Reality bites: games should quit trying to ape real life and go one better
I hate reality. Not actual reality, mind. I’m not desperately hoping I’ll be walking down the road one day to suddenly discover we’re all living inside a hologram being projected inside a giant robotic fish.
No, I’m talking about the kind of irritating and gritty ‘realism’ foisted on us by far too many games, which is often hailed as some kind of benchmark for greatness when it’s anything but.
In the old days, we used to call this kind of thing a ‘simulator’. For the most part, simulators were fairly dull and dry affairs and they were usually on a hiding to nothing. When your entire computer’s (or console’s) memory is such that it wouldn’t be able to cope loading the data contained in a typical LOLCat GIF, you know you’re in for major compromises.
So 8-bit flight simulators therefore promised realistic controls and viewpoints, but instead provided pixelated panels and barren wireframe landscapes. Racing titles had suspiciously stripy roads, and green fields stretching to the horizon, regardless of where they were supposedly located - but then it all used to be fields round here.
None of this mattered, though, because the best games didn’t care about reality anyway. They were having too much fun, exploding pixels before your very eyes, giving you glimpses into tiny mad little universes.
For those titles that did veer closer to something that existed in the real world, the best went for a kind of hyper-reality that evoked how something felt, regardless of whether the physics or visuals were in any way remotely accurate.
Sensible Soccer is a great case in point. Launched on the Commodore Amiga, it was a top-down footie title that to the casual observer appeared to be some kind of strange pinball game, replacing bumpers with tiny footballers. But when you were immersed in a match, it was exciting, fast and fluid - it felt like how you imagined football should be, rather than restricting itself to what football actually is.
The onset of absurdly powerful hardware that could throw insane numbers of polygons about clouded all these issues. As graphics gained the potential to be more photo-realistic, developers were quick to claim games were more realistic overall, and a TV-style dryness permeated genres that were previously fun.
For example, footie titles eschewed Sensi’s madcap zaniness and instead began a long, turgid slog towards control complexity and trying desperately to resemble highlights from Match Of The Day. Racers frequently went very grey indeed, forcing you to drive ‘properly’, rather than like some kind of lunatic who absolutely believed anyone doddering along at under 150 mph was some kind of slowpoke.
Quirky games still existed, of course, but ‘realism’ became so prevalent titles started to be criticised for the audacity of having a little imagination. I recall people having a go at the glorious drift-happy blue-skied OutRun 2 because all the traffic went one way! And you could drift for miles! And you could smack into another car and just get a slight drop in speed rather than end up encased in a twisted cage of mangled metal! Never mind that it again evoked the feeling of something - racing; speed - far better than games attempting to replicate the real thing in a manner that might appease those of a more anorakish nature.
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In today’s climate, indies especially keep the flame alive regarding the weird and wonderful, but it’d be great for anyone creating rather more typical fare to if not actually chuck out the rule book, at least relegate it to the corner for a while.
If you want reality, just stick your head out of the window, and if you want a TV version of reality, watch some TV.
Games should be something more. Which is all to say I want someone to sneakily replace the source code for FIFA 16 with a Sensi update and get it on all my consoles and devices.