Thoughts on Realism versus Believability


The difference between “believability” and “realism” in video games may be at first glance a subtle one, but its importance can’t be underestimated.  Believability is what lets us buy the most fantastical of ideas with a minimum of mental fuss, while realism tries to adhere to many real-world tenets and traits.  I have to say that the latter has no place in video games.

I would like to hold up the Grand Theft Auto series as my prime reference, but by no means am I “picking on” the series or Rockstar Games, the publisher and developer.  The series is just incredibly well-known—even gamers who haven’t actually played a Grand Theft Auto title know the series; they’ve watched clips, read reviews and news articles, seen images, and so on.  It’s just an easier example to hold up; we can use the series as a point as a reference without having to necessarily cover a lot of background information.

Let me also say that realism in video games, perhaps paradoxically, isn’t often the result of an actual attempt at realism.  Take Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, with its weight- and food-related systems.  Those are really  R.P.G. elements as much as anything else, and I find it unlikely the developers at Rockstar North were trying for anything else.  R.P.G. elements add a bit of depth to a game, letting the player, in whatever small fashion, customize their character to their tastes even if only aesthetically.

For example, take the physique thing in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which itself comes in two parts, food and exercise.  If you have C.J., the player-controlled protagonist, eat a lot of fast food without working out, he becomes obese.  Keep him on salads while hitting the gym, he gets buff.  Mid-level both ways and he stays “average”.

At first glance that isn’t a terrible mechanic—but only at first glance.  C.J. has numerous potential girlfriends (each with their own insane mechanics, but that’s not the point at the moment) but they each require C.J. to be at different physique types before they’ll date him.  One likes her men chubby but not obese, another likes men who are buff like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his hey-day, and so on.  Even that doesn’t seem too bad, right?  Adds a bit of depth to the game.

However, the physique changes far too easily, and doesn’t really stay where you want it.  Just running to hijack a car can alter your physique some.  So if you really want to exploit what the girlfriends offer (and I’m talking benefits like letting you repair cars for free, keep your weapons and money after you die, and so on; let’s not allow our minds to fall into the gutter, here, folks) you have to either have a pretty good memory or have a guide open so you can see what girlfriend prefers what, and run to the gym and/or burger joint as necessary.  That’s just added annoyance.

There are dozens of other examples I could point out just in San Andreas—other food-related issues, girlfriend-related issues, and more.  Since I don’t want to seem like I’m picking on San Andreas exclusively, however, I believe it’s best to leave it at that.

That said, again the Grand Theft Auto franchise is still a perfect example to hold up since, again, everyone knows it so well.  Take Grand Theft Auto IV, where you can go flying through your windshield if you crash.  Take this example from a video about crashing and such in general.  There are a few other examples just in that video alone of flying through the windshield, but I was unpleasantly surprised it existed as a mechanic in the first place.

Sure, it’s realistic.  If you don’t wear your seatbelt, you could indeed go flying through the windshield, or get flung out the door, or whatever else.  Everyone knows this.  It’s basic safety, really.

That doesn’t mean it belongs in a video game.  As I’ve said numerous times before, whether for good or bad, or to whatever levels we use video games as “escapism“, we play games because they aren’t real life.  In real life we have to worry about things like car payments, school, relationships souring despite our best efforts, a job we hate, unstable emotions, a dysfunctional home-life, boredom, whatever.  Our games either romanticize those things (either the protagonist and their significant other live happily ever after, or they don’t but the protagonist can at least accept that the world was saved once more; people who hurt the protagonist finally come to see their wrongs even if the relationship can’t be repaired), outright ignores them to present a more “perfect” world, and so on.

At their best, video games (just like every other form of fiction) presents how the world should be; at their worst, they let the player ignore the real world for a time.  Something like this, which makes the player take extra steps and forces a player to restrain themselves in the first place keeps the player more focused on a real-world concern instead of having fun.

How “good” or “bad” such a thing is, that’s a different topic.  What matters here is that this is essentially the second most important aspect to any video game at all (the most important aspect, as I’ve also said before, being “fun”).  In real-life, we have to worry about seatbelt safety, food-related health concerns, and so on.  Those are important things to be concerned about in the real world, but in a video game they can make the game simply less fun to play.  When we have to nearly have a graph chart of what to eat, how much to work out and on what days, what methods to use on this love-interest versus that one—that’s not fun.  That’s homework.

The problem, I feel, is that “believability” is often confused with “realism”, so in an attempt at the former we get too much of the latter.

Let’s take a comic book example, specifically a character everyone on the planet knows—Superman.  I don’t even need to provide any kind of link; you know who Superman is.  You might never have read a Superman comic in your life, watched any of the various television shows, or even a film—but you know full well who he is.

We all know that there is no way in heck such a character can exist in real life.  Just can’t.  The odds of an alien looking so much like a normal human are incalculable, literally.  We can’t even give a rough guess as to whether aliens exist in the first place (conspiracy theorists’ “evidence” aside).  Then for such a being to have the powers Superman has—as far as we understand physics, that just can’t happen.

But we are allowed an “out” to hang our disbelief on.  That he is an alien, it’s believable that, such combined with our as-yet incomplete understanding of physics, his race could be the one-in-a-trillion shot of actually being able to function on Earth as they do.  Again, it doesn’t really work that way—but we can believe it, and that’s the point.

The problem, again, I think is that believability is confused with realism, but I admit to not being sure how to solve the problem.  What doesn’t help is how powerful modern computers and consoles are, which lets the developers get the chance to add in all those extra things.  I don’t think it’s bad, by any stretch, when developers try to cram in as many different things as they can (as long as it all “flows” well, of course, but that, too, is a different topic), but I do think that there needs to be more research and planning.

That said, with current gaming being the way it is, with more and more publishers pushing for set release dates over taking the time to make a game well, it’s not like the developers can really do much else but what they’re doing.  We need to actively get together to use our money to talk for us, spending it on games that don’t abandon fun in the name of realism.  As divisive of a fan base as we are, however, that may be hard—but it would definitely be worth it.

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