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Break or Simulate: Arcade Vs. Realism in Games

I’m usually an RPG and adventure game snob, genres that typically eschew realism, especially since becoming exclusively a PC gamer in recent years, so to indulge in the occasional racing game takes a real leap of faith.  Thanks to the magnificent recent release of EA’s Humble Origin Bundle, a for-charity collection of eight blockbuster games, I finally got my trembling hands on a long-overdue copy of Burnout Paradise.

Back in the glory days of the late PlayStation 2 games, (you know, that point in a console’s lifespan where the edges of the hardware are blown sideways by boundary-pushing game engines) I developed a deep relationship with Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Before that, my heart belonged to Rockstar’s Midnight Club 2. Both games brought an excellent amount of fast-paced, frenetic, nitros-induced mayhem and fun to the racing experience.

So you can imagine my happiness when, last year, Criteron Games announced their attractive looking Need for Speed: Most Wanted remake. And then you can imagine my subsequent disappointment.

The remake was not a bad game, by any measure. It was tight, visceral, complete, and very effective at translating a sense of dizzyingly high-octane driving. But there was something about it that struck a sour and uncomfortable note with me. Something about the game prevented me from wanting to stick around after the initial release thrill wore off.

Firing up Burnout Paradise this week, it hit me like so many tons of steel hurtling off of a well-placed ramp. Vehicles flipped and spun and twirled like toys. My cars stuck to the road like velcro, and engaging a NOS boost is enough to break the sound barrier. The game is simply fun.

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There’s a similar effect going on right now with the Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row franchises. Since Niko Bellic’s soul-searching bowling simulator, Grand Theft Auto has opted for a dramatic and emotionally heavy cinematic experience, painting the open world in a different light than the pastel-and-blood of something along the lines of Vice City. Saints Row has found its rhythm instead in giant purple dildo bats. Different, erm, strokes, so to speak.

Both games are immensely good entertainment. But there’s a marked difference between the pathos of a GTA: IV or a Sleeping Dogs, and the insane playground of Saints Row. The key word is “playground”…what are video games, if not a virtual dreamland of possibility?

So here’s the question. Should games be an arcadey realm of digital mayhem and possibility, or simulated realities that emulate life and realism as true to form as possible?

Before we had the drool-worthy visuals of a Crysis, or the meticulously tuned physics of a Gran Turismo, games were pixels that would jump when we pressed jump, and turn when we commanded them to turn. The first batches of Quakelike shooters were almost hilarious in their sense of whiplash-inducing jumping and running. Arcadey games are fast, fun, and allow for a whole world of opportunities that could never be emulated in real life without a massive hospital bill.

That being said, sometimes we really want that true-to-life simulation. Personally, I believe that these are most effective in games where we’re travelling to another world, whether it’s another period of time, or to fantasy and sci-fi realms. The more realistic my sword slashing feels against the onslaught of a dragon attack, the neater the illusion. Immersion only continues to grow over time, and simulations are being pushed further and further every day with motion controls and the hotly anticipated Oculus Rift.

Granted, there’s a degree where even tightly simulated games have a gamey element. No matter how attractive a modern day shooter might be, you still have to turn your opponent into swiss cheese until they start to take a slight amount of damage. But I’m fairly certain that unless you’re an “edgy, genre-defying” indie game, you don’t want your shooters to be SO realistic that a single bullet instantly puts you out of commission.

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Guilty admission: I love Euro Truck Simulator 2. I’m absolutely addicted the experience of traversing the overpasses of Scotland in a massive rig, watching my speed and utilizing turn signals to prevent my truck from making headline news as a five-lane roadblock. That’s awesome. But pop me into a game where all bets are off and it’s a dog-eat-dog race to the finish, and I want to see flames shooting out as I do a 200-mile-per-hour barrel roll over a river and into the finish line.

Essentially, it boils down to the fact that for me, the more realistic a game’s setting and environment is, the more I want to have a chance to break the rules of reality. Inversely, the more outlandish and supernatural the world, the closer I want it to feel like I am, in fact, Commander Shepard, and I am in fact saving the galaxy.

What do you think? At the end of the day, are video games more of a wild alternate reality that should let players call all of the shots, or are they a beautiful interactive medium that should be as close to reality as possible, bridging the gap between life and fantasy? Hop on into the comments below and voice your thoughts!



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