Breaking Reality: A Small Explanation Can Go a Long Way

on January 10, 2012 1:00 PM

Sometimes we have to permit a few acceptable breaks from reality in video games for a variety of reasons, often to ensure that they remain fun more than anything. Most people are well aware of the fact that shotguns in real life have a longer range than the usually depicted 15 feet, but game balance sometimes requires this limitation. My character in Skyrim is currently holding over 1,000 arrows thanks to their weightless nature. Not very realistic, but helps with game balance and an acceptable break.

A few games go the extra mile though and give a valid reason for these mechanics we’ve become so accustomed to. The current FPS trend of only allowing you to carry a certain amount of weapons stems from this. Let’s take a look at some of the better examples of giving reason to the nonsense.  

Breaking Reality: A Small Explanation Can Go a Long Way

Let’s begin with the use of Detective Mode in Arkham Asylum. From a strictly gameplay point of view this was a fascinating tool that impressed many people from the moment they first saw it and basically changed the way the game is played. Some people complained it made the game too easy though and a lot of reviews commented on the fact that they found themselves spending a majority of the game in Detective Mode either out of choice or necessity.

However I found another aspect of this mechanic quite fascinating, on a larger scale. Batman as a character is most famously known for being prepared for anything, and even though most of the movies usually gloss over the fact, he’s referred to as a detective for a reasaon. I saw Detective Mode as a way of visualizing this aspect of the character in a way that’s not immediately obvious when you place him under the control of a player. While Batman can’t really see through walls (though a similar mechanic was used in the movie The Dark Knight, partially a nod to the game I believe), this displayed the fact that he has an insane amount of situational awareness and to Batman, maybe it does feel like he can see through walls.

One other game recently gave a brilliant in-game explanation for the use of a similar mechanic that actually gave a solid reason for the character actually seeing what the game was displaying.

Breaking Reality: A Small Explanation Can Go a Long Way

Deus Ex: Human Revolution took this mechanic and ran with it, incorporating elements of it into every aspect of the game. This starts off subtle at first with another extremely familiar gameplay mechanic of highlighting important objects in the environment, using a not so subtle yellow highlight around anything interactive. However things take a step up considerably with an optional augment later on that lets you see enemies through walls.

While this is vastly different from something like Detective Mode in that it was limited in it’s use and duration, it still achieves the same desired effect and actually takes the in-game explanation to it’s logical extremes. Rather than being strictly a gameplay mechanic or a hand-wave to display an innate character ability, all of this is what the character Adam Jensen is actually seeing, thanks to his physical body augmentations.

This is actually displayed in the opening sequence of the game where Jensen doesn’t have any augs, as there is no HUD during this segment. One of the few games I’ve ever seen to give a perfectly valid reason for all the traditional gameplay elements we’re all so accustomed to.

Breaking Reality: A Small Explanation Can Go a Long Way

Deus Ex did some brilliant things all around including the use of color in addition to all the in-game explanations. The game was approached with a level of care and polish that’s not seen too often these days. I don’t want to spoil anything but there are actually a few areas in the game where it comes back to the beginning and makes it very clear that all the interface stuff you’re seeing as the typical HUD is something Jensen actually sees as he looks around, and it’s handled as brilliantly as the rest of the game.

Metal Gear Solid 4 is another game that does an excellent job of this with the Solid Eye, serving almost the exact in-game function as the visual augs in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Similarly it features many different uses and fully adds to the game in a unique way that while others could copy it, it would be hard to justify it.

Another game that seems to be touching on this is the upcoming Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. The recent Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter series in particular has always given the HUD the excuse of being integrated into the “Land Warrior” system, and Future Soldier seems to take it a step farther with the information being displayed around the gun. Granted the game isn’t actually out quite yet so who knows how much of this we’ll actually see in the full game but even just the concept of it is neat.

Breaking Reality: A Small Explanation Can Go a Long Way

This is a trend I’m starting to notice occurring more frequently these days and I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds in this department. I’m not saying every game needs to implement some sort of explanation for all the small details, but for those that are able to I applaud the effort. For me personally it’s the small details like this that can truly make a good game excellent. While we have to let a lot of things slide in favor of having fun over realism, sometimes it’s nice to blend the two together without losing any of the “fun” part.

 /  Staff Writer
John is what you might call something of a badass. When he's not writing about games or playing them, he's playing in the Kansas City band "Documentary" and drinking as many different beers as often as he can. He's a huge comic nerd in the best sense of the term, with a particular love for the Creator Owned movement.