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On Virtual Realism

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I do not relish the thought of academia, through few faults of its own. We’re just not that compatible. What I want to do and what it wants to do fits on a Venn diagram with “philosophy” as our only area of overlap. I mention this because I think I’ve figured out something about games, you see, and I’d like to name it and write about it and hopefully have it become an accepted subject of discussion in video games, because… because…

This piece was originally posted on my personal blog, Stomp, a year ago. I’ve given Kotaku permission to repost it here. Comments yesterday were asking for something more substantial, so here you go.

Because… it’s… a concept, and concepts are like something poetic that manages to be even more poetic when you capture it and put it in a jar. Fireflies have a bad habit of dying, which isn’t really a poetic idea at all, unless you’re Emily Dickinson. And Emily Dickinson died too.


...but I don’t want to be an academic about it.

When you name a concept, when you capture this wild, untamed thing, and you put it in a container of some kind, you can then share it with other people. It stops floating around in your consciousness and becomes tangible in a way that, hopefully, benefits other people. I think I have managed to contain one of these ideas.


I first became aware of it when I was listening to some friends tell some other friends what kind of computer games they should play. I say “computer games,” because I am referring to games played on a personal computer, as opposed to a video game console. The differentiation here being “computer” and “console” games.

These friends listed all sorts of games for the other friends to try, and I nodded along with the recommendations, but I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing. Looking back at the old computer games, I found myself feeling that something MASSIVE was absent from their recommendations, yet trying to reach out and capture it for my idea jar proved too challenging. I’ve tried, time and time again, to express this subtle difference, and it’s slipped between my grasp each and every time, because the idea is as subtle as it is massive.


I’ve been using the wrong terms.

By the way, I’ll be using “game” and “games” a bunch, and I’m referring to video games. I’ll try to call it out if I talk about games in general, but for the most part, yes, it’s just shorthand.



Here’s the general idea: there’s a big, wide spectrum of “video games,” and that spectrum reaches all the way from something like Chess all the way over to something like Microsoft Flight Simulator. On one hand, you have an abstract representation of reality following a clear set of rules, win states, and all that jazz, and on the other, you have… a thing where you’re sitting in the seat of an airplane, you fiddle around a bit, and suddenly, you are flying an airplane, almost as if it were real life. On one hand, you have a game. On the other, you have a simulation.


For a while, I thought that differentiating between abstraction and simulation was the way to go. It’s not. The problem with the game/simulation dichotomy is that an awful lot of people would go “well, game is in the name, so clearly games have to be games.” Often added to this was something about simulators being not fun.

There are two problems with this. First, a game is a form of structured play, often competitive in nature. It has states. Begin state, end state, win state, lose state. That sort of thing. A lot of things have been written about this by people far more learned than me, so you should defer to them in the inevitable chance that I err.


The idea to me, at least, is that the concept of ‘game’ has limitations, and while this is not a bad thing at all, because everything has some limitations, this field we call video games is not just ‘games’ in the same way that film is not simply ‘narrative form’ (the others are documentary and experimental). I kind of think a lot of games discourse is stuck on the ‘games’ part of thing, because that’s right there in the name, but if we look at the tools we have and the things it can do, it’s beyond obvious that there’s more to do than just games.

The other problem is that there’s a difference between the words simulation and simulator, and an unfortunate number of people are unaware of this due to the words being so closely related. Oh man, that makes me sound really arrogant, doesn’t it? I don’t mean it to, it’s just something I encounter a lot. I say “simulation,” and I mean Tamagotchi, and that person thinks “simulator,” like Flight Simulator. A simulator is for replicating a real-world behavior so its users can get better at it. A simulation is a representation of a reality.


My problem was the terms I was using. I wanted to use “abstraction” and “simulation,” which seemed like a good idea, until I realized that sometimes, I was playing games that were abstract simulations. Games have to be abstractions, because we don’t have any matrioshka brains or any other similar computing systems that would enable us to create perfect virtual realities. Also, those games wouldn’t be particularly fun.


Abstraction simplifies concepts in ways that often makes them actually, like… tolerable, I guess? Like, I want to play a game of Private Military Forces Saving The World, which, in real life, would bring with it all sorts of silly complications, but abstraction removes things like “going to the bathroom” and “creating way too many political incidents” and lets you focus on the good bits. Abstraction is like a lens in that sense: it’s simplifying what it needs in order to let players focus on what is worth doing.

Well-designed abstractions simply rob a game of busywork, which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with me feeling alienated by my peers in their computer game recommendations. An “abstraction/simulation” dichotomy doesn’t make any sense at all when I’m seeing a game like Wildfire do simulationy bits and still be an abstracted 2D experience, or when I’m seeing a bunch of simulation-driven games that aren’t fun because they’re off being simulators.


Games can have abstract presentations and simulation-driven approaches. Shoutout to smart person Justin Keverne for pointing this out to me. All games are abstract in some sense.



What I have been trying, and failing, to identify, for quite some time, is something I’m going to call “Virtual Realism,” and you can’t stop me until you find a good reason not to use it. Like a better name. I’m bad at naming things.

Have you ever heard of “Magical Realism?” It’s an artistic idea that’s basically about how the world of the [story/game/poem/movie] treats magic as real. This is a really stupid way to introduce this concept, but whatever, it’s 3:48 AM and it’s the best I’ve got.


“Virtual Realism” is my idea. It is an idea about a kind of video game that works to make all its systems behave in ways that allow players to treat the space as an artificial reality, in some way. It can be any kind of abstract or simulation-driven game, so long as it is constrained by this realism. Whatever the case is, players can take the elements of the world and apply these elements logically, with results that can be predicted about as well as they could be in real life (because human fallibility exists).

I think games have lost virtual realism.

Right. So. How has this sort of thing come about? What am I even talking about?

I’m talking about Age of Empires and Age of Empires II as opposed to Age of Empires III and Age of Empires Online (RIP).


In the first two games in the Age of Empires series, players do things in ways that feel natural—limited, but natural. There are trees, so you chop them down. There is gold and stone, so you dig it up. People need food, so you pick from the bushes and plant farms. As your civilization grows, these basic needs of the civilization changes. The game’s abstracted as all get out. You’ve got, like, four kinds of animals to eat. One plant. Farms only grow one crop. You have Rocks, Gold, Wood, and Stone. You click a button and suddenly, your civilization gains technology! Amazing!

The third and fourth games added something… different. Suddenly, you had cards you could “play” to make things happen. Units gained “experience points” to level up. Arbitrary goals changed how things worked. The numbers became a lot more visible, and the simulation elements took a step back. The focus stopped being on building cities and civilizations and started aiming more towards these… sometimes straight-up Diablo--esque takes on moving a few units through a space while a story was told at you. Clicking on things killed them.


Neither approach is bad, but they are different.


Okay, maybe the latter is kind of bad. Think about how Deus Ex was known for letting players play however they wished, while Deus Ex: Human Revolution granted experience points for A) interacting with everything while B) doing it non-lethally. A game about possibilities turned into a game about crawling through every vent and hacking every computer so you could get more XP to activate a new power that would let you press a button to start a brief cutscene in which a guy did some really cool thing in third person before the game let you go back to first person to play again.

Deus Ex was all “you’re there, brah,” and Human Revolution was like “for some reason, I thought Metal Gear Solid was a great stealth series, and this first-person game with roots in Thief should emulate that.”


And then there’s Thief, but the less said about it the better.

So yes.

Somewhere along the way, games became too gamey for their own good. I think it’s because they started following the idea of gamification—this is a real thing—and their games became about Motivating Player Behavior For Positive Outcomes or whatever than, like… being real spaces.


3) Far Cry 2

The first time I’d noticed this was Far Cry 2. I love that game, but something about it always felt off to me, and while people were talking about unrealistically fast respawn times, and how it wasn’t realistic that civilians weren’t out there exploring the world, and how unbelievable it was that everyone in the savanna would be out for your blood, or how malaria wasn’t “fun…” and… here I was mad at the houses.


I was mad at houses.


Let that sink in.

I realize there’s a game term for it, like “bases” or “hideouts” or something, but it’s 4:04 AM, because I keep interrupting myself to make Quality Tweets, and I don’t feel like booting up a game I haven’t played in a year or two to try to figure out the official name. You know what I’m talking about. The houses that your buddies live in. They’re all the exact same in the general layout and function. They follow a gamey house language.


This was the thing I didn’t like about Far Cry 2. Playing it, I was all “oh, well, they probably had a hard time getting friendly AI to work in public, which explains the town things,” and “oh, so many checkpoints, I’ll just use rivers and only encounter them rarely as a result,” and “well, Ilike being inconvenienced by malaria, because the best stories I have in this game comes from when it nearly killed me and I survived both it and my opponents to do some awesome thing.”

One time, I fell off a cliff into a river.

Or maybe I didn’t. It was 2008, and I was living in a propane-heated trailer, and the propane had gone out, and I was playing in late November because I had to work and couldn’t leave town with the rest of my family. It’s hard to remember the details of how I survived virtual malaria. Sorry. But I remember surviving, and I remember being thrilled by it, and I remember not understanding why everyone wasn’t as excited about virtual malaria as I was. But those houses, man. They were all the same, and that upset me.


The point is this: I could believe a world where everyone wanted me dead, but I had a much harder time believing that every house had to be the same, because the houses revealed themselves as systems in a way that a dude screaming after I sniped him so I could kill his buddy or the oh no, that fire I set is coming back to kill me and this gun just broke moments never did. Far Cry 2 wanted to be realistic, yet here it was, with these houses, that were so obviously artificial in ways the rest of the game, to me, was not.

That’s the problem I have with Far Cry 2, one of the best games I’ve ever played, and something I want everyone to try, because it’s such a remarkable, wonderful thing, in a nutshell, in case you were wondering. It’s 4:12 A.M., and my eyes are bleary. I like the game a lot, but I hated its houses, because I liked the virtual reality of being a mercenary in Africa shooting dudes in the leg so I could shoot some other dudes in the head.


I liked being able to get into someone else’s headspace and live in their world. I, Doc, would never ever shoot a man in the leg, much less the head, if I could help it, but it was a lot of fun in Far Cry 2 as long as it maintained its reality. The houses worked against that reality.


4) Bioshock

I’m talking about the difference between abstraction designed to make an experience feel like a believable representation of what it’s representing and abstraction designed to make an experience feel like a game, with wins and losses and competition against things. I’m talking about realism in a virtual world. I’m talking about going somewhere without going there and existing in that space without existing in that space.

I’m talking about why Bioshock’s greatest sin was the “would you kindly” moment. Up until that point, it was an incredible experience. Not as simulation-driven as System Shock 2, mind you, but I loved existing in Rapture. It felt seamless. It felt alive. I loved that about Syst—I loved that about Bioshock. In a way, it felt real. The game was doing its whole “believable representation” thing, and then, suddenly, here it is 4:20 AM, and I want to laugh because I’m so sleepy it’s hilarious.


“Would you kindly,” says Andrew Ryan, and ruins everything.

Bioshock is bad.

Clint Hocking came up with ludonarrative dissonance because of it, so either you get what that means and that tells you something about the game, or you don’t get what it means and you think “what a terrible game, to have made a man resort to using gigantic words like that.” The really simple idea is that the story being told to you in the “story bits” like audio logs and cutscenes, is not the same story that’s being told to you through the mechanics, like a cutscene that says “good men don’t kill children” but mechanics that make killing children a really good idea. Good job, Bioshock.


Nah, that’s not Bioshock’s problem, or, rather, it’s not the problem I have with Bioshock, though it is a totally legitimate problem and I’m glad Hocking brought it up, so you should read what he had to say on it. The problem, for me, is the stupid reveal, because it’s such a bad idea. It says “hey, guys, this game is fake. Everything I’ve been doing to you is manipulation designed to take you through my story! Aren’t I clever?”


No, buddy, you ain’t clever, and here’s why: Every player forms a contract with a game to accept its reality as reality for the duration of their relationship.


The player knows the game isn’t real. She’s not stupid. He’s not an imbecile. We played Bioshock and we enjoyed it for the moments when Rapture felt real, and as soon as it stopped pretending to be real, we spent an hour in linear corridors guarding Object A from Objects B through Y. Then we went and fought Object Z until Object A, the collective of Little Sisters, saved us.

Bioshock was better when it was pretending to be real instead of smart.

Bioshock was better when it adhered to virtual realism instead of… not… that. The last hour was all a big game, and it wasn’t nearly as fun. Not a game in the XP-hoovering sense, mind you, but a game nonetheless. A game of “stand here and protect the target by shooting other targets until they die, then resort to a bunch of really boring garbage stuff at the end. Bioshock was another world until it became an arcade game.


5) Gamification vs the Unreal World

This is really stream-of-consciousness, I know, but I’m afraid if I sleep, I won’t get it down at all, and I’ll lose the spark, it’ll be gone, and I won’t have a jar to put this firefly in to make things poetic. Not that it’s poetic now, it’s oneiric, because I’m half-asleep as I write this and well on my way to dreaming it all away.



A lot of games right now seem gamified. Maybe they’ve got too much Jane McGonigal in them, which is a terrible thing of me to say, because she’s super smart and clever and has lots of great things to say. Maybe they’ve got too much Slot Machine Designer in them, which means they exist to engineer positive response rather than to take us to other worlds. I don’t know. But somewhere along the way… I think games changed.


When I look back at the early PC game designers, the ones making games in the 80s and 90s, I see folks who were influenced by things like Neuromancer and Snow Crash (did anyone ever get really annoyed that Neuromancer is the one that begins with its sky being the color of a television tuned to a dead channel instead of Snow Crash? It seems like a perfect line forSnow Crash to begin with). I see folks who wanted to make other realities. And… well… that’s me, y’know?

That’s what I want.

I didn’t grow up like you.

I only got to discover this stuff now. I don’t understand or like arcade games all that much. I wanted to exist in other worlds because I got a bad draw in life and my body doesn’t work that good and so it’s fun to go live in someone else’s body for a while. I’m reading Snow Crash right now and I want to know if Raven’s going to try to kill Y.T. I want to escape from my own body.


So when I play a game that tells me it’s all fake, either explicitly or with its stupid houses, or when I read some gaming academic say “well, Thief wasn’t a best-seller, so we should give up on making games like it,” or “gamification is the future” or something, I get mad. When I see someone talking about how they want to engineer fun through biomechanics, I get uncomfortable. When I see where we’re at with gaming right now, I get a little bit sad, and a lot lonely.

When I see people recommending good games that I don’t love because they’re not the kind of games I value most, and when I see people talk about games saying “of course they’re games. They have to be games, because it’s in the name,” I feel alienated.


I told you I wouldn’t make it as an academic.


6) Real vs Real

Some game worlds manage realism without being realistic.

Some game worlds follow a series of “rules” that aren’t game rules, but the rules of their own peculiar natures. These are the games I like to play, and the games I wish I could make. Some are 2D, some are 3D. I prefer the 3D ones, because I’ve always preferred the 3D ones, but it’s a matter of personal preference, when we come right down to it.


For me, it’s about walking through the forests of The Zone, dragging the body of a friend I accidentally killed so he can get a burial in the only graveyard I know of. It’s about that “ah-hah” moment when I, the grave robber, realize I can splash a bunch of zombies with water arrows, and if I can get them in close enough proximity, I can kill them all without running out of the holy water and water arrows I need. It’s about finally finding the jeep, deciding to put on a show for my stream-watchers, and driving out of the base to come face to face with the APC I’d left there, now occupied by that one guy I assumed had run away.

It’s about being able to come away from those games and tell other about the things I did, the experiences I had, and knowing no one else will experience anything quite like it, but they’ll have their own cool stories to share when they play the same games.


Yeah. I know. Age of Empires doesn’t fit into this the way an immersive sim—that’s the genre name for some of these games, by the way—might. On the surface, Deus Ex couldn’t be related to Age of Empires any more than Mark of the Ninja or X-COM.


Funny thing about Julian Gollop, creator of X-COM. When he was asked about the dashless XCOM, he said it was board gamey, where the original X-COM was more simulationy. Far Cry 2 was where I noticed something was amiss, but it wasn’t until Gollop spoke up that I started to understand it. He’s right, by the way. X-COM is more of a simulation than XCOM. Somehow. It’s almost an intangible difference, I suppose. I did say it was subtle.

Most people aren’t going to feel it, I think. There was something about Zoo Tycoon (look at the new one by Frontier and see how it’s more of a game than a virtual reality) and Thief and Deus Ex and System Shock and, yes, Age of Empires that made them different than the games being released today. The rise of Kickstarter brought back a lot of old genres, but some came back changed. Others hadn’t aged as well as we’d remembered. Others were perfect just the way they were (love you, Wasteland 2).


Virtual realism, though? It’s slipped through our fingers. Most people will never realize how lucky we were to get Cities: Skylines after the gamified fifth (fifth?) SimCity. I can’t think of anything else right now. Valve and Blizzard went the slot machine route. It was easier for Valve, especially, to understand the idea of engineered fun rather than virtual realities. Eidos Montreal never really understood the treasures in their hands. Hitman, if we’re lucky, might return, though Absolution has me wondering if they’ll just imitate Blood Money without understanding the virtual realism that made it good.

I’ve written a long piece. It’s something like three thousand, eight hundred words now, and I got through the funny bits and the emotional bits, and now I’m just running comparisons. It’s 5:00 AM on the dot, which is a good time to go to bed.


Think about it, please?

Think about virtual realism. Is it a valid concept? I think so. Maybe someone’s got a better name for it. Maybe some academic’s already written about this at length, and I just missed it. I dunno. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I didn’t get it down, so I did.