Realism in computer gaming can be a touchy subject. I happen to prefer realism in my computer games. I’ll be the first to admit that not all the gaming community is with me on this one. One friend went so far as to tell me during a spirited debate on gaming that I don’t like games, I like simulations (it may have been swearier in real life). This isn’t really the case, I don’t play any true simulations and I like realism in a game but that doesn’t encompass all I look for. What I look for most is a gaming experience I can get immersed in without being pulled back to reality by the game itself. It’s de rigeur for games to promise immersive experience but most seem to fall short of that ultimate goal. Often the reason for this isn’t as shallow as graphics or as complex as physics but about the mechanics of the game defining how involved and immersed you feel. Why does this happen when so much effort is put into game design? To answer this you have to go to the dawn of gaming history.
As an entertainment medium games have changed significantly since their inception back in the days of Pong. Early game designers worked with mere kilobytes of ram and storage as well as limited processing capacity. They had to make tradeoffs in the graphics and gameplay but produced spectacular games for their time which laid the foundations for the games we have today. Any medium that changes over time has certain evolutionary hangovers left from previous eras. Currently game graphics (on the PC at least) are within a hairs breath of being photorealistic. Complex physics simulation is the norm and lighting engines are able to paint a world so realistically they can make a sunset to make any ancient greek poet mildly aroused. But there are still some remnants of game history left like a vestigial tail on modern gaming that make me realise I’m playing a game not staring at another world through my screen. I will admit to being a whore for good graphics. I do like games that look fantastic, but I’m not so shallow that this defines my level of interest. Even more than graphics its about the feeling of immersion in the game world, graphics help produce this but ultimately it takes more. You have to have gameplay that draws the player into their character and the feeling of being there in the game. The physicality of a game, if you will. In previous generations of gaming hardware limited the ability of game designers to implement this but today nothing stands in the way apart from convention and tradition.
Looking back over the catalogue of MMORPGs which have come out since World of Warcraft spawned the genre there are only a tiny handful which have sparked any interest for me. Of those I haven’t played one. I used to think it was because I wasn’t a social gamer, then I realised that I really enjoy online gaming. The reason was that nothing with the possible exception of Eve Online has managed to make a remotely convincing departure from the mindset of singleplayer narrative and non-persistent multiplayer online.
I’ll confess at this point, I’m a gamer who considers narrative to be a fairly important part of any game. I do love a good story based game if the writing is good and even just if the story is a strong one, but I’ve realised something in the last few years of gaming. As I replayed Crysis, Bioshock or the oldschool Call of Duty games (past Modern Warfare I lost interest) I found their kind of narrative storytelling immersive but lacking in real connection. It’s only the ability of games to allow for emergent narrative that really allows gamers to connect both with a game and their character. When you think about it this is pretty natural, emergent gameplay can constitute the only opportunity to create your own narrative for your character rather than following a path determined by the writers. I have spent a lot of time playing open world games like GTA and the STALKER series and while there is some ability to create your own story in these, it’s limited to the gaps inbetween the game’s ongoing narrative for you to try. In setting up even a primitive open world producers give gamers the ability to go forth and create their own adventures but always within limits. You will always have to go back to the story mission to progress the game and the game is defined by that narrative progress. Even in a traditional roleplaying game there is conflict between the investment of players in their character’s narrative and it being predestined by being someone else’s imagination, unchangeable from the few choices you are given no matter how compelling. Reactions to Mass Effect 3 demonstrated the impact of this cognitive dissonance on a spectacular scale. Playing three games and creating what often felt like your own truly unique universe from your decisions only to be confronted by an ending which only grazed the surface of the character you had become and the universe you crafted was a frustrating experience for many. But what does this have to do with MMO gaming?