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Believability in "Realism": Why Spongebob Out-Reals Fallout 3

Cutting-edge 3D games may look realistic, but they are not believable. While the newest games have succeeded in their superficial realism, they are way behind on emotional realism -- a degree of humanity achieved by something as basic as cartoons.

Alfred MacDonald, Blogger

May 29, 2011

5 Min Read

If you've played Fallout 3 -- or even watched someone play Fallout 3 -- you've probably seen this kind of dialogue. It's not specific to Fallout 3, mind you, and I don't intend to use this entry to pick on Fallout; it just happens to be an example which most readers are familiar with. But if you haven't seen Fallout's dialogue, watch that video. There's a very realistic-looking character you're conversing with who gives you the facial quivalent of a chat with Microsoft Sam, while the voice actor for this character is giving you his or her immortal gratitude for saving a village. Or something. Either way, there's some suspicious incongruity.

Now, look at this picture of Spongebob:

Why is it that this is a goddamned yellow 2D sponge and I'm relating to this character's displayed emotion more than a 3D character model whose lip movement was attended to by an entire graphics team?

Hell, why is it that in the age of voice acting and film, people still read books? 

Realism is not humanity. 

When we say something is "realistic" we mean it imitates the reality external to us. The game's water looks very similar to the water I may see in a lake, or the game's coke can is like the coke can I'll hold in my hand, or whatever.

Yet, as conscious things with the capability of introspecting, we create our own emotional reality. When you say an actor is "realistic", you mean he/she is very believable. But how else could they be real when they're right in front of you? In that sense, you're referring to a kind of humanistic realism that exists within our person-to-person interaction and makes sense only to us. It's highly subjective, and yet everyone seems to know what you mean when you say "believable acting."

In the game world, we associate graphical realism with realism-at-large. During what I've just now termed the Great JRPG Diaspora of 1999-2001, primarily brought on by powerful graphics engines more than capable of handling 3D environments, the 2D sprite art of JRPGs came under fire due to the divide gamers faced between "kiddy games" and "adult games." Adult games, of course, were more realistic. They were three-dimensional. Kiddy games were two-dimensional. And that was that.

Yet how is it that fiction books, which have no graphics, can embed themselves in one's consciousness more strongly than the GTA series ever could?

About two years ago my girlfriend gave me Aztec by Gary Jennings. It's a 1000-page historical odyssey of an elderly Mexicatl man who tells of his experiences from birth to death, chronicling the Aztec empire at the height of its power. The novel's protagonist seems to run through every emotion in the gamut of human experience and then some, from rage to hilarity to lust to tenderness. There is no area in our emotional gradient that Jennings does not evoke in his reader's consciousness.

Aztec, even now, feels more real to me than innumerable movies and video games. Jennings didn't need EA-level graphics; he put words on a page, and my imagination filled in the blanks.

I've talked to people who used to play 2D JRPGs about the gaming scene now. There's all something we're not getting from it, yet none of us can put our fingers on it. The newer, anime-heavy 3D JRPGS don't do it. We're a minority, sure, but we exist and in a large enough number to matter. Obviously Mass Effect seems more real than Final Fantasy VII, but FFVII still manages to hold that special place in our hearts. If it were just nostalgia, then why did Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children leave so many of us cold? The newer Final Fantasies seem so stoic, even though Cloud Strife's face was practically a blob by comparison.

That, I think, is due to what the dialogue systems did for us. When you read a novel, you hear all of the voices of characters in your head. This is likewise for cartoons: Spongebob gives us room to fill in the human blanks and see the emotion in his face, even though he is objectively less human than the character models in Fallout 3. Fallout 3, by contrast, does no such thing. We have no room to project, from our imagination and memory, what we feel are "real" emotions on to the characters. 

That's not to say that all good works of fiction must be blank canvases on which to project our emotions. Film would not be a major artistic medium if that were the case. But film is film precisely because it works within that human dimension of realism. Lord of the Rings for example is totally unrealistic, but realistic in the ways that matter.

There's a reason Gollum was played by an actor, and it's a good one. Fallout 3 allocates so many of its resources to being realistic almost the point of being movielike, but doesn't hit the right buttons like a movie does. One is believable, the other is realistic.

Truly, there's a chasm of difference between "realistic"and "believable." It's why I can watch The Lion King even today and relate to the characters more than I can when I replay GTA. It's why Spongebob manages to hit more emotional buttons than Fallout 3. And it's why games stay with you when they're realistic in a human sense, not in a graphical sense.

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