Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
A few weeks ago, Rockstar released their much-anticipated game Red Dead Redemption 2. The game has, of course, generated a great deal of discussion, and while I have not played the game, I have noticed one particular discussion point emerging again and again: the game's borderline-obsessive focus on detail and realism. From accounts of examining in detail every object in a house, to needing to go through several intricate steps to completely load and fire a weapon, the game strives to emulate the real world as much as possible, and it leaves very little to the imagination. Whether this is a positive or a negative is somewhat open to interpretation--and the general response seems to be somewhat ambivalent--but it does, I think, point toward a trend in gaming away from asking players to suspend their disbelief.
Suspension of disbelief is a concept most commonly associated with theatre (though it shows up in the context of other media as well). When watching a play or a musical, the audience is implicitly asked to temporarily accept that the people on stage are not actors, but rather that they are the people they are portraying. The audience may accept that a pantomimed prop exists, or that a character's soliloquy is actually an internal monologue none of the other people on stage can hear. This is such an integral component of theatre in general that we often don't even think about it until our instinctive suspension of disbelief is challenged (as in, for example, Tom Stoppard's deconstructive plays). Video games also used to rely heavily on this concept, and some, of course, still do. We accept that a character can take several arrows and sword slashes and come away fine just because he has a high health pool, or that you can traverse vast distances in a single screen transition.
As technology has progressed over the past twenty years or so, a hallmark of major, big-budget titles has been the push to look and feel more and more realistic, using improved technological capabilities to do things like rendering progressively more real-looking character models and creating worlds that are entirely interconnected rather than divided into distinct chunks. It's super cool to see how games are changing and progressing in this regard, and realism absolutely has a place. That said, there comes a point where an intense focus on realism and detail start to compromise games in other ways. Just as a hyper-realistic set and over-the-top costumes are not necessary to produce a strong play, a game need not emulate reality in order to be effective. Suspension of disbelief is not a bad thing, and doing everything possible to ensure players never question a game's world can itself cause problems.
Too Real; Not Real Enough
One element of Red Dead Redemption 2's detail focus that has drawn some attention is its personal hygiene mechanics. The player has to ensure that the player character cleans his weapons and bathes periodically. This is, presumably, meant to add to the "realism" of the game--and it may work fine within the context of the overall experience--but I have to question the value of including such mechanics for the sake of nothing more than realism. Mundane tasks, like bathing or cleaning, occasionally pop up in games--and weapon maintenance/repair systems arguably fall under this umbrella--but usually do not benefit the player when performed and actively harm the player if ignored. This is the most "realistic" way of handling these systems, but it also tends to be the most annoying. Unless these mundane tasks directly impact the way the game is played in a meaningful way (like with weapon durability in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild), these requirements end up being something of a recurring, unproductive waste of time.
A game as committed to detail as Red Dead Redemption 2 can maybe get away with this sort of thing due to its underlying philosophy of realism over traditional conceptions of what is fun in a game, but it can easily result in a reaction to the effect of, "I get the point, I'm a real person, why do I have to do this again and again?" Decisions that prioritize concept over player enjoyment need to be undertaken with caution, or else you're left with situations like Persona 3's battle system, which adheres strongly to the premise that you are the player character and can only issue general guidance to your allies, but which also generates a great deal of player frustration due to the frequent AI-related deaths.
In most cases, this frustration results when a game's commitment to realism creates obstacles or annoyances for the player without also following through to situations in which it would benefit the player instead. To use the Persona 3 example again, not having control over party members would be far less bothersome if the party members made reasonable decisions, but the AI scripts for the allied characters result in them making choices no rational player would make--like trying to charm a charm-immune enemy instead of healing a near-dead ally--which not only frustrates the player but also breaks the illusion of the party members being intelligent, free-thinking individuals. In Red Dead Redemption 2, a similar issue seems to arise with the way the game defines realism. While there is a great deal of detail to the world, certain elements that are intended to feel realistic, like slowly examining each object piece-by-piece in the course of a search, may ring false. I read an insightful comment recently observing that a criminal looking for something in particular is unlikely to carefully pick up and turn over each object in a room--it would be far more believable to quickly tear the room apart until the desired object was found, even though such a search would not necessitate as much detail. Similar cracks in the game's realism appear in the limited options for character interaction, where most NPCs can be approached either by greeting them or shooting them, without much in-between and with little room for nuance.
It's pretty much impossible to create a completely realistic experience in a game, with the possible exception of a tabletop RPG run by a highly experienced DM. Therein lies the problem with promoting realism over player enjoyment: it teaches players not to suspend disbelief, which then makes holes in the game considerably more jarring.
That mindset, though, is somewhat pervasive among the gaming community at the moment. I had a discussion with someone in the past week who criticized Persona 5 for an element of its narrative structure--it has a large number of scenes that can happen in any order (as determined by the player), and these scenes do not change to reflect which other scenes have been viewed, meaning some characters can appear to have significant character development only to return to disavowed behaviors shortly after. It's a fair criticism, but I think it also shows the insane level of detail we've come to expect from large games. While it would absolutely be more realistic for Persona 5's characters to behave slightly differently in each scene depending on which other scenes have already been viewed, this level of nuance would be a herculean task from a writing perspective--and Persona 5 already has a mammoth of a script as it is. The game asks for suspension of disbelief here, for us to accept that sudden realizations through the course of side-story character development will not be immediately reflected in the main plot, largely because it wouldn't be feasible for a company of Atlus's size to do the alternative.
Crucially, in this case, Persona 5 is not a game that rests heavily on realism. It is a stylized game that operates largely on the level of metaphor and symbolism. It does make a point of portraying mundane elements of daily life, but it always does so in bite-sized, aesthetically appealing chunks, not trying to reflect reality but rather using representations of the mundane in order to support its overarching message of the importance of taking action in order to right problems seen around you. To impose a desire for absolutely realistic and context-sensitive behavior on Persona 5 is to not meet the game on its own terms.
Persona 5 is, of course, far from the only game to rely on the player to fill in inevitable gaps, but its massive size makes it a particularly good example of why expecting realism in all things is problematic. Games development, as with anything else, is resource-constrained. Devoting time, attention, and money to any one aspect of a game by definition means not dedicating those resources to something else. Red Dead Redemption 2 has the benefit of coming from a very large studio that has the resources to create a large game with painstaking levels of detail (although this may come at some degree of human cost, judging by reports of extreme levels of overtime at Rockstar), but small and mid-sized studios don't have that luxury. While development time could be spent on things like highly nuanced reactions to player choice and detailed representations of certain actions and behaviors, that isn't the best use of resources in every case. If this sort of detail would not fundamentally strengthen the game, the resources are likely best spent on more impactful aspects of the game. The expectation of absolute realism makes it harder as a player to accept these inevitable trade-offs and can lead to developers attempting to completely avoid those trade-offs, to the detriment of the overall experience.
Ultimately, each game is different, and what works for one may not work for another. Intense realism has a place, but it is not the right approach for every game, and games should not all be judged on the basis of realism. Last week I wrote about the play Our Town, which is typically performed without a set. To criticize a production of Our Town for lacking elaborate set pieces would be to completely miss the point of the play. The same logic applies to criticizing games for lacking realism when realism is entirely unrelated to purpose of the game. Each game should be met on its own terms and judged on its own merits--there is not one set of criteria that fits every work.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition