Realism vs surrealism in gaming

As video game technology continues to improve at an exponential rate, games themselves seem to come  closer and closer to reality. Take a look at any cutscene coming out of big AAA developers like Naughty Dog, incredibly detailed the characters and environments are. As a result of these technological improvements, we are beginning to see more and more games striving for realism, be it Red Dead Redemption 2 requiring you to eat, sleep and do chores for your camp, or something like ARMA 3, which grants you dozens of keybindings so you can accurately interact with military equipment.

Although, realism in games isn’t a new concept. Shenmue—developed by Sega for the Dreamcast in 1999—was a groundbreaking game in terms of realism. The game focused on intricately recreating the feel and detail of a small Japanese town, with a persistent world running on a day and night cycle. Everything ran as it would in the real world; people had daily schedules; shops had opening and closing times; buses had their own timetables and, at some point in the game, the protagonist picks up a part-time job moving crates between warehouses at the docks. The game truly focuses on the mundane day-to-day actions to create a believable and immersive world, drawing the players into the details. While this focus was incredibly divisive for players, the game achieved a cult following and had a sequel in 2001, with a third entry planned after a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2015. Furthermore, Shenmue is credited with pioneering various staples in the video game industry, such as quick-time events and an open world.

Shenmue, however, was not the first game to focus on the mundane to create a feeling of realism, an earlier example can be found in Desert Bus. Magicians Penn & Teller worked on a Sega CD game in 1995 called Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors, and while it would ultimately be unreleased, a playable version circled the internet in 2005. This game was a collection of several ‘scam minigames’ designed to trick the friends of whoever bought the game. One of these was Desert Bus, in which the player must drive a bus—in real time—from Tucson, Arizona to Las Vegas, a trip that takes eight hours of playtime to complete, and as the bus spends the journey slightly veering to the right the player must stay with the game for the entire eight hours to make sure that the bus doesn’t completely veer off-road. Of course there are some liberties taken, compromising the realism, such as the road being completely straight and there being no traffic or passengers on the bus, but while it’s clearly played off as a joke and not an earnest attempt, the game is almost a dictionary definition of realism.

The opposite side of the realism coin came about in the 1920s with the surrealist movement. Artists took to creating works that showed not what we actively saw, but instead what the unconscious wished to express. This almost century old movement has inspired all types of creators since is conception and video game developers are no exception.

Psychonauts, developed by Double Fine and first released in 2005 on PC, Xbox and PS2, is a game so clearly inspired by the surrealist movement. From the iconic design of the game—with each level being a creation of the subconscious and the fears or memories buried within—down to the very plot itself, where protagonist, Raz, must use his psychic abilities to enter the minds of other characters helping them to overcome their issues. The game even has an area named the Collective Unconscious, a direct reference to the surrealist movement.

Perhaps this innovative approach to game design was a mistake, seeing that Psychonauts was a commercial failure. Was it down to the surrealist ideals? Or perhaps it simply wasn’t marketed correctly? Regardless—much like Shenmue—Psychonauts gathered a cult following that continues to champion the game to this day and with a sequel due in the next year, perhaps a more mainstream interest in the series will be born.

There are many facets to game design, with the theming and style being just one part of the experience. While huge attention to detail required for a game based in realism may create a more engaging and immersive experience, and while a surrealist approach may make a more interesting world to explore and give a greater feeling of escapism, these things alone can’t make or break a game. The gameplay, the musical score, the writing or any other aspect are just as important for the package and are vital to a video games’ success or failure.

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Charley Wilkin

June 2021
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