1: A Problematic Concept
Whenever mainstream news outlets mention video games I cringe. I cringe because every time traditional news outlets move beyond their traditional territory and reach out to an unfamiliar cultural milieu in an effort to appear plugged in, they invariably wind up making both themselves and that cultural milieu look awful. The awfulness comes from the fact that journalists in unfamiliar territory tend to take authority figures at face value and, in the world of video games, this generally results in precisely the sort of hyperbolic bullshit that makes video game journalism such an oxymoron. The chief meme of video game hyperbole is the astonishing realism of contemporary games. Consider, for example, this piece written for the BBC website back in 2007:
Humans were so exquisitely sensitive to how other people move and behave, said Mr Entis, that the smallest differences undermine the almost perfect physical representations of people becoming possible on next-generation consoles such as the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3.
“When a character’s visual appearance creates the expectation of life and it falls short your brain is going to reject that,” he said.
Improvements in graphics would not boost believability, he said. “Just adding polygons makes it worse.”
He said that to add authenticity EA had made extensive use of motion capture to catalogue how stance, gait and the tiny movements of facial muscles combine when people display different emotions.
The article is, of course, referring to the (increasingly common) use of motion capture technology to make computer-generated characters seem more realistic in their movements and facial expressions. Given the existence of the Uncanny Valley, the article’s claims seem to be completely straightforward. That is until you realise that the ‘authenticity’ in question refers to Crysis, a game featuring a magical suit of armour that makes its wearer invisible.
The fact that people can meaningfully talk about Crysis being both more authentic than other games and a completely fantastical action romp featuring magical powers suggests that realism is not exactly an unproblematic concept. In fact, this is a column about why we should just stop using that word entirely when other words are far more useful.
2: A (Short) History of Artistic Realism
According to Jorge Luis Borge’s essay “The Scandinavian Dynasty”, the first humans to stumble across realism were the Northmen who used it sporadically when writing their sagas. I say sporadically as Icelandic sagas are about as likely to revolve around battling the undead as they are to involve someone getting stabbed in the face over a real estate dispute. This amusing antecedent aside, realism is best seen as a product of the enlightenment.
During the enlightenment, philosophers such as Rene Descartes and Thomas Locke attempted to ‘re-boot’ all of human knowledge and put it in a more secure and rigorous footing. Though Descartes and Locke founded what are now thought of as opposed philosophical schools, both men shared the belief that humans should construct their worldviews upon a foundation made up of secure and indubitable beliefs about the world. By starting with firm beliefs about the world, science could flourish and human understanding would reach a more profound understanding of the world that was free from the absurdities of religious faith and antique superstition.
While reasonable people may disagree about how successful and beneficial the enlightenment project has thus far been, there is no denying that the enlightenment set an agenda not only for the sciences but also for the arts. Indeed, when novels first appeared they were sold on the basis of their uncanny realism. Before Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), nobody had so faithfully recreated the inner world and day-to-day existence of a fifteen year-old serving girl! Before Stendhal’s The Red and The Black (1830), nobody had so perfectly captured the inner-workings of desire and the moral failures of French society! Before Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), nobody had so perfectly described the plight of the middle-class woman! Before George Eliott’s Middlemarch (1874), nobody had so perfectly captured the nature of British rural life! These books were so roundly praised for their realism that, even today, people still use the 19th Century novel as a baseline for judging whether or not a character is well drawn.
The origins of realism in the visual arts are arguably somewhat harder to pin down but you probably need to look beyond both the Renaissance and the Baroque period to find any sustained attempt at depicting normal people doing normal things. Indeed, while Mannerist greats such as El Greco produced lavishly detailed portraits, their figures tended to be distorted and idealised in a way that suggested a greater debt to antiquity than to the modern day. In order to find traces of the modern day, one must look to the work of Dutch masters such as Bruegel and Rembrandt, both of whom applied the technical skill and precision of Renaissance Mannerism to more humble subjects than gods and kings.
As a product of the modern world, cinema has realism in its bones. Indeed, the first films to be shown to the public by the Lumiere brothers included footage of workmen leaving a factory and (more famously) trains arriving at Lyons station in a cloud of smoke. However, despite cinema’s life-long commitment to realism, a number of cinematic movements have trumpeted their singular commitment to the real including the French poetic realists (including Jean Renoir and Marcel Carne) and the Italian neorealists (including Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica).
As this brief overview of artistic realism hopefully demonstrates, there is nothing new about claiming that your art is more realistic than the art that came before it. However, what bicycle thieves, steam locomotives, doctor’s wives and Dutch peasants also demonstrate is that realism is largely a matter of perception.
3: The Ideological Construction of Reality
The French essayist Paul Valery once satirised so-called literary realism by boiling it down to one opening line:
The Marquise went out at five o’clock…
As Gabriel Josipovici points out in his book Whatever Happened to Modernism? (2010), there is a terrible arbitrariness to this sentence:
The marquise went out at five o’clock, but who not at six or seven, and why a marquise and not a duchess? The classic novelist will reply: because in my story it’s a marquise and she goes out at five, not six or seven. But there is something disingenuous in this. It’s a marquise and not a duchess and she goes out at five and not six or seven because he has decided, for the purposes of his narrative, that this is how it will be. But the old question (…) remains: What gives you the authority to decide that it will be this rather than that? – Pp. 81-82
What Josipovici and Valery are suggesting is that artistic realism is something of a contradiction in terms. An author derives her authority over the content of her story from the fact that she is the creator of that story. However, if we think of the author as the person who makes up what happens in a story then that story is necessarily fictitious and that which is fictitious is almost by definition not ‘real’.
The history of artistic realism is littered with movements and counter-movements each claiming a greater commitment to realism than the last. Indeed, when German Expressionism took to the cinema and produced Robert Wiene’s highly stylised and decidedly fantastical The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), they did so on the grounds that their stylised representation of reality was more emotionally truthful than any degree of photographic realism. Similarly, when Marxism and concern for the plight of the working class found their ways into the Italian and British film industries, they produced Vittorio De Sica’s endlessly beautiful Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Karel Reisz’s kitchen-sink classic Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) on the assumption that films about the details of working-class life were somehow more realistic than films about the details of upper-class life.
When artists talk about one work being more ‘realistic’ or ‘authentic’ than another, what they generally mean is that the piece pays attention to a subject that they consider to be more important, a subject which, according to the artist, demonstrates what life is really all about. For example, when the post-War Leftists began to direct films, they directed films about the working classes because, for them, the working class experience is what life was all about.
Because the abundant riches of reality cannot possibly be reduced to the minutiae of a 1940s working class existence, it makes little sense to claim that Italian neorealist cinema is more ‘realistic’ than the films that came before or after it. Similarly, when EA trumpeted the authenticity of Crysis they were not referring to the game’s fantastical subject matter but to the depiction of faces and movements.
Because there is obviously more to life than facial expressions and the details of working-class existence, it makes no sense to claim that your particular work of art is more ‘realistic’ than those that came before it. Artistic claims to greater ‘realism’ are nothing more than a rhetorical flourish, a jet of hot air that warms the skin and baffles the mind. Rather than taking such guff at face value, I suggest that we begin to unpack these claims of realism in order to analyse what they say about their creator’s beliefs and agendas. When the Italian Neorealists claimed to be ‘realistic’ what they meant was that they thought that film should be a revolutionary medium that helped the working classes to become aware of the injustice of their position. When EA talk about the greater realism of their character animation, they mean nothing more than ‘we’ve put a lot of money into this shit in the hope that it’ll make more people buy it… so you people had better pay attention to it!’
I’d like to begin the deconstruction of video game realism by looking at the work of a particular designer, the Oxford bioethicist Bennett Foddy.
4: Soul-Crushing Realism?
Bennett Foddy is the man responsible for some of the most distinctive flash games ever to do the rounds. He designed QWOP (the one in which you try to run but mostly fall over), GIRP (the one in which you try to climb but mostly drown), Little Master Cricket (the one in which you try to stand up straight and hit a ball forward but mostly deflect it backwards while your knees and elbows bend the wrong way) and Winner vs. Loser (the one in which you try to run and jump but mostly fall over your feet and collide with things). A recent Wired-magazine interview with Foddy described his output as “soul-crushing, low-reward realism” motivated by a desire to move beyond video gaming’s obsession with such escapist genre iconography as absurdly masculine space marines and amnesiac mutes with magical powers. Like many creatives before him, Foddy is presenting his work as being more ‘realistic’ and ‘true-to-life’ than the work of many of his contemporaries, but to which form of life is Foddy being true?
QWOP features an unnamed runner attempting to reach the end of a 100m sprint. The game’s name refers to the fact that its only means of control are the Q,W, O and P buttons that you use to flex the runner’s calf and thigh muscles as he attempts to place one foot in front of the other. The game’s challenge is two-fold: firstly, one has to work out the basic physics of walking and realise the extent to which walking is an act that involves you purposefully tipping over and then moving your limbs in order to arrest the fall. Secondly, you have to work out how to move your limbs in such a way as to unbalance yourself in the right way.
Foddy’s climbing simulator GIRP touches upon many of the same themes as QWOP. The game features an unnamed climber who is forced to move from one handhold to the next in order to reach the top of a cliff and avoid drowning. The game works by having you press down on the key corresponding to a particular on-screen handhold. So, if you want your climber to grab hold of A, you press A. However, pressing a particular key does not mean that your climber will automatically grab hold of that ring, instead it means that your climber will stretch out and reach for it. In order to make contact with a particular handhold, the climber has to not only reach out for that ring but also move his body so as to place the ring within reach. Initially, this involves holding down the shift key in order to flex the climber’s arm. However, as the game progresses, manoeuvring your climber into grasping range of a particular ring comes to involve a use of momentum as you flex your climber’s muscles as he swings back and forth in order to increase the range of his grasping. Climb even higher, and the game demands that you learn how to manage your climber’s swings, this is done by reaching for rings that you have no intention of grabbing. For example, in order to grab hold of ring A, you may need to not only flex your muscles at the right moment but also stretch for ring C in order to swing in the right direction to grab ring D.
Looking at these two games, it is easy to see what the interview means when it talks of “soul-crushing, low-reward realism”. After all, a lot of the fun of video gaming lies in the capacity to do things that we are incapable of doing. Indeed, athletics simulators such as Konami’s immortal Track & Field (1983) make it comparatively easy to break world records while the Assassin’s Creed games have you vaulting and running across Renaissance cities with a style and grace that would humble even the most gifted of real-world Free Runners. By making it clear just how difficult real climbing and running can be, Foddy is drawing our attention back to the real world, a world in which nobody can run the 100 metres in 6.3 seconds.
While there is definitely something ‘unrealistic’ about the ease of physical movement displayed by the characters in Assassin’s Creed, it does not follow that QWOP and GIRP are ‘realistic’ simply because they make physical activity seem a lot more difficult. Indeed, most gamers are in fact capable of walking a few steps and climbing over a wall without falling over or drowning. They can do these things because, for most people, walking and climbing are skills that are learned in infancy, skills that they have mastered to the point where using them no longer required conscious thought. By asking us to focus upon how the laws of physics interact with the movement of our muscles while walking, Foddy is asking us to take control of a character who has not yet mastered the art of walking. But such a character is no more representative of ‘real life’ than a character who can scale a building without breaking a sweat. Both Assassin’s Creed and QWOP present us with highly selective visions of reality, visions that instantly belie any claim to artistic realism suggesting that, yet again, claims or artistic realism are nothing more than rhetorical hot air.
What is interesting about Foddy’s games is not that they are more ‘realistic’ than other video games but that their selective engagement with reality draws our attention to the fact that game designers are becoming increasingly dependent upon a set of responses conditioned by other games, a set of conditioned responses that make it harder and harder for game designers to develop truly innovative gaming mechanics.
5: Locked In
One of Foddy’s less well-known games is the hurdling simulator Winner vs. Loser. Both the game’s graphical style and its interface seem designed to invoke memories of Track & Field. Track & Field features a number of different athletic events but each event typically involves the player hammering away at a set of keys in order to build up speed or power. Some events also require the player to stop hammering just long enough in order to correctly time a jump or a throw. First released in 1983, Track & Field has spawned dozens or ports and re-makes across multiple platforms. Its interface has proved so addictive and influential that it is now comparatively difficult to imagine an athletics simulator that does not build on the rules laid down by Track & Field. In fact, present a gamer with an athletics simulator and they will most likely try to hammer away at the keys as quickly as possible. We have been conditioned to respond in a particular way.
Foddy’s Winner vs. Loser deconstructs these conditioned responses by presenting the gamer with a set of controls that remind us of Track & Field but nonetheless feel ever so slightly ‘off’. For example, if you try to hammer the buttons as quickly as possible, your hurdler will simply trip over his feet. Similarly, if you try to switch from button-hammering to jumping, your character will simply fall over as the game does not require you to time your jumps but rather to hold down a particular button during the jumping process. Despite its similarities to Track & Field, Winner vs. Loser is intensely difficult and the difficulty comes from the need to both master the game’s controls and fight the instinct to play it in the same way as we might play Track & Field. Mastering the controls of the game is easy, the true challenge lies in having to unlearn responses conditioned by hundreds of hours of Track & Field. This desire to confront gamer muscle memory is also present in QWOP and GIRP.
Part of what makes QWOP such a fascinating game is the way in which the game demands that players act against their instincts. Indeed, since the days of the first coin-operated arcade games, the gamer’s first instinct is to stay alive and to keep the game going for as long as possible. However, in order to progress in QWOP you have to learn to unbalance your runner even though unbalancing your runner is what leads to him winding up on the floor as a crumpled tangle of limbs. QWOP is tough not only because walking and running are surprisingly complex activities in themselves, but also because in order to complete the game, you have to act against some of our most basic gaming intuitions.
GIRP draws attention to our means of interacting with video games by presenting its players with a physical as well as an intellectual challenge. On one level, the game is all about learning to control your climber’s body and to master the delicate interplay of strength, skill, gravity and inertia required of a good climber, but on another level, the game is also about the player’s fine motor control. For example, in order to guide your climber to handhold D, you will most likely find yourself struggling to hold on to the A and Shift keys to flex your climber’s muscles whilst hitting the B and C keys to control the arc of your climber’s swing. While all of this is difficult to understand on a purely intellectual level, it is almost impossible to accomplish on a physical level as your fingers will invariably wind up hitting the wrong key, letting go of the right key and forgetting to hit the D key in order to reach out at the right moment. Even if you understand exactly what you need to do in order to move your character to the top of the cliff, there is no guarantee that you will by physically capable of hitting the right buttons in the right sequence and at the right time. Despite being a climbing simulator, GIRP demands far more physical dexterity and control than real climbing ever does.
By making his games physically as well as mentally challenging, Foddy is making us aware of the fact that most commercial games tend to use and re-use the same set of interface mechanics. For example, while sixteen years may separate Far Cry 2 (2008) from Wolfenstein 3d (1992), someone familiar with Wolfenstein 3d or Doom (1993) would have no difficulty whatsoever in finding their way around the current generation of first-person shooters. Our visitor from 1993 would not feel out of place in a current gaming environment because the basic building blocks of FPS gameplay and design have not been revised since the era of Doom and Wolfenstein 3d.
By choosing to adapt existing models rather than returning to the drawing board, game designers are ensuring that gamers are never overly challenged by the games they play. Games companies may well trumpet the revolutionary game-play of their latest title and stress the difference between their franchise and that of their competitors but the truth is this is nothing more than the narcissism of minor differences as most games play almost identically to the way they did fifteen years ago. A culture of laziness and cowardice in video game makes it much harder for genuine innovation to find an audience as, with each passing year, we get closer and closer to conceptual lock-in.
In his book You Are Not A Gadget (2010), the computer scientist Jaron Lanier describes how arbitrary design decisions can rapidly become immutable features of the creative landscape thanks to a combination of complacency and over-investment. The example Lanier uses in this book involves a programmer who designed a piece of software around an arbitrary decision to encode files in one way rather than another. When this piece of software found an audience, other companies used it as a template to create their own. Later waves of programmers would then add to these pieces of software until eventually it became too costly to develop a programme with a different approach to file encoding. What drove up the costs was the fact that a) any new programme would have to do everything that their rivals could do and b) any new programme would have to ‘teach’ its users how to handle things differently. Taken together, these structural forces ensure that nobody is willing to invest the time and money in a new type of music programme. The same forces are at work in video game design.
Conservatism Constructs its Own Reality
Aside from the tendency of most AAA titles to rely upon the same narrow array of control mechanisms, the most obvious sign of video game design lock-in is the culture’s tendency to distinguish between so-called hardcore and casual titles.
Hardcore gamers derive their name from the fact that they have invested thousands of hours in mastering particular kinds of game. Hardcore FPS gamers played Doom, then they played Quake, then they played Soldier of Fortune and now they play Call of Duty. The minor differences between these titles have resulted in the emergence of a single unified set of skills and techniques that apply to all First Person Shooters. So-called hardcore titles assume that players have mastered this unified set of skills and so they restrict innovation to providing new tactical challenges through changes to maps, weapons and the structure of the online playing experience.
One of the contributing factors to conceptual lock-in is that whenever someone rethinks the basic principles of a particular design, they are forced to re-invent the wheel. What creates the conceptual lock-in is the fact that, as time goes by, the traditional wheel design becomes more and more complex. This means that, any attempt to re-invent the wheel is going to be pitting a generation 1 NuWheel against a generation 150 TradWheel. What makes escaping a conceptual lock-in so difficult and expensive is the fact that, in order to find a market, NuWheel must not only re-invent the wheel but also do everything that a generation 150 TradWheel can do.
This difficulty is obvious when you look at games designed to make use of new control interfaces such as the Wii Remote, the Kinnect or the Move. Lacking the generations of tweaking and fine-tuning that have gone into traditional FPSs, non-traditional FPSs such as Red Steel (2006) or MadWorld (2009) seem ludicrously simplistic and shallow. This impression of shallowness has resulted in non-traditional control interfaces being seen as the preserve of casual gamers.
By producing games that resemble casual titles despite their awe-inspiring levels of difficulty, Bennett Foddy is reminding us that the difference between hardcore realism and casual escapism is largely a question of what we are used to. Hardcore titles appear more sophisticated and developed because they tap into an existing set of assumptions about how a video game character is supposed to behave. To describe Foddy’s output as ‘realistic’ is to belittle it as the power of Foddy’s games lies in their ability to remind us that what we think of as ‘real’ is all too often nothing more than that which is most familiar. Foddy’s games remind us that there is no such thing as an ideal interface or an ideal control mechanism because all game design principles can be re-thought and re-invented simply because we are not yet completely locked in.
Jonathan McCalmont is a freelance critic living in the UK. His work has appeared in such places as Strange Horizons, The Escapist, Salon Futura, Gestalt Mash, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Vector. He also maintains a blog named Ruthless Culture where he writes about films, literature and the fundamental hostility of the universe.