There was an interesting article recently by John Walker over at Rock Paper Shotgun on the topic of realism in gaming.  In short, he complains that the pursuit of realism has shackled game designers into the chase for the real, thus ignoring the potential of the medium to create thoroughly unreal gaming experiences.

He’s got an interesting point, I think.  However, what I’d like to point out is that while many developers are pursuing realism in some areas (bullet and body physics, particle effects, etc.), they tend to completely ignore basic issues of social reality in their level and game design, creating a gaming experience that is thoroughly unrealistic in ways that many gamers may well never notice.  Case in point – Far Cry 2.

For the record, I loved Far Cry 2.  Not enough to finish it, mind you.  I was well into the second map zone when my save game got corrupted, and there was no way I was going to restart that game from the beginning.  However, I loved the way it tried to put you into the mindset of a mercenary in an ugly third world conflict – except when it didn’t.  Most obviously, where are all the civilians?  Much of the game consists of shootouts in towns or villages, yet strangely these areas are devoid of anyone other than armed men.  Just imagine how brutally ugly that game would have been if there were unarmed men, unarmed women, and unarmed children doing their best to hide from the carnage and survive.  If every time you burst into a room shooting, there was a chance you’d kill one or more of these civilians – and it wouldn’t matter at all.  Because really, civilian deaths would be collateral damage to foreign mercenaries, nothing more.  In the same vein, Far Cry 2 completely ignored the fact that modern firearms tear through most ordinary building materials.  Corrugated iron shacks do not stop bullets from an AK-47 any more than a sponge would.   That fact alone gives the shootouts a bizarrely unrealistic nature – truly hard cover is everywhere, when it should be painfully rare.  Finally, even in the biggest areas, it was rare to find groups of more than 20 enemy soldiers.  That is barely a platoon.  Groups of 100 or 200 are still pitifully small in modern-day armies, even in ugly low-level civil conflicts.  But of course, even an FPS super-soldier could be easily surrounded and taken down by a 200-man fighting force, so they never show up.  What kind of realism is that?

On the one hand, I think Mr. Walker was entirely right to point out the missed opportunities that the push for realism has created.  However, it is also important to note that this quest is thoroughly uneven.  I think it is forgiven because the ignorance of such matters is so enormous within the gaming community – and because even the lightest brush with certain realities would render a “realistic” FPS like Far Cry 2 nearly unplayable.

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