Sunday, October 4, 2009

Bloody Good Fun ?

The boom of the shotgun gave way to an uneasy silence, as the last of the infected fell at my feet and bubbled away to nothingness. Even the music that had been pounding in my ears was gone. Instead there was a soft rustling, like reeds brushing against water. A bird cawed in the distance. A faint green aura meant my recent victim had left behind something valuable, some gold perhaps, or better still, a healing herb.

I leaned back and took the headphones off. My palms were sticky with sweat, my forehead felt like it had been recently irrigated, and my heart was trying to outdo the shotgun in the decibel department. Fingers still slightly shaky, I shut down the game and closed my eyes.

Resident Evil is not a series I am intimately familiar with. Indeed, my first experience with the series was it's much vaunted predecessor, Resident Evil 4 (how'd you guess?). However, this is not a review. There are plenty of those online. This is just a question that popped into my head while playing the game. Putting it simply it's this. How real is too real?

The game starts at a marketplace in a tiny African village. The entire feel is ominous, and I would say it is the single scariest portion of the game. I walk along the dirt path, and walk into a group of people kicking a sack around. The kicks are angry, violent, meant to hurt. The sack is thrashing around, and its clear there is a living creature inside it. As I instinctively approach the group, to man, they all look at me. Almost involuntarily, I back off. The piercing stares are so REAL, the threat of violence so imminent that in spite of being fully aware of being in a video game, I feel a chilling apprehension. As I slowly move towards my target in the other direction, never taking my eyes off them, the crowd continues to stare at me. Unmoving. Unblinking.

Of course, the above image doesn't do the sequence justice. To understand exactly how brilliant the graphics and how accurate the facial expressions are, one HAS to play the game. As an introduction to a scary game, it performs fantastically. But when it came to the actual game, and these people charged, slavering, gnashing their teeth, more rabid animals than man, THAT'S when I started wondering. These people were too accurate. Too human. Of course, Capcom is very good at making the enemies just a shade on the unreal side, so it's not very difficult to line them up in your sights and blow their heads off. But what next? What about games like Grand Theft Auto, that sticks firmly to reality. An over the top, outrageous reality, but reality nonetheless. In the previous GTA'S it was easy to mow over pedestrians in a tank because the characters, while anatomically correct, looked nothing like real human beings. They looked like toys, and rolling over them and seeing the same blood patch appear for every single victim was like pretending to shoot up your G.I.Joes. A slice of guilty free fun. But things are changing, aren't they? The uncanny valley has nearly been breached, and photorealism is not too far away. So what happens then? What happens when blocky, toy bodies are replaced by mangled corpses that look so real that it's like being at the site of a horrible shootout? Would the insanity of video games would still be fun? And what would it say about those who enjoy that.

Games are already trying to make sure things don't get too real. Enemies in Mirror's edge are so padded and armored they might as well be robocops. If you choose to harvest the little sisters in Bioshock, the game (thankfully!) fades to black instead of showing the playing character perform gruesome surgery on a child. The upcoming Borderlands has taken a step AWAY from realism and looks pretty, but cartoony. Resident evil itself makes it clear that the waves of enemies are simply monsters in human form, victims of an incurable plague that has wiped out there humanity. So it's not really a bad thing when you make their heads explode in a burst of plasma. So far, so good. But still I'm uneasy. There's a reason why Tom and Jerry is for kids and Cannibal Holocaust isn't, even though the cat and the mouse do things to each other that would make even the most conscientious torturer sit up and take notice. It's all about presentation. There's still some way to go before we have the technology to blow off the limbs of a foe with successive shotgun blasts and watch the twitching body fall to the ground, the latest physics technology making the entrails spilling out of the hole in its gut as realistically as possible. Question is, do we want to go there?

I have defended video games all my life, and will continue to do so. I still believe that good games are the most immersive form of fiction known to man. Nor do I want developers to hold back out of political correctness. But I truly believe that graphical ultra-realism wouldn't contribute anything to the medium. After all, Agatha Christie didn't need to stain the pages of her books in blood. I look forward to the future of games, not because I want to see decapitated bodies, but because I want to experience fantastic stories. Let's focus on that for now, shall we?

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