Realism Is Not Your Friend
I’ve had trouble conceptualizing the value of realism in a game. On one hand, a sufficiently realistic game can draw the player in by creating a world that feels coherent and relatable. It also increases accessibility by using concepts the player is familiar with in everyday life and turning them into game mechanics. On the other hand, realism in games can also hamper immersion by taking the familiar and making it frustrating. Far from promoting immersion in the game, this kind of realism encourages the player to remember that the game is an artificial construct. What is both required and annoying about reality is just annoying in a game world.
GTA V seeks to increase immersion by trying to make the world as realistic as possible. Movie theaters only show movies at certain times. The garage door will only open if nothing is in front of it. When shopping for clothes, the player must move their character to the rack with the clothing item (pants, shirts, shoes) and try on just that item. These are certainly more realistic than GTA’s competitors, but they are realism without purpose. Immersion is not increased by including these elements and is actually harmed by it. Consider the movie times. Yes, most movie theaters aren’t open after midnight and all have specific times when they start their movies. In replicating this model, GTA is accurately representing that small part of the movie experience. However, when I walk up to GTA V’s movie theater, I am very aware of the fact that I am playing a video game. I know that Rockstar could provide me with that content at any time and could even integrate it into the phone mechanic without a hit to immersion. That means that when I can’t access that content, I am aware and annoyed by the artificial limits that Rockstar has created.
Rockstar is mistaking petty realism for realism that promotes immersion. Petty realism is the inclusion of the tiny constraints that pepper our lives and that we don’t often think about. Waiting for a cab is a consistent feature of life that serves as a necessary evil. It is not something I enjoy, nor is it something that draws me into the moment. While standing on a corner, I have never thought: “Man, waiting for this cab is soooo enthralling. I’m hooked!” Instead, the delay in game gives the player time to think about how driving distance and speed are artificially constructs in a game world. It also separates the player from the gameplay. The fun things the player would do normally are stuck behind a wait time. The player has effectively stopped playing so Rockstar can be realistic. Immersive realism focuses on getting the big things right that are necessary for the player to identify with the situation presented. Immersion isn’t effected if the cab arrives early, but it is seriously harmed if the cab hovers five feet in the air. That kind of detail is useful for the exact opposite reason that a wait time is not. An accurately modeled car draws the player into both the game world and fun driving mechanics. This kind of realism ties immersion with fun rather than frustration.
GTA V reduces the noticeable amounts of petty realism that permeated GTA IV. However, GTA V still has unnecessary levels of realism that intrude in on my game experience. The game sacrifices play on the altar of realism when it doesn’t actually increase my immersion or enjoyment of the game. I know the detailed world is a hallmark of the series, but Rockstar needs to decide which realistic elements actually help the game, and which ones hinder it.
Next Up – Stop isolating gameplay from itself