Make it real—wait a minute…

Posted: 06.30.08

While driving back from the AMD RV770 press meeting (NDA’d till the 25th) Robert and I discussed the issue of CG. With GPU power accelerating exponentially, while maintaining the same price points (thank you Dr. Moore.) Robert, who is the Chief of Chiefs in Halo, said to me, “I don’t get it. “Why do we want super realism in games?”

“Great jumpin’ Josaphat, have you learned nothing in the last 10 years,” I yelled at him whilst skillfully avoiding a drunk in the middle of the street yelling Jesus loves me, “Of freaking course we need it, haven’t you heard of suspension of disbelief, like, dUH!”

“Yes, Jon,” he said in that Catholic-school-boy-patience-is-a-virtue-tone he gets, “I know all about freakin’ suspension, but you’re not listening.” (At least he didn’t say, “as usual.”) “Why,” he said, overriding my attempts to interrupt him with my professorial lecture, “in the hell would we want it to be real?” Again I tried, unsuccessfully to yell logic at him, “Why,” he continued, “do you want to make it believable that you can go around and blow the heads off people?” Had a fly been in the car it surely would have flow into my open mouth which was struggling to form the word, because…

“Ah,” was the best I could do, “Ummm,” and it got quiet in the car except for the background mumble of NPR.

We drove like that for a while, not far because it was rush hour traffic, but several years in a fruit fly’s life.

And then the brilliance of his catholic school education clicked in, and as my friend Frank says, the nickel dropped.

Now, in addition to dodging the crappy drivers in San Francisco’s rush hour, I had to quickly find an argument to prove that this was my idea all along. It wasn’t working. And suddenly my periphery grew dark as the world around me closed in. “OMG, you’re right. We don’t want GTA4 real. OMG. What the hell were we thinking of?”

“You want realism,” the grasshopper said instructing the master, “when you’re playing large games like Stalker maybe, definitely Hockey, all kinds of sports. You want suspension of disbelief when you’re flying Ted’s Blackbird, or racing a Formula 1, but you don’t want it when it’s blatantly anti-social, when it goes against everything we’ve been taught in a Judeo-Christian society.”

I nodded my head struggling to produce an intelligent contribution to his thesis.

“But, he continued, oblivious of me, the traffic, my fine automobile, and everything else, “most of all you want story. And when you have story, really good story, you don’t need special effects. Isn’t that what Kathleen says?” Great I thought, now they’re ganging up on me, and she’s not even here.

“Ah,” I managed to get out.

“Look at Dagon’s Lair, back when we played games on arcade machines, back in 1983” he continued. “Because of the involvement of Don Bluth, a former Disney animator, the artwork in Dragon’s Lair was the highest quality ever seen in an arcade game. I don’t think it’s been matched. You don’t need special effects, global lighting, ray traced hair, soft particles, and water effects if you’ve got story. Story is what suspends disbelief. Did you have special effects when you read science fiction as a kid?”

Clearly the student had become the teacher, Aristotle would have been proud of me, but I was too consumed with avoiding sofas that had fallen off trucks, and trying to find a crack in his argument to give a good damn about some long dead Greek.

But his logic was inescapable. Some things demand and will never be right without absolute and ultimate realism, and others, realism not only distracts from the creativeness in generating story, as Kathleen complains about so many new movies, but is even more sinister in terms of the sociopathic attitude it creates in young plastic minds. Not just young minds, all minds.

When surveyed about the carnage in violent movies, back in the day when kids were allowed to watch them, the kids blew it all off and said, “Duh-ah, it’s a MOVIE, y’know.”

And the game publishers of billion dollar franchises like Rockstar/EA say the same thing—“Duh, it’s just a game—the kids know that.” I guess we can only hope they do. My grand kids seem to get it, but still their mother and I worry.

But Robert’s right. I don’t like the gore in some FPSs, and although I don’t turn it off, I secretly worry about the teenager down the block looking at it and thinking it’s OK to blast someone with a shotgun.

Realism: it may not be the Holy Grail after all.