The appeal of creating a literal game is immediate. You have characters who speak, emote, and express themselves through delicately crafted animation. You have 3D backgrounds that translate every piece of wood, dirt, grass, and worldly materials as we know it in real life with astonishing accuracy. Every plot point is conveyed explicitly. Every action and game mechanic backed by some level of logic shared in the real world.
The appeal of creating an abstract game is not as ego-gratifying or as loud and sparkly. The abstract game gets by with very little in the way of production value, which often come in the form of highly detailed polygonal objects, recorded voice and sound, and other costly components of a literal-minded game. Take the classic game of chess. With each piece representing different figures of a medieval kingdom hierarchy set for war with a rival kingdom, the game is basically a simulation of war.
On both ends of the extreme, the Battlefield games claim the spot as the most literal simulation of war on the one end while chess offers the most abstract experience on the other. The newest Battlefield games put you into highly detailed and realistically rendered war zones where every visual and aural detail you might encounter in a real war is presented in as literal a manner as possible. You shoot your gun, enemies crumple to the ground, dust particles from debris fly everywhere, and the sweat on your fellow soldiers’ faces glisten in the light of the sun and explosions all around your virtual character.
By focusing everything on the literal representation of war, the Battlefield games miss out on the more cerebral aspects of carrying out a successful skirmish. Chess is a game played by many people in positions of power and leadership such as military generals. Battlefield is not played by those people. Battlefield is played by people coming home after a long day wanting to blow some steam. The reason is simple – as far as simulations go, chess is far more representational of the intellectual process involved in winning a war. Principles of strategy laid out by Sun Tzu in The Art of War can be applied to chess.
It is ironic then that for all of its detail and supposed realistic portrayal of battle, modern shooters boil down to performing a very binary mental process that goes something like this: see enemy, kill, see enemy kill, see enemy, kill. Even if the game is not violent or action oriented, there’s a correlation between how literal a game is and how much it can tell us about the world. This is true for the vast majority of games that do everything in its power to rid of as much abstraction as possible. In the hot pursuit of surface-level realism, these games have less and less to reveal about inherent truths that exist in our universe.
Yes, I see the sweat dripping from that character’s face. Yes, I see every strand of hair on its head reacting to the wind blowing by. Yes, I can distinguish every pore on that concrete surface. Yes, I hear the characters’ voice and can piece together everyone’s back story, the premise, and the history of this game world. But I am going down a predefined path set down like a red carpet for me to follow with every key moment triggered by invisible pressure plates installed on the ground throughout the game. In my experience, the world moves on regardless of whether or not I show up. And as far as I know the only time people get boxed in and allowed only to move within a narrow confine is if they go to jail.
In the end, literal video games have far less potential for true realism than the most abstract of games. At the same time, a completely abstract video game destroys the point of video games. It might as well be a board game instead. A well struck balance between both literal and abstract approaches to game design and development might yield some interesting results. After all, a game with elements of realism lends itself better to drawing players into a fantasy. Of course, realistic games still have abstract elements like inventory menus or upgrade systems. For example, when you put on a disguise in the Hitman games, the new clothing instantly pops onto your character instead on being put on one leg and arm at a time. These are understandable workarounds and corner-cutting methods.
The kind of abstraction I’m talking about is rarely used to represent something deeper that goes beyond saving developers some time and money. I’m interested in abstract simulations of certain human experiences that games have not thoroughly ventured into. The video game industry has covered all manner of physical activities – shooting, fighting, running, jumping, driving, and so on. However, this is still but a small spectrum of the entire human experience. We also interact with the world and those around us intellectually and socially. Games that have attempted to portray these experiences literally don’t get a lot of mileage out of their attempts. Dialogue trees present only a small set of canned outcomes. When games can recreate more social and intellectual human experiences with as much fluidity, freedom, and creativity as with games based on physical interactions with the world, that’ll be the day.