I Vote for Physics

Over at Next Generation, a column just went up by Mr. Biffo, which has me riled up enough to respond.

I don’t think there is really a game developer out there dumb enough to make a game that perfectly mimics every boring facet of reality; if there is, there won’t be for long, as their games will doubtless fail. All the enhanced realism is to add to the fantasy. If a fantasy has no link to reality, it loses its power; the number of “muscles” it can enhance1 is reduced the fewer ties it has to what we see in the real world. The more games work like the real world, the easier people will be drawn into the game world; when things like gravity work as people intuitively know they should, it draws them in, and accents the more subtle differences the game world wishes to present, allowing those things to have a more profound impact.

There is a place for abstractness in games, but then if the same sense of being transported to a different reality is to be achieved, effort must be made to mimic some other type of behavior of the real world; if everything in the game is abstract, with no point of reference for the human player, then the game can be fun on an intellectual level but it won’t have emotional weight.

The American Heritage Dictionary lists a definition of fantasy which describes it as, “An imagined event or sequence of mental images, such as a daydream, usually fulfilling a wish or psychological need.” Fiction is defined as, “An imaginative creation or a pretense that does not represent actuality but has been invented.”

All fiction is fantasy, and on this point I expect little argument, as Mr. Biffo in his column points out that when he refers to fantasy, he doesn’t “mean fantasy in the dragons/elves/breaking-into-people’s-cottages-to-smash-their-vases sense of the word, but in the more general sense of being transported to somewhere that isn’t real.” Do fiction novels have less “soul” if they are set in the real world? What if they are set in alternate realities where gravity works as expected? Or the characters speak English?

To my mind, the closer the fantasy is to reality, the more potential it has to open up the minds of the audience to new possibilities. I say potential on purpose; of course bringing it closer to reality is not all that is required, but increasing that potential is a good thing. And while I don’t believe that enhanced realism is solely the purview of graphics or animations/physics in games (it can also fall to the writing/characterization and other game elements), I do see improvements in realism for those areas as a positive.

From the article, I can’t for the life of me figure out what it is Mr. Biffo actually thinks would be good in a game. Is he pining for Pac Man? Is that what transported him to a fantastic place of unreality? Does he want Super Mario Galaxy? Tetris? Team Fortress 2? Or is he looking for something more like Bioshock?

He seems to be putting down every fantasy and game out there. There are physics systems in Mario games. They’re not as realistic as, for instance, the physics in a Gran Turismo game, but they’re there. Is he going to go on a “catastrophic death-rampage” now?

Don’t worry, Mr. Biffo, you don’t come off as a woeful nostalgic. You come off as an ambiguous disparager. Do you have something constructive to contribute?

1 This is a reference to the quote from Terry Pratchett used in the article, “Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can.”

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