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.


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.


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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  1. Duke Narcofeller

    I gotta say, I am in the boat of arcade things being arcadey as hell. Saints Row and stuff that is just off the wall preposterous and wacky are my choice for sure. I do enjoy some more grounded games, and I do enjoy realism to a degree, but I’d rather have a Halo, where I can take a bucket of bullets and keep moving over a COD where i get hit twice outa nowhere and keel over.

    • Tom J.

      I tend to agree, but I’m really torn. At the end of the day, I realize I’m pressing a button to shoot a virtual laser gun to make an alien’s head explode. That’s ridiculous, and nutty, and awesome.

      But just like a good film with a realistic setting and a gritty plotline, sometimes a game comes along where things are SO close to real world problems and tales that the punch is reliant on how close the game hits home. Then again, it means the threat of jumping the uncanny valley *COUGH*HEAVY RAIN*COUGH* breaking the experience.

  2. Racecarlock

    There’s an argument over fuel being in GTA V going on at GTAforums right now. I think it actually indicates good realism and bad realism quite clearly.

    Bad Realism simulates all the drudgery and inconveniences of real life. Do you enjoy getting gas, mowing the lawn, paying bills, paying taxes, and so on? Of course you don’t, those are boring as hell.

    Good Realism adds that right touch that you need to feel like you’re in the world. BackBreaker’s euphoria physics, for instance. Also, beamng’s and rigs of rods’s soft body vehicle physics, which are mind blowing. When pedestrians act like pedestrians in sleeping dogs. That’s good realism. That gets you more involved with the world without adding the drudgery of the real world.

    • Tom J.

      Bingo. And an excellent point. There’s a real difference in how realism is portrayed that can entirely change the experience of a game. No More Heroes used mind-numbing chores like lawn mowing as ways to make money, and the whole point was to draw attention to how absolutely dull and uninteresting that would be in a videogame.

      I think the only place “bad realism” can really shine is in a game that is based on being true-to-life, specifically something like the Sims. Part of the gameplay is that balance of keeping your character fed and rested while trying to have a life. But when I’m shooting down gang members in a Grand Theft Auto mission, I don’t want to have to stop at the nearest Burger Shot to take a leak. So good call, there is a good and there is a bad kind of realism that do make a difference.

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