Really: Summons of the Ideal


There are a few things we need to be clear on, sincere reader, if we are to be friends.  One:  I like to read.  Books, plays, comics, essays… anything with words that say something.  Two:  I take a lot of surveys.  At some point I was nice to a telemarketer and now I get about a dozen survey invitations in my inbox every day.  Three:  I love looking at pictures of tiny dogs on the internet.  Only the first two are really relevant to this blog entry, but all three are good to know in case the police ever need your help piecing together a psychological profile.

I was just taking a survey that I found particularly interesting.  It was about video games, specifically the qualities of realism in which they contain.  Here are screenshots of some of the questions.  I’m sure posting these are totally against the terms of service provided by the survey company, but I’m a rebel.  Click on any of the images to see them full size.


Well, obviously you have to exclude magic.  Magic should only be considered when you need to negate Superman’s powers and you just did a kryptonite issue.


This is a very loaded question.  For relatively obvious reasons.


Hmm, “high school” isn’t an option for some reason.


Toronto has been severely neglected as a backdrop for first-person shooters.


I’m not sure why “spouse takes the kids and gets the hell out of there” isn’t an option.


A game tailored to my preferences wouldn’t feature weapons at all, but I’m probably in the minority with that one.

It’s quite clear that the characteristics of realism defined by this survey are a bit different than my own.  When I think of “realism,” I picture literary Realism… the type of realism with a capital R.  Unembellished portrayal of life and all that.  Odes to the unexceptional and the ordinary.  Literary Realism is more or less tied directly to the evolution of theatrical Realism, as is the tendency of these –isms.  And theater is where the money is.

Henrik Ibsen is sort of an important figure in theatrical Realism.  And by “sort of,” I mean dude totally.  He wrote the rules for this stuff before anyone else realized there needed to be rules, almost the same way Wagner invented video games a century before they came into being.  More than just defining realism through his early work, Ibsen helped with developing a criteria for distinguishing art from entertainment.   That is, he hypothesized that art speaks directly about social issues and will challenge them, while entertainment dresses up such issues as symbols or avoids them completely.   If the critical gaming world has the goal of establishing games as art, shouldn’t we be examining this guy a bit more closely?


Clearly, there is work to be done.

One of the potential sources of trouble when taking a traditional Realist approach to games is that such narratives could be a bit boring.  Most titles feature fantastic plots and embellished characters because they are engaging over long periods of time.  Games with a narrative focus lean on conflict and a Joseph Campbell hero to hold the player’s attention… the sort of elements which stand in conflict to the goals of Realism.

Rockstar Vancouver’s Bully is a wonderful example of what is possible when combining games and Realism. I racked my brain trying to think of suitable examples available on home consoles, but this is the one I kept coming back to.


Breaking it down, Bully is a high school simulator.  The player attends classes, explores the campus and engages in social activities with other students.  There is a structured narrative that is told through cut-scenes and assigned tasks.  The antagonist, Gary, is remarkably well written… he is paranoid, antisocial, and generally disturbed in the way that most teenagers are.  The central conflict of the game arises from his paranoia:  the player character, Jimmy, is new to school and is befriended by Gary.  After a while, Gary suspects Jimmy is conspiring against him due to Jimmy’s passive nature and begins to engineer his social ruin.  There’s actually a lot going on here, and it all feels quite real.

The fantastic elements emerge through the interactivity; that is, mini-games as a way of progression.  Obviously acing Chemistry is not normally accomplished by participating in a rhythm game, but as these segments exist as supplements to the main narrative, should they be required to conform to the same Realist guidelines?  Should there be a clear distinction between the “game” and the “story”, or should they be fundamentally unified?

I feel inclined to also mention the Graveyard by Tale of Tales.  This has been covered indepth elsewhere, so you should go read that if you want a full analysis.  I will add one point:  the only difference between the trial (free) version and the full (commercial) version of the Graveyard is that the full version adds the risk of death.  Some advocates of Realism feel that death moves a narrative away from the real and towards the superficial or extraordinary, potentially negating a work’s function as art and transforming it into entertainment.  It’s interesting to consider the monetized version of the software’s inclusion of such a device as a statement on the mixing of business and art, but most likely that statement was not intended by the developers.

Trying to take the principals behind a very old artistic movement and apply them to a relatively young medium is difficult.  There are many factors at play here, and I can rant on endlessly.  But, honestly, there are pictures of tiny dogs to be looked at.


Look at that!  He is so tiny!  So… real!