There are a lot of theories on what direction should video games go for. Some claim that there will never be a perfect Zombie game – whatever that might be – while others claim beloved characters in an action-horror game might end with the third installment. Theories like these are great as it gets us to think about our video games and ways they can be improved. It gives us the challenge of making a great Zombie game, or how to return to a beloved world of Necromorphs so we could get our limbs torn off (gamers are weird). However, sometimes there are theories presented in our gaming culture that needs to be challenged, and recently the president of 2K Games brought one up in an interview: The necessity of realism in video games. Is realism a necessity? I don't think so as realism in video games brings up the issue of limited technology, expenses, and may even conflict with the thesis of most video games.
Christoph Hartmann, 2K Games president gave a reason why realism in video games is important, as it could open up more genres of games. Hartmann claims that video games are inferior to movies in terms of conveying emotions, possibly the connection via communication. For example, we lack any empathy or emotional connection with fictional characters in video games due the limitations of realism in video games.
There is some parts of Hartmann's quote I disagree with, but I can also see where his example would enhance the emotional content of video games. For starters, video games that have any realism do well in conveying emotions to us just fine. Persona 4, a JRPG with anime-characters and little realism, encourages us to make emotional connections with the characters outside of dungeons to improve our gear; Bastion might get us to chuckle when the narrator says something witty, or spread a simple message on how pointless hate-filled war is when the world is dead; And BioWare was capable of getting a tsunami of emotion from their fans with the destruction of fictional transportation devices, the death of fictional races, and colored explosions in a matter of a 15 minute ending with Mass Effect 3 (Yes, I know this is fixed but it still got the fans emotionally involved).
But Hartmann does have a point that most video games have a tough time delivering emotional content to their audience, at least in a way similar to realism-based movies. Video games suffer a lot from Masahiro Mori's hypothesis of the Uncanny Valley, where as something in the realm of robotics approaches realism but still has recognizable flaws, we reject it. I think this is most obvious in the "dialog mechanics" of video games (like a BioWare or an Elder Scrolls game), as we'll see repetitive body animations for each character. For example, a conversation in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion requires our character's face to zoom in radically towards a character's own face, so we can see all the oh-so-creepy detail of how they smile, twitch their eyes, or try enacting their best voice-acting towards you. Dialog mechanics seem to be an ancient mechanic taken from point-and-click adventure games that hasn't been updated at all to convey emotion like what Hartmann is describing - but updating this mechanic might be expensive.
Based upon Mori's theory, the only way to avoid the Uncanny Valley in realism-based games is by removing subtle and major flaws. Yet this is expensive on the gamer, developer, and publisher to perform. For the developer, they have to exactly replicate the body proportions of a human body well, and then animate it well for each unique encounter so it could be realistic – and not do a creepy face-to-face conversation, which was fortunately fixed in Skyrim. Publishers will have to make sure developers have the best tools to deliver this realism, and the best tools are not cheap. Finally, realism games require lots of pixels and 3D calculations to perform, so gamers have to make sure they get the best (and expensive) graphics cards for their PC or the latest console if they want the latest realistic games.
But this also makes realism games a poor investment in the long-term, as technology and advanced skills will make the previous generation obsolete. Back on the Super Nintendo, I thought Prince of Persia was the game with the most realism due to the smooth animation, yet it looks nothing like the realism games today. The original Deus Ex was a masterpiece of RPG, Adventure, and First-Person shooter mechanics that is still perfect to this day; and yet, the models have not aged well at all when compared to its more pretty descendants, Invisible War and Human Revolution with their subdivision polygon-based models and advanced physics engine.
L. A. Noire is a good example of how realism could be used to convey emotion like a film, but also done poorly and being very expensive. The game heavily relies on the player to judge character's by their facial features; which might not have been done well by some critics, but that was the thesis for this game. The player needs to pay attention to any 'tells' the character might give in the dialog-mechanics, so they could call them out as a liar or accept they are telling the truth. But, we only get realism from their face, which is grafted onto a stiff body that has some stiff, mechanical movements. Finally, Team Bondi had to get several actors to voice the lines and then sit in a special room to record their face, so this form of realism can be displayed right in the video game.
Another flaw in Hartmann's comment about realism in video games cannot convey emotion to their audience like films do is assuming the thesis for video games are like films. Folks, we have millions of dollars being spent on our video games; the most cutting-edge hardware used to run our video games; and lots - LOTS - of smart people work on these video games to deliver us great experiences. And yet, most still seem to make a mistake I get annoyed with: Video games are not films.
A lot of methods of how to convey emotion in films will not work in video games. Films require an audience to be sitting in theatres or sitting cozily in their couches, eating a bowl of popcorn or crying at the death of Bambi's mother. Video games require players to pick up a controller and get engaged in the action, make decisions and overcome goals. One is an active form of media, while the other is a passive form of media.
Could video games be inspired or influenced by films? Yes, but think about what films inspire or influence our video games. I'll bet you that the films we try to mimic in our video games are not even in the realm of realism. Think about it: We have a video game franchise that is the most expensive IP in the video game community based around cheesy 1980s action films; Superheroes taking on unrealistic supervillians in enclosed areas of Gotham City; and the promise of Khajiit on Elf homosexual action in our RPGs. Hartmann claims we should strive for realism in video games, but is the thesis for these video games even in the realm of realism? I don't think so, considering the library of games available to us.
Some years ago I ran into a person claiming Left 4 Dead 2 was a terrible game because it lacked realism for him. The game was a series of linear corridors, with items conveniently highlighted and a health system where people can restore torn flesh from Zombies in seconds if they have a red medical kit. In a way, he's right that Left 4 Dead 2 lacks realism, but claiming that this would make the game terrible? Imagine if Valve wanted to make Left 4 Dead 3 with the Frostbite 2 Engine, pour millions of dollars into making the facial and body animations to make it as real as possible, and ignore the thesis of it being a fun co-op in favor of showing how sad the characters are over the death of Rochelle. Would the Left 4 Dead series be better if it went for realism? I don't think so as I strongly disagree that realism is a necessity to video games.