How Real Do You Want it?

There are times when life is no fun. The world has a way of kicking you when you’re down which is, understandably, why we seek a little escapism sometimes. Maybe a film, maybe a soap opera, maybe even a can or two of fighting strength cider or indeed some hash. Whichever, and I can only recommend three of the above list, they’re a form of escapism.

Which, fortunately for the sake of a good link, games are supposed to be all about really. Escapism. Good clean fun. Something to take your mind off whatever’s going on (I once played MDK through from start to finish following a particularly nasty drinking binge, thus making myself not think about all the people I’d insulted over the previous two nights). The game, I should add, was on “very easy”, lest you think overindulgence improves reflexes and cognitive abilities.

But still, games and realism. There are two sorts of game realism: Visuals and Environment.

Visuals are pretty easily dealt with; the pictures are so pretty that you (like a little person who visited my house once, in real life and not a dream) mistake them for reality. Or at least, like the little person, for TV reality – he thought a Gran Turismo replay was a programme about cars. But then he was looking at the screen from quite a low angle.

Still, pictures are getting prettier and prettier. Gran Turismo cars are shinier than they were back in the PS1 incarnation, when we all thought it was pretty cool anyway. The current and next generation of gaming machines will push even more polygons, shuffle even more real time lighting effects, and we’ll all ooh and ahh in a suitable manner.

But it’s the other sort of realism that we tend to forget.

Now, years of gaming have given me a pretty strong “kill ’em all and let god sort ’em out” mentality, Space Invaders did that. Defender came along and I never really noticed the clue in the title – I shot them all, including the little people I was meant to, well, Defend. But while there’s something almost verging on wholesome fun in blasting geometric shapes into tinier geometric shapes in Tempest, today’s graphics are making that view down the barrel of the gun sort of, well, perhaps a little too real.

I’m sure someone will tell me different, but Goldeneye was the first game I played where shooting someone in the head put them down a lot faster than shooting them in the leg. It was also the first time I got to shoot someone with a sniper rifle, which was fun too.
But at least I was shooting pretty crude people. Now, things are a bit more realistic, and in a few years, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that they’ll be even more true to life. Characters will have expressions, different faces, rag doll physics that’s probably closer to reality than a John Woo film.

So where’s it all going?

Today’s key demographic for publishers is, well, like it’s always been with games – spotty teenage geeks. That’s why the makers of Dead or Alive: Beach Volleyball are about to release a wresting game. With the same characters and mud and, believe it or not, a non-interactive mode, where you can simply watch (perhaps with sound down low, Kleenex in hand and one ear constantly on the stairs for your mother’s fateful tread).

Yet, is a little tit and arse as bad as something like Soldier of Fortune, which seemed to sell itself on the fact you could keep blowing chunks out of your enemy’s corpse? Or Full Spectrum Warrior, which is basically a tweaked bit of software designed to teach the US Marines how to make their way down a street in Baghdad. The game version differs slightly from the original – in the official army version, you aren’t allowed to lose any troops. In the game, losing one or two is OK.

And to be honest, I don’t know if I want it that real. Games are meant to be fun, light relief from the pressures of the day. But what happens when the pressures of the day are replaced with the chance to vent your frustration on people who look, well, real?

Now, trust me, this isn’t going to be a “games are evil corruptors of youth” style rant – if you want that, you’ll have to buy the Daily Mail on a slow news day (like the one, 8 months after its launch, that they discovered that Grand Theft Auto existed, and allowed you to kill prostitutes. So, now we know where Jack the Ripper got the idea.)

No, the sort of people who want to maybe make their own suit of skin or machine gun their classmates are quite unhinged already. But I’m more concerned for myself, and people like me, who have loved video games for years.

Are we all going to end up like legendary Panda hunters, who were all having a nice time until someone counted how few of the black & white things were left? Is gaming going to develop the same stigma as Minipops?

As games get more realistic in terms of graphics, intelligence, locations, what’s going to happen to content?

Take the world of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. Now, I admit hating the game and not coming close to finishing it, but it seemed pretty ‘real’. The places I visited in the game exist in the world. And many people, aside from myself, seem to enjoy conducting US foreign policy abroad. It’s not Hyrule, or the Mushroom Kingdom; The Getaway is London; True Crime is Los Angeles.

So if the world is real, the content has to get pretty real too. San Francisco Rush was limited fun as you were driving a 250mph car down very steep hills, when you weren’t going into the side of skyscrapers. But other more up-to-date console games are giving us real cars in real cities.

A vast amount of driving games sell themselves on realism. But it’s still game realism. Clip the kerb at 90 in a souped up Renault Clio in real life, and you will probably die, definitely in a Mini. The game needs to be fun, so you survive, maybe lose a little time.

Yet the “don’t try this at home, kids” mentality of driving games isn’t replicated in shooters. Point a laser sighted Desert Eagle at someone’s head in real life, pull the trigger, and it’s game over for them. Exactly like in a game.

But shooting people is a different matter. From my genuine anti-personnel firearms training in South Africa I know shooting a gun isn’t that hard (this isn’t a joke – I really did spent two hours with an overexcited Afrikaner who taught me about “zones of safety” (if someone steps inside it, kill them) and the fabulous “imagine an A4 sheet of paper on someone’s chest… now shoot them twice in it”, topped off with him telling me “of course, we use ordinary bullets for target practice – in reality you will be using hollow-tipped for personal defence”).

As locations and characters become more real, won’t content? And with today’s franchise games, can you really imagine how far that could go? GTA6 on PS5. You’ll be able to see the veins pop; the bones fracture as you beat your 2007 model hooker with that old reliable baseball bat. But why bother killing her for a little cash when you could maybe get her addicted to crack and pimp her for a regular income.

Of course, there’ll be an illicit thrill. But is there fun? Are we escaping from grim reality, or stepping into a grimmer one?