "fun". The obvious starter is graphics: realistic graphics are very nice to look at, to be sure, but when you put a premium on verisimilitude, you miss something: readability. For those who followed the development of Team Fortress 2, the original concept was to make a very realistic class-based military shooter. That was all thrown out when the developers realized a) everyone was doing that already and b) it wasn't very much fun. When they decided to start over, they put a premium on making easily identifiable player silhouettes. They added a kill-cam to show you where you were killed from. They made the team colours stand out against the environments.

A stealth game, it is not. But when you die in TF2, it is rare that you don't understand WHY. And when you can do that, you can learn from your mistakes. That's how games are supposed to work.

So how does Peter Moleneux suffer from the same problem? Well, Fable may not have realistic graphics, but I think he's trying to "solve" the "problem" that RPGs have where you can only interact with certain parts of the world. In your classic RPG, you can visit the village, you can rent a room at the inn...but not with all the gold in the Kingdom (which, of course, you do acquire) can you buy and own property, unless it's specifically part of the plot. You can talk to the barmaid, but you can't ask her to marry you, or have children with her. Not very realistic. The end result is that you don't feel immersed in the world because your character, like the player, is merely an observer.Well, thinks Peter Moleneux, with FABLE 1/2/3, I can FIX THAT!

I sympathize, because I do feel that way about some RPGs. Of course, like Yahtzee says these features all SOUND good on paper, but when you actually implement turns your swashbuckling adventure into either too much of a management sim - or too little of one if that's what you were looking for.

The Problem (capital T capital P) is that when a developer confuses a game with a simulation, they end up making a product that is a little of both, and enough of neither. Games are by nature based on arbitrary rulesets, abstractions of a greater reality. It's OK in a game if you can't sex up the Barmaid, because maybe that's beyond the scope of the rules. Conversely, it would be ok if ALL you could do was sex up the barmaid (dating sims, anyone?). Games are conducive to narratives and literary conventions because the character doesn't really have a life to live; they have a single purpose: complete the quest(s) (get lamp, slay the dragon, rescue the princess, get eaten by a grue...). Simulations, on the other hand, are by their very nature more suited to a sandbox style of play. They can have objectives, sure (see: ARMA 2), but their most powerful moments are always player-driven. Of course, games and simulations give different kinds of satisfaction. Games have an end to them. You can WIN a game, and that's satisfying. You can't win a simulation, but what you can do is create and play. The problem with a sim/game hybrid, in my mind, is that an experience like Fable has conditioned you to treat it like a game...and when the game ends, it drops you in a sandbox with no more challenges to complete, and it feels empty.

We used to know that you could only talk to the NPCs with names, and that's how it was. Now that the unnamed NPCs CAN talk, we're sad because they don't have anything interesting to say.


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