Home > Gaming > Heart or head; either way, Jerry’s dead

Heart or head; either way, Jerry’s dead

Yesterday, a post over at Popular Mechanics was brought to my attention by Glenn Reynolds, because it was all about a topic I’ve become increasingly interested in: so-called realism in video games, especially ballistic reality. Unfortunately, I found the article itself rather vapid, boiling down to “Developers control the realism in their games; a for-profit studio making a commercial game tunes realism to enhance fun, the official US Army game/recruitment tool strives for maximum realism.”

Having both played the games in question, and given this some thought along the way, I found this conclusion somewhat lackluster, because they didn’t even touch on any of the interesting stuff. While the article has as its thesis realism in games, it doesn’t actually delve into the topic of which mechanics specifically are designed to enhance this sense of realism. Well, that is, aside from a section about projectile penetration, especially expectations versus reality for weapons like shotguns.

For example, something that’s been appearing more and more, it seems, is a stamina system, coupled with the ability to sprint. Essentially, in real life, you can only sprint so far, jump so many times and so forth. The most popular and conventional way to abstract this is to have a system where sprinting and jumping subtract from your stamina, where standing or crouching increase it.

Unfortunately, this is one of the areas that I feel that Call of Duty 4, one of the games mentioned, falls flat. The developers chose to make the multiplayer maps relatively small, and they also strictly restrict the distance that you can sprint, as well as not having any visual indicator of your remaining stamina; more than once this has left me sprinting across a street only to slow to normal speed halfway through and never make it all the way across. On the other hand, America’s Army has some enormous maps, and in any given round, the first ten to thirty seconds is spent sprinting into position.

Now, that may seem like a lot of time to spend running, but it helps to put things into perspective. In AA,  game play is based on rounds: everyone spawns at once and the battle is over only when one team is dead or the ten minute time limit has passed. This also helps by segmenting the game into discrete victory/failure segments, and you only get one shot with each. See, I’ve found myself using the relatively rapid respawns in COD4 to employ some unconventional tactics that involve gaining some precious bit of intelligence only by running forward into enemy gunfire and usually not surviving. While this may be “fun” and “tactical”, it certainly is in no way “realistic.”

But I believe there is actually something larger than “fun versus reality” at play here, although it is still related to the enjoyability of the games. However, there’s a point to be made that the more unrealistic games cited, COD4 and Rainbox Six: Vegas 2 are both cross-platform titles, that were designed to be playable on both the PC and the XBox 360. What this inevitably results in is a less detailed game, overall, it seems, simply because the controller of the 360 can’t compete with a mouse and keyboard for flexibility and multi-purposing.

Take last year’s super-mega-hit Bioshock, which was likewise developed for both PC and consoles. It was a first person shooter, but had many characteristics of a role playing game (RPG), such as the ability to have upgradable personal powers and to carry around an assortment of items with you. In most traditional RPGs, this is put into abstraction by having a grid representing your backpack, and you can carry whatever you can fit in that grid; here’s an example from my old friend Planetside.

But in Bioshock, realizing that managing such a system with the controller was infeasible, the system was left behind in favor of just having hard-and-fast limits. You can only have x shotgun shells, y machine gun bullets, and z health packs. Whereas in other games (and reality) it would be possible to ditch the shotgun ammunition for more rifle ammo, that ability was lost in the shuffle.

Of course, it’s hard to talk about realism in video games without talking about S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (PopMech, I’m lookin’ at you.). This game has a stamina system and tries to be very ballistically accurate. Also, the inventory system is, unusually, not ruled by how many things you can fit on the grid, but instead by the overall weight you’re carrying. Anything above 50 kg and you start getting winded walking around and sprinting is almost unworkable. (If you have trouble visualizing 50kg as I did, IGN has a helpful guide to this topic) Stalker even makes a point of making silencers as useless in 99% of situations as they are in real life.

From the fact that Stalker sold well enough that they’re making a sequel, and America’s Army is well-liked enough to still be actively played today, despite looking the same as it did when it was released 6 years ago, there is clearly a niche market for the realistic shooter on the PC. Given how terribly the AA console version fared, and the fact that the most popular console games of all time, Halo(s) 1-3, are fantastically unreal (think “orbital lasers”, here), I think it’s safe to say that the same niche doesn’t go in for the console play.

Given that I’ve spent good amounts of time with each of Stalker and AA, and find non-realistic shooters hard to play (sorry, TF2) I’d say I’m definitely in this niche, which means that it looks like I’ll be gaming on the PC for some time to come.

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