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The Case For Surrealism In Games 186

An editorial at PikiGeek takes the position that gaming's trend toward realism can be detrimental in many situations, with the quest for graphical precision supplanting creativity and uniqueness. Quoting: "The problem I find most troubling with realism in games is that video games are inherently unrealistic. By definition, even, video games must adhere to some sense of absurdity. In Uncharted, no matter how realistic and convincing the characters and environments may be, the fact is that Nathan Drake can take a hell of a lot of damage, and is a little too good with every gun known to man. In Call of Duty, if realism is such a coveted aspect of the series, why does your character only bleed out of his eyes, and why is damage rarely permanent? The 'game' part of these games keeps them from being truly realistic, and in turn makes them even less believable. Characters like Link, or even Master Chief, are believable in even the most absurd situations, as the worlds that they belong to don't try to conform to the world that we live in."
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The Case For Surrealism In Games

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  • by cyclomedia ( 882859 ) on Thursday August 11, 2011 @04:01AM (#37053214) Homepage Journal

    This tend towards realism was started by Counterstrike, in my opinion. Before that deathmatch was a supersonic brawl over the rocket launcher with infinite lives and team games were similarly fast and chaotic. Now game characters are slooow, you're lucky if you're allowed to respawn, guns are, well guns and environments completely lack lava and floaty platforms.

    Also, finally played Portal for the first time this weekend, boy that's one surreal game! (and i'm not talking about the physicsy stuff!)

    • and despite all of this, Counterstrike is a platform for some of the most absurd gametypes in gaming.

      Surf maps come to mind.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      valve eventually went for the cartoony look in team fortress 2 because the gameplay was so absurd. If you're pushing for realism, how do you explain the 2 sides building their bases 40 feet away from each other?

    • by Yvanhoe ( 564877 )
      Since when do we consider that the gaming industry is exploring a single gameplay at the time ?
    • by mcvos ( 645701 )

      Counterstrike realistic? I haven't played it much, but my impression was that everybody moved at insane ridiculous speeds. I'm no FPS fan, but I did like America's Army somewhat, exactly because it was pretty realistic.

      The problem isn't realism, the problem is half-hearted realism. A thin veneer of realism over gameplay that is very unrealistic. That mismatch spoils the experience. But a game that honestly tries to make the gameplay as realistic as possible can be a lot of fun. At least to people who apprec

      • The original Counter Strike game featured slow running (at least Beta 5,6,7 and 1.0).

        However, it was plagued by the half-hearted realism you mentioned. On one hand you ran slow, on the other hand bunny hopping was commonly used to avoid getting shot (combined with various exploits of glitches like jump-duck-shoot-jump-duck-shoot to instantly steady your aim). Not to mention when they crippled a bunch of the "regular" weapons while still leaving the game in a state that favored snipers. Or knife running (you

        • Hopping and running have always plagued CS - I've said for a long time they should introduce some kind of stamina meter to limit this behaviour and have it affect your accuracy for a few seconds until the bar refils or something. Running when someone is shooting in your direction is real but it does have a physical toll, and nobody should be able to run and gun with an AWM rifle. The problem was they pitched the game as having realism then instantly dumbed it down so as to not alienate the usual FPS crowd.
          • by hitmark ( 640295 )

            More then one CS-like tried such systems, but at that point CS was entrenched and nobody wanted to learn a new mod.

      • by Lakitu ( 136170 )

        Counterstrike was certainly realistic for its era. As the parent stated, FPS games at the time all had ridiculous futuristic weapons which, despite their increased power, took much longer to kill people than do contemporary weapons. Most games at the time didn't even pretend to care where a shot landed, and Counterstrike's universal implementation of headshots was both innovative and appreciated by players. In addition to that, Counterstrike created its game format, where death was an actual penalty comp

        • by Kelbear ( 870538 )

          Just want to point out that headshots started in a Sniper mod for Team Fortress for quake 1that was eventually incorporated into the main Team Fortress mod. Later that year, GoldenEye released which also featured headshots. Later, the mod SWAT for Quake 1 was also released with headshots, from which developers went on to release the Action Quake 2 mod which had head/chest/stomach/leg hit detection with related damage modifiers.

          Gooseman was a part of the Actionquake 2 mod team and eventually left to develop

          • by hitmark ( 640295 )

            Ah yes, Action Quake. Recall playing that over dialup back in the day. Sadly the format got a bit to matrix/blood opera like over the years.

    • by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Thursday August 11, 2011 @06:02AM (#37053654) Journal

      Counterstrike wasn't the first. Action Quake II was the first mod I played that went in for realism, and was released about a year before Counterstrike. It was awful. You got shot, and you started to bleed, walked slowly, and had to find a first aid kit to bandage yourself to stop bleeding (and losing health). Even then, you didn't heal, you just stopped being more injured. You had so little ammo that you only got a couple of shots before having to resort to trying to knife your opponents.

      It was the most realistic FPS I'd played - more realistic than Counterstrike a year later - and the least fun.

      • I enjoyed Heretic 2, where if in multiplayer, someone cut off your arm, you'd bleed to death, and the health wouldn't help you. You had to find a healing shrine. But it wasn't intended to be realistic...

      • by hitmark ( 640295 )

        There was a guy that used Action Quake as a template for his own mod, that shared code with a earlier mod (Brazen) he made that implemented magazines and such in the main Q2 game.

        Kinda interesting in that one could scavenge pistols from the enemy, and had only so many carry spots for weapons. Iirc, you could have at most 1 SMG or larger on your back, while holding another. You could also get a max of 6 pistols by having 2 in your hands and 4 in the belt. End result was that one could quick drop spent guns a

      • by AdamHaun ( 43173 )

        I liked AQ2 more than Counterstrike, mostly because it was based on action movies and let me do ridiculous things like dive forward while firing my guns. Also, it never pretended to be anything other than a cheesy mod. Killing several people while bleeding to death was fun, but I can see how it would get on someone's nerves.

        CS was probably a better game overall, but punished me too much for failure. It wasn't unusual to spend more than 75% of my playing time waiting for a round to end so I could respawn. Th

        • For some reason, the original Rainbow 6 slipped my mind in my above post. That was much more realistic than either. It was really, really tedious in multiplayer. Rounds usually involved 10 minutes of waiting and slight shuffling, then a 10 second firefight. Counterstrike was often similar, although it was a bit less realistic, so there would be more shoot, retreat, try attacking from another direction.

          That said, I recently played Ghost Recon, and it was still fun, although I only played the single-play

      • Going way back, Wolfenstein 3-D - Doom's predecessor - had reasonably accurate damage; you could only take a few pops from any enemy gun, even the weakest brownshirts' pistols. You were still one guy taking down an entire enemy army, so, y'know, not TERRIBLY realistic, but the damage model was a lot closer to reality than Doom's. The gameplay tended to rely on getting in situations where you had the drop on enemies, and the fact that they were mostly terrible, terrible shots (I'd cite the TV Trope for that,

    • by UnknownSoldier ( 67820 ) on Thursday August 11, 2011 @06:46AM (#37053812)

      > This tend towards realism was started by Counterstrike, in my opinion.

      The "Red Herring of Realism" was alive _long_ before 1999 young grasshopper. Tactical Shooters are not the only way games were slowly being more realistic. (e.g. Nethack had death come very easy -- meaning your are faced with permanent consequences, and have to restart.)

      Advances in (real-time) computer graphics & physics are what drove this. Then game designers got sucked into the red herring of realism without understanding what games truely are: an _alternate_ "reality". i.e. Oooh, look, it would be cool, if in driving games, you could actually _flip_ and _roll_ the cars, it would be realistic if when you shot an enemy in the leg he limped, etc. without questioning what -effect- it would have on gameplay.

      Here is the scale of realism with their corresponding game labels

      No Realism -------- Max Realism
      "Arcadey" .............. "Simulation"

      How _much_ realism is called for, depends on the what you are trying to _achieve_ and _express_ with your game. Most gamers find 100% simulation to be NOT FUN. Conversely, they find total lack of realism, to be "too arcadey." The popular games tend to have a healthy mix of both. Quake-style / TF2 jumping / air-control is the perfect example: When you jump, you are able to turn in mid-air 360 degrees, and even stop your acceleration. Completely unrealistic, but fun as hell.

      Here is the perfect example. Almost all driving games "cheat" -- that is, they dampen the impact when you hit an enemy car -- because players would just ram the cars off the road and win. But a win without a struggle doesn't mean (or feel) anything. It's why cheating is so shallow -- it doesn't mean anything when there are no challenge(s) or obstacle(s) to overcome. So driving games cheat -- they want to provide some realism to maintain the immersion, but they can't be 100% realistic as that hinders the gameplay / fun mechanics.

      Sid Meier said great game design was about keeping giving the player interesting choices to make. FPS's moved towards the model where you could only carry limited (~2) weapons -- partially because of realism, but because it forced the player to "make an interesting choice of what to carry."

      Now I am not against realism in a game. There is a time and place for it _depending_ on your game design. When most people complain about realism, what they _really_ are complaining about, is that

      a) they are forgetting they are playing a _game_,
      b) the game is not letting you do something within that world that you think should be able to do.

      People want _logical_ _consistency_ in the game.

      When was the last time you heard people complaining about: Magic The Gathering as being too realistic? Most people don't confuse card games with reality. But as soon as you put the game experience in a virtual 3d world, people will _immediately_ start complaining, "Hey this game isn't realistic! I can't swim, explore over this mountain, etc..."

      > Now game characters are slooow, you're lucky if you're allowed to respawn, guns are, well guns and environments completely lack lava and floaty platforms.

      That's because game designers and publishers are

      a) drinking the red herring of realism Kool-Aid without understanding what games (and game design) are about.
      b) It is easier to model reality, then engage your imagination and creativity -- there is a topic in game design what I call "Frame of Reference", but that is a topic for another day. If you are interested, I'll post a follow-up.

      In closing, if you are going to complain about realism, surrealism, or the lack of it (!), please research some game design history first. There is a time and a place for realism, but one must first understand the deeper problem of what the "game" is trying to represent.

      • there is a topic in game design what I call "Frame of Reference", but that is a topic for another day.

        Interesting. Perhaps you could post a link? Or at least something here or in your journal?

      • a) drinking the red herring of realism Kool-Aid without understanding what games (and game design) are about. b) It is easier to model reality, then engage your imagination and creativity -- there is a topic in game design what I call "Frame of Reference", but that is a topic for another day. If you are interested, I'll post a follow-up.

        Consider me interested.

        Oh, and I entirely agree with your post. I value consistency highly in video games and not just in the gameplay sense. I think that graphically, 3D games are just getting to the point where they might start looking as good as 2D games mainly because of consistency issues. I find many 3D games, especially newer ones, somewhat jarring because on one hand they have highly detailed surroundings and characters with plausible-looking skin and what not and on the other hand they use specia

        • I liked the way that Mirror's Edge handled this, with the color coding of key buildings and obstacles, and left everything that was "scenic" almost monochrome, really nice visual design

      • by cgenman ( 325138 )

        Good post. I'd add that realism is there, in a large sense, to help players get sucked into the experience. But different types of realism interact with the experience differently... Visual realism is very important for certain players to feel a part of the experience. But a realistic damage model, where you get shot in the leg and are trying to drag yourself around the level slowly, actually make it more difficult to get lost in the movement model, and work against the mind's acceptance of the experienc

    • I disagree... It wasn't counterstrike that thrived for realism...

      It was Rainbow Six.

      One shot kills forced you to truly strategize your entry to A) save the hostages and B) keep all of your men alive.

    • IRT the realism of graphics vice the mechanics of gameplay... If you RTFA, it solely concerns itself with graphics because gameplay has been perfected, as if these are the two major factors in a game... I disagree. The story and the stylistic choices are two major contributing factors that make this argument irrelevant...

      Realistic graphics are just a tool. Realism is by no means required, but realism can make introducing the surreal that much more impacting.

      Take the horror FPS genre... You use realisti
    • Myst, Riven, The 7th Guest -- all from the early 1990's tried to look as real as possible. When CDROMs first started appearing in PCs, there was this push to use block 3D with photo texture maps, or have pre-rendered scenes. Once 3D accelerators appeared (3Dfx anyone?), the race was on to do this real-time. 20 years later and the issues are largely focused on character motion capture, and better rigging/physics.

      IMHO: I can point to the problem and a solution looking at WoW vs. DDO. DDO went for realism

    • I'm pretty sure Tom Clancy's Rainbow 6 was not only more realistic than counter-strike but predated it by a year or more. Heck, in the single player campaign you lose a guy on a mission he's gone for good and you have to replace him!
  • by sjames ( 1099 ) on Thursday August 11, 2011 @04:03AM (#37053222) Homepage Journal

    Follow John Smith's exciting adventures as he buys groceries, fills out his 1040 and waits in line at the DMV...

    • by Hahnsoo ( 976162 )
      So you are playing The Sims? In all seriousness, even The Sims takes you a step out of reality. While we were housecleaning this past week, my girlfriend sighed and commented "You know, cleaning up the house is a lot easier in The Sims. You just point and click."

      Still, some people play video games to escape from reality. But some folks play video games to explore things in reality that they cannot possibly do on their own, due to their wealth, social status, language barrier, etc. Flight Simulators ar
      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        Even flight simulators limit the realism to a degree. No filling out paperwork for fuel, filing your flight plan, no walkaround, fuel consumption calculations, sitting around waiting for 6 other planes to take off, etc. They choose to be as realistic as possible about limited aspects of flying.

        • by mcvos ( 645701 )

          Nothing wrong with that. They want to focus on the actual flying itself and not the boring paperwork surrounding it. I suspect real flight simulators for real pilot training do the same thing, and they really have to be as realistic as possible.

          • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

            by Anonymous Coward

            They do - I build class D flight simulators - the type that a pilot can train in and then theoretically go fly the actual plane as it's the actual plane's cockpit with the sim built around it - and we only focus on the actual flight aspect

          • by sjames ( 1099 )

            I didn't mean to imply anything wrong there. Nobody finds paperwork and waiting around fun, why stuff it into a game?

        • These guys don't think that should be the case... [] But you still don't get altitude or g-force effects sitting in front of a PC.

      • by Ambvai ( 1106941 )

        I find The Sims to be decently realistic. The problem is that I find myself to be the sim, not the player...

    • by Zardus ( 464755 )

      Portal 2 had an option for this for those that really want to try that out :-)

  • How much more real can it get??

    • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) *

      That's so much bullshit. Real grues don't eat humans, they avoid them. You usually only get attacked if you get too close to a mother grue and her cubs.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 11, 2011 @04:08AM (#37053244)

    Whenever I see people so damn serious about a game - whether it be surreal or otherwise - I know something is wrong.

    Don't you guys have better things to do than worrying if the surrealism in games might bring on some unrealistic expectation or whatnot?

    • by shish ( 588640 )
      The (supposed) problem is that games are painting themselves into a corner where there's no room for fun - and so people are complaining seriously for a bit, because they don't want their relaxing fun time to be spoiled forever
      • by mcvos ( 645701 )

        The solution is simple: don't buy games that are not fun, do buy games that are fun.

        • The solution is simple: don't buy games that are not fun, do buy games that are fun.

          So, how do I know a game is fun? What makes a game fun? How can I define fun? And so it goes...

    • by genner ( 694963 ) on Thursday August 11, 2011 @08:26AM (#37054552)

      Don't you guys have better things to do than worrying if the surrealism in games might bring on some unrealistic expectation or whatnot?

      No not really.

    • Video games are art. You can be damn serious about art, or just relax and enjoy it.

    • Possibly, but gaming is how I spend significant amount of my free time. During this time, I'd rather play quality games, so it's interesting to clarify which factors can make a game better or worse. That would allow me to choose better games to play, as well as recommending better games to interested people. Hobby or not, if you pour thousands of hours over the years into something, it's not surprising it starts being given more importance.

      Discussion of this nature might reach the attention of people involv

  • the surreal planetoids and environments are definitely starting to trip me out a little. C.R.U.S.H. is one of my favorite games (on my PSP), and Time FCUK [] certainly held my interest.

    Alice deserves an honorable mention.

    I guess I thrive on surreal?

  • by whiteboy86 ( 1930018 ) on Thursday August 11, 2011 @04:30AM (#37053326)
    Wii is not even HD capable console, few people are bothered with that. Their games are non-realistic in low resolution. The lack of realism hasn't affected them much.
    • by julesh ( 229690 )

      Wii is not even HD capable console, few people are bothered with that.

      I know a few people who are bothered by it, but primarily because no HD => no HDMI, and a lot of newer TVs are shipping without SCART these days.

      • That might be the reason why their are introducing the new WiiU, I find it very odd to have the console without HDMI output these days.
  • Whoever wrote this article obviously hasn't played it. Its a game that is astonishingly close to "realism." As, much as possible anyway.

    I would simply argue that concessions away from realism in "realistic" titles exist in video games because a mouse and keyboard is a poor substitute for your body and a monitor is a poor substitute for your eyes.

    Once we have more "immersive" input/output hardware, the lines between reality and the game world will become blurry.
  • The author of TFA complains that games depict absurd situation in a realistic fashion.
    Sounds to me games are plenty surrealist enough already.

  • Planescape tormet ? Surrealist world, even if the gameplay was similar to BG : poor sales. Okami ? Poor sales. The fact is, the *average* gamer massively want something they can recognize and feel acquainted with. Thus the poor sales of surrealistic games.
  • by Burb ( 620144 )


  • by flimflammer ( 956759 ) on Thursday August 11, 2011 @05:33AM (#37053536)

    And you shouldn't expect them to. "Realistic" games break realism for the sake of gameplay. Not everyone (and dare I say most people) don't want to play a game where you get grazed in the leg with a bullet and your movement becomes entirely awkward, your character develops some sort of infection and then his leg needs to be amputated in the middle of the jungle with charlies everywhere, then being required to finish the rest of the game with one leg. (surely one person will reply to this begging for that)

    It's a game. It's entertainment, and they also have to account for users controlling these characters. Sure games like Call of Duty put in realistic weapons and what have you but it's still not aiming to be a completely realistic combat shooter. In fact I doubt anyone would even think it's trying to be. If you want something "realistic" then I think Arma 2 would be a better choice.

    Movies also try to be "real" but when you see Tom Cruise jumping out of helicopters or Bruce Willis driving a car up a ramp into a helicopter all while the surroundings and story are meant to be more or less realistic, you don't go complaining how unrealistic the movie is. It's a movie. it's entertainment. If you want a true-to-life story then look out your Window and watch the mailman deliver the mail.

    • I think that reality itself is a part of the problem. Why aren't there actual floating respawning medpacks in the real world? Scientists - get on this! It would do a lot for public health!
    • by hitmark ( 640295 )

      While i have not played a game that had long enough missions that infections could become lethal, there have been various games that have approached FPS from a more simulation like angle.

      On the lite end of the spectrum there is the Delta Force series from Novalogic, where thanks to a voxel map engine one could actually snipe from several KM away. And depending on caliber, hit location and range, one shot take down without aiming for the head was quite possible.

      On the other end there is Operation Flashpoint

    • Well, one of the best FPS experiences I ever had was in the original Operation Flashpoint, I think it was the expansion pack where you played as a Russian defecting to the local insurgents. Been driving a truck with about 12 people over to a new rebel base. Promptly, we run into an ambush, all my men die, I barely make it into the woods, getting shot in the leg on the last few meters. I manage to find some cover and with a whole lot of luck finish off the last remaining ambushers, who try to approach me ove
    • Movies also try to be "real" ...

      What??? Which ones? Can you give an example? All I see in movies is trope after trope after trope, no realism in sight.

    • "(surely one person will reply to this begging for that)"

      I, for one, find the idea vaguely arousing.

  • Surrealism occurs pretty much throughout video gaming.

    In a typical JRPG, your party merges into one person, wanders around the map as that single person, then when attached, splits out into a party again, whereupon they take it in turns to trade blows with enemies.

    In LA Noire, you drive through the streets of LA like an absolute maniac (at least, if you play the way I do) leaving a trail of destruction, then calmly stroll out of your car and conduct a sober murder investigation.

    In Portal 2, a robot tells yo

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      In Portal 2, a robot tells you you're fat.

      Sounds like pretty much every digital scale I have ver owned.

    • My favourite surreal moment in LA Noire is also related to driving. You can drive like a psycho, into oncoming traffic at top speed, handbrake turning aside at the last second to speed off and do it all again and your partner sits quietly in the passenger seat. Scrape your bumper on a fence post when reversing out of a driveway and he's screaming at you for being a maniac.
  • That's why I prefer indie game companies who bring out really interesting games.

    Some I have been playing lately: World of Goo [], Cogs Game [], VVVVVV [].

    No affiliation with these games, I just love what they do. They remind me of when games first appeared for the PC, when creativity motivated game design, not the quest for uber realism.

    As we know, "its super cool to be uber realistic on hardware because it's just a simulation and not really real. So it's cool that way."...

    Gimme a break! Gimme a real game.

    • Minecraft by Mojang is my latest addiction.

      If you could never get enough of Lego when you were a kid, then this is the game for you.

  • Because it gives a referential to your actions, which allows to put them into perspective and make them more meaningful.
    You can also better identify with the character you're playing if it's realistic enough.

    So it's a very important characteristic to have for a game that involves roleplaying, in one way or another.

    • by Spad ( 470073 )

      That's not realism you're after, it's a consistent, believable world. Games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect or Fallout aren't realistic - far from it in a lot of cases - but they have well designed, consistent worlds with well written characters that you can identify with and form attachments to.

      The fact that you're battling an ancient race of sentient machines or throwing fireballs at orgres doesn't really factor into it that much because, as TFA says, in the worlds in which the games exist, those things ar

    • > Realism is important
      > Because it gives a referential to your actions, which allows to put them into perspective and make them more meaningful.
      How many roleplaying games _require_ you to eat every few hours??? They don't because micro-managing your stomach _detracts_ from the core gameplay. Realism is NOT fun, for the most part.

      Your mistake is that you are confusing the "Red Herring of Realism" with "Frame of Reference" and "Logical Consistency"

      Realism in game design is a _tool_ that helps immerse t

  • It limits your choices when designing, it limits your choices when interacting, and the outcome is too familiar to surprise.
    Sure, a little amount of realism is desirable. Such as if you shoot stuff, it dies. Or if you run out of bullets, you need more.

    There is also a movement of players of "games where the author is not some corporate drone thus you can talk to him/her" who is extremely vocal about realism and attempt to pressure the author of a fantastic game to nerf it into realism. I wish those guys were

  • There's something wrong with this thread. It starts in the summary. Giving examples of games that are supposed to be realistic. It is followed by a series of comments debating the relative realism and surrealism of games that are not good examples of either. If you want to talk realism we have the armed assault series, the rainbow six series, the hidden and dangerous series, the Forgotten Hope mod series, IL2 Sturmovik, Rise of Flight and many other flight sims, Men of war and total war series' for strategy
  • Surely Ben Gowing (from TFA) isn't asking us to to replace players by abstract icons, forgo earthly physics, euclidean geometry and reduce all attempts at plot to the level of Tetris, is he?

    Just having humanoids on a 3D space with gravity already "contaminates" the game with enough realism that you might just as well keep adding realism until it interferes with gameplay.

    Graphics, being accessory, can be as cartoony or as realistic as you want. Me? As long as my character can take blows like a piñata an

  • That's the second largest duck I've ever had in my pants.
  • Anyone remember the game Weird Dreams? Really fun, Dali-level surreal, but controls and objective also quite surreal and therefore difficult to figure out. Would love if some modern games reached the level of weirdness this game had.

  • How about a shooter where, when your character dies, it reformats your hard disk?

    • "How about a shooter where, when your character dies, it reformats your hard disk?"

      I like your idea, but not enough to avoid using VM Snapshots to dodge most of the consequences!

This login session: $13.76, but for you $11.88.