Monday, March 9, 2009

The Cost of Realism

Yep, we're talking about Far Cry 2 again. But don't flee just yet, this is both brief and mostly meta-discussion. This is in response to a couple of things (insightful, as always) Michael Abbott wrote recently, and it's just a little too long to be a comment there. Michael noted that he just couldn't bring himself to care about the characters in Far Cry 2. Several of us said, well yeah, that's sort of the point. I specifically posited that the NPCs are not supposed to be characterized or behave as real, believable people. Their shallowness is symbolic, intended to convey how anonymous and replaceable those grasping for power truly are.

It's entirely possible I'm reading too much into it, but on the other hand, is it possible that we've just been conditioned to expect as much realism as possible in AAA titles? Realistic simulations of physics, environments, facial animations, interactions; these are the things frequently held highest when discussing new, big-budget titles. When we're told to anticipate and expect these things, do we accidentally filter out things more subtle?

It seems our (and by "our," I mean the audience at large) expectations have become binary- either games must strive for complete realism and any shortfall is an error, or it's an utterly ridiculous/purely ludic (a la Mario Kart or Katamari Damacy) without thought to realism. I've been pleasantly surprised by symbolism in games, but I don't think I could name one where my excitement and anticipation came from looking forward to interesting symbolism. I was excited about Far Cry 2 because it looked like a dynamic shooter with an interesting setting; I wasn't looking forward to a meditation on violence and nihilism.

Only a handful of popular titles can really be seen as explicitly symbolic, and most of them have to truly bellow to have their symbolism noticed. Braid might be the best recent example. While the interpretation thereof is a bit ... contentious, I think everyone can agree that the game is meant to be heavily symbolic. Flower is similar. Perhaps this represents a growing trend. I'd like to think so.

I think part of the contribution we brainy/serious/intelligent game bloggers make is digging into symbolism in games. I've become a lot more aware of it since becoming active in this community; prior to a year ago, the only games I could probably discuss the symbolism of were Planescape: Torment and Psychonauts. We've still got a ways to go though. Audiences need to ask for and reward meaningful symbolism, and developers need to refine their language to make things less obtuse.

Of course, if that did happen, we might just run out of things to blog about ... or we'll just get to argue with more people about interpretations. Probably the latter. Excellent.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Nice post, Nels. I'm not sure we need to make the composers of the game responsible for the shallow NPC's to get the benefit of the symbolism. My own view is that realism and symbolism are in the eye of the beholder. Even if the composers of the game were trying for realism, that they ended up with shallow symbols of replaceability has a decisive effect on what the game means.

So just as you say, we need to do more symbolic interpretation, and reap the rewards both in games and in discussion!

March 9, 2009 at 6:19 AM  
Blogger Ben Abraham said...

Great post. I think it was Steve Gaynor who mentioned in Michael Abbott's plea for *more* ludonarrative dissonance (used deliberately and judiciously) who noted that realism doesn't mean a game can't apply a certain level of abstraction.

I think Far Cry 2 just cuts away all the secondary considerations in order to get at the main point. Like Clint Hocking noted in an interview before the game even came out, there are no civilians in the game because they didn't want murdering civilians and exploring the implications of that to be part of the story and themes of the game.

Another abstraction that we hardly notice anymore is automatically picking up weapon ammo - and it happens in Far Cry 2. There doesn't seem to be anyone who has wanted to make a statement in their game about that yet but I'm sure it can't be far off.

I too want to see more of the right kind of abstraction!

March 9, 2009 at 6:22 AM  
Blogger Angelo said...

Once again you hit the nail on the head, Nels.

I’m always baffled by the blind appreciation that the general gaming audience tends to hold for “realistic simulations of physics, environments, facial animations, interactions” in a favor of emotional realism. It’s nice to witness what the graphical capacities can do these days but what’s the point of raw power if the characters still devoid of real human emotions and personalities? Sometimes, I hope some game developers dedicate a fraction of their development process to satisfy these expectations. Epic Games silly attempt to create an "intelligent badass" design in the guise of Marcus Fenix wound up with a shallow character that lacks sufficient intelligence and excessive douchbagery. Granted, not all games that showcase high-end visuals and graphical realism end up with such unfortunate results; Mass Effect -a game I have just started playing- has one of the most intricate characters I have seen in recent memory. Even some of the alien species that lack human features wound up being more human than I ever expected.

Symbolism is another matter too. Prince of Persia strived to incorporate symbolisms in its story and villains but only managed to come up with meager outcomes. Not every game has to take a shot with symbolism (certainly not Far Cry 2) but when a game parades itself of doing so then it should do it right. Regardless of that, I think most game genres can perpetuates some symbolism in their story or setting if the developers were keener do so. Silent Hill 2, Ico, Persona 4, BioShock, and Majora’s Mask are some of the games that have been famous with their unique stance in imagery and symbolic representation, and yet ended up being one of the best games in their respective genre and series. I think part of that is because we –as players who devote a good deal of time to a venue that devotes a good deal time and process with art design- are conditioned to value these subtle constructions even if we weren’t intended to seek them out in the first place.

Here’s a thought I’d like to leave you with: You just confessed your excitement with Far Cry 2 because of its unique setting and shooting dynamicity, and for you personally, the game has satisfied your thirst for action. Now, would you remember this game after 6 months from now, and the impact it had on you? If the game had indeed integrated “meditation on violence and nihilism” in its setting –even as subtly as possible- would you hold the game in higher regard even though you weren’t expecting such degrees of symbolism? I hope you don’t take my questions as a form of interrogation, but more of are a reflective post-mortem.

Keep the good work :)

March 9, 2009 at 7:39 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Roger That's an interesting (and complicated) question, actually. If the designers didn't intend for something to be symbolic, but a lot of people see it that way, is that less valid that some symbolism the designer did intend? That's a massive can o' worms that spans all creative works, it's just interesting to think about in games. It seems most symbolism in games is either unintentional or has one "correct" interpretation. Maybe the reason why the symbolism in Far Cry 2 struck such a cord with so many folks was didn't fall into that categorization.

@Ben I think Steve claimed the term "simulational veracity." It's the idea that a game needs to be consistent relative to its intent, but this doesn't have to be representation of real reality. Some genres have hosted this a lot, but I haven't seem an FPS, aside maybe from Far Cry 2, that intended be anything less than really real. We need more of that.

@Angelo To be clear, I think that Far Cry 2 does an excellent job of symbolically conveying notions of nihilism and it does so in an interesting way. In countless films and novels, we've seen an environment as a symbolic entity, but Far Cry 2 turns that on its head, creating an extremely real environment with very symbolic inhabitants. This is definitely more memorable than another bland grey-brown battlefield where aliens/Nazis come to die.

But the rub is, I wasn't expecting that in Far Cry 2. Aside from games from a few specific designers, symbolic content isn't an expectation I often have for games (and I imagine that's the same for most folks). Yet when I find it, it's often quite satisfying to think about. I knew that that was the case, but realizing it so explicitly was interesting.

March 9, 2009 at 10:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been trying to think of games that made good use of narrative symbolism - a recurring motif, not just a one-time overlay of one thing for another thing. I can hardly think of any, though I'm sure there are a few.

Your point's well-taken. A 'tweaking' of reality to make a narrative point in an overall realistic AAA title is more likely to be viewed as a flaw than seen for what the designers intended. Isn't it strange that we seem to be
obsessed with realism in our escapism?

March 9, 2009 at 11:00 AM  
Blogger Graham said...

I think there's a significant blocker here, which you briefly touch on.

Symbolism is often displayed with reductionism and stereotype. In this way, what could be a full character, or an event, or a set, or a tool, is "reduced" to a symbol. And it's so often by emphasizing the known qualities of that thing: a character who is a king may represent some kind of power or controlling force, because those things are associated with kingship, and if this is the author's intention, they would likely remove qualities of that king character that don't emphasize power or control, reducing him to a symbol.

The problem as I see it is that in games we haven't been able to 'fully define' our major and common systems yet. Making robust, 'realistic' characters is still a very difficult task for games. So if characters in a realistic game comes across as shallow, it's hard to determine if this was a symbolic choice of the designer, or a technical limitation of the system.

For this reason, I do actually think it's important and good that developers are striving for ever greater realism, because it's still a lot of work. When we've done it enough, it will become easy, and then we can start leaving things out and stereotyping by choice, and then higher level concepts such as symbolism will really start to come through.

What I'm talking about here is primarily symbols directly related to gameplay, rather than narrative and aesthetic symbols.

March 9, 2009 at 4:25 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@wordgamesblog Yea. And don't get me wrong, I think more realistic simulations are a completely laudable goal and will make future games even better. I just worry about it being the only objective or cause for excitement, instead of just a cause.

@Graham I understand what you're saying, I'm just not sure when we'll hit "real enough." Short of a Holodeck, I'm sure sure we'll ever be able to plant a flag and say, "We've made it. Now let's talk symbolism." You're correct in that part of difficulty here is the systems are still very much works in progress, but I don't think that's a valid reason to not seek greater symbolism if that is an objective, if that makes sense.

But perhaps Braid was so successful because it subverted one of the most familiar and established gameplay systems. Perhaps Far Cry 2 was an attempt to reduce the FPS, a more recent but still tremendously commonly paradigm. I suppose that only time will tell.

March 9, 2009 at 10:02 PM  
Blogger Denis Farr said...

Wow. I go and write my latest post and come to read this.

I believe to some extent symbolism has been existing in games for quite some time (as you touched on), we just haven't conditioned ourselves to recognize it quite as well as we have, in say, literature.

While Graham notes that perhaps the authors/designers did not intend to put forth a reduced character who ends up being a symbol, if that is what we are playing, that is what the character becomes to us. It is up to us to define and recognize symbols, designers and writers are the ones who must strive to make sure we catch the one they want (or not).

March 11, 2009 at 1:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Adding to the list of games with symbolic elements: Pathologic.

March 13, 2009 at 8:54 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

You might wish to have a look at the GameCube game ChibiRobo and have a very, very close look at what that game is really about.

Once I twigged to a part of it and could then start to see how at all fit, well, it's not something I've ever seen a game say anything about.

It'd be the sort of thing that'd some famous developers at GDC might say as 'wouldn't it be a great thing if one day someone managed to make a game about [insert some theme or something that doesn't deal with killing things]'. Except it's already happened.

March 14, 2009 at 8:58 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Denis Aye, that's the big challenge. Know when something really is erroneous (and while interpreting that can still be interesting, it's different than looking at what's intended).

@Arturus, Simon Thanks for the recommendations. I'll check those out. I hadn't heard of Pathologic and didn't play ChibiRobo on the GameCube, but now that it's being re-released on the Wii, I might have to give it a gander.

March 14, 2009 at 12:24 PM  
Blogger Danilo said...

Well, most of indie games are simbolic you know, probably because of the limitations they have. Cave Story, Knytt, Opera Omnia, The Marriage, Mighty Jill off and many others, are games that you should give it a try if is simbolism what you're looking for. You could be surprise, and they're all free! ^^

March 16, 2009 at 3:53 PM  
Blogger Scott Juster said...

Yet another post that makes me want to start in on Far Cry 2!

I just finished Metal Gear Solid 4 and find myself coming to similar conclusions regarding its approach to realism. While it's graphics are very realistic, they often behave in symbolic, rather than literal, ways (the Beauty and Beast squad, for example).

I think as games get more technically polished, it will take increasing bravery on the part of the developer to make those realistic objects serve metaphorical purposes.

March 17, 2009 at 6:55 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Danilo Indie games definitely have the freedom to be a bit more freeform. The problem I have is that some of them become a little too ... enamoured with their own symbolism. Just like I can't really interface with a Jackson Pollack painting (some people can, and that's great), there are some indie games that are just too obtuse for my taste. There's definitely a richness in a lot of indie games that I think we'd all like to see spread.

@Scott While I haven't played any Metal Gear Solid games since the first one, I remember someone relating a moment from MGS3 where the player has to climb a ridiculously long ladder. It's interesting thinking about what, if anything, was intended by that.

March 18, 2009 at 9:42 AM  

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