Chances are there are plenty of video game fans who dislike it when developers focus too much on realism in games. It’s understandable. Over the years, everything from high profile releases to indie darlings have strived to incorporate realistic gameplay features into their titles without much success.
The intent has presumably been to enrich the story and experience, but in practice, it’s only worked on a few occasions.
2018 has already kicked up some stinkers, from the clunky, excessive nature of games like Detroit: Become Human in which players have to painstakingly manipulate the analog sticks in quicktime events for mundane actions to the over-the-top survival mechanics in Kingdom Come: Deliverance.
Yet realism in video games can be fun, and for every couple of attempts that get it totally wrong, there are some diamonds on the ruff that totally nail it.
Over the past decade, several highly regarded titles have contained realistic gameplay features that range from minor touches to major elements of the titles they’re included in, and not all of them have suffered as a result. In fact, there’s plenty of success stories.
Fallout: New Vegas kicked off a cult following for hyper-realistic survival modes that demanded players juggle their characters sustenance, hydration, and fatigue. Meanwhile, military-sim shooters like ARMA 3 have also found popularity including survival mechanics.
When it comes to the AAA space, though, it’s Rockstar Games’ recent Red Dead Redemption 2 that represents the pinnacle of realism in video games. It’s just on another level from anything we’ve seen before, a genre-defining gameplay experience that provides huge entertainment value even despite the intense focus on realism.
Everything from cocking back a pistol’s hammer to skinning an animal requires player input and then showcases an extraordinary amount of detail in the animation. But it goes much further than just the aesthetic.
The game almost swamps players with survival stats to carefully monitor, from how well fed they are to the condition of their weapons. It’s all rather daunting at first.
So how does this eventually come together to produce an experience that isn’t just pretty to marvel at but compelling to play? Why does it succeed where other titles so unceremoniously crashed and burned?
It’s simply because Rockstar has found a way to make its mechanics intuitive. It’s hugely immersive without punishing players to the point of tedium and frustration.
Arthur’s Dead Eye meter, for example, drops like a stone if he struggles to pull his bow for too long, but he can carry 15 cans of food. Red Dead Redemption 2 makes every action feel weighty and difficult, but the game doesn’t fight you at every turn. It cuts you enough slack that the experience is still manageable –though admittedly, there is a learning curve.
Perhaps their most impressive feat is the way Rockstar leverages these mechanics to actually encourage players to take part in the world. The limited inventory space forces players to go out and find more resources when hunger or thirst sets in; an encounter with a stranger on the road could turn deadly at any moment.
These sorts of mechanics are at odds with power fantasy video games we’ve grown used to. But for those who want to experience western fiction through the medium, this realism takes the immersion inherent in video games and amplifies it to the level of something impossible through any other form of media.
It turns what other games would have seen as automated processes into ones which require the player’s constant input, but unlike titles such as Detroit: Become Human and Kingdom Come: Deliverance, it finds a way to make it add to the experience.
However, it can’t work this way every time. Red Dead Redemption 2’s wild west setting lends itself perfectly to this sort of an immersive, open-world experience. In this case, survival mechanics something to gameplay and do entertain, but it doesn’t represent a new philosophy in design that all games should abide by.
What Red Dead Redemption 2 has showcased, however, is that realistic gameplay features aren’t something to view with instant disdain. They can be added to existing game series as layers of fresh new mechanics and shouldn’t be limited to a specialist, hardcore genre.