Reality Bytes

Reality Bytes
The Truthiness of Simulation

Robert Buerkle | 18 Aug 2009 13:00
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Yet even though Fable 2 allows for a much more realistic simulation, it does not wholly give up the reductive qualities common to games of the past. For starters, time is incredibly abstract. Characters move about no faster or slower than one would expect, suggesting the passage of time is realistic. Yet by the clock, hours pass like minutes, children grow in mere days and the hero's lifetime of adventuring passes in about 30 hours of gameplay. As such, the passage of time varies across multiple timelines, allowing an impression of real time while also reducing the experience into a manageable amount of gameplay.


Space is similarly collapsed, as everything seems cartoonishly smaller than it should be: The village of Oakfield has only a handful of houses (despite its 30-some inhabitants), palatial mansions in Bowerstone measure about 30 feet wide and players never actually see most of the continent due to the option of "fast-traveling" through the world during load-screens. And though the game does include much to do in this fabled lifetime - work, marriage, children and all the rest - there are countless logical actions that are never afforded the player. (Why, for example, can't he jump?)

But perhaps most indicative of its aestheticized reality is Fable 2's use of metaphorical gameplay, another staple from gaming's pre-digital roots. The job mini-games are all highly abstracted: To work at the blacksmith's, the player must hit a sliding icon with perfect timing to simulate a perfect hammer strike, and a relatively small number of these strikes will serve as a full day's work. Is this the realism that today's games afford?

The reasoning for these devices is obvious enough - a "realistic" simulation simply wouldn't be much fun. No one wants to spend 24 real-world hours to get through a single day in the game, and no one wants the monotony of replicating every hammer blow of a day's work in the blacksmith's workshop. So the designers took some artistic liberties; they collapsed time and space, used metaphorical enactment of actions and limited the options available to the player to keep the possibilities manageable. This is the nature of artistic simulation - it's truthy. The simulation feels whole and complete, it feels fully rendered, it feels like the experience it depicts. Yet at the same time, it clearly fudges the details.

Scientific simulation can keep its hard reality. This brand of simulation, however, deals more in the impression of experience. It doesn't need to be realistic; it only needs to be verisimilar, or, if you prefer, truthy.

Robert Buerkle is a visiting professor of videogamery at the University of Pittsburgh (where he also teaches film studies). When he's not teaching, he writes stuff.

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