Saturday, July 18, 2009

Real World Fake

Over the years, improving technology has enabled a greater degree of realism in videogames, particularly in game settings. Whereas early games were set in generic "golf course," "baseball stadium" or "city" environments, modern games often model real-world locations.

I realized how far this trend has progressed recently when I saw and immediately recognized a painting of the Miami beachfront. I've never been to Miami, and I can't recall seeing any similar images (though I'm sure I've seen the Miami Vice credits sequence once or twice.) But having played Scarface: The World is Yours and GTA III: Vice City, both of which are set in a fictionalized 80's Miami, the setting was familiar -- I had "been there" in a virtual sense, exploring the neighborhood for several hours while harassing the virtual citizens. Other sandbox and racing games have done the same for New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and London, among others, sometimes with a period flair to boot, as in EA's The Godfather titles.

I'm not suggesting that these games have modeled real-world cities in the way, say, Google Earth does. The layout and landmarks are recognizable, but individual hotels, businesses and homes are not modeled with any degree of accuracy. And the game world is edited for entertainment purposes -- stretches of similar terrain are compressed, false shortcuts introduced, buildings and boundaries established that don't exist in reality. Still, these games give the player a convincing sense of place through art design and map layout, coupled with the power of interactive experience to burn the approximated geography into one's memory. It's an illusion, but it works.

Sports games have come much closer to true realism, as it's easier to model a smaller, well-documented environment than it is to model Los Angeles. These types of games do not generally have a fantasy component, either, so realism is an appropriate and desirable design goal. The Rapala series of fishing tournament games models famous sport fishing lakes, modern baseball games reproduce each team's unique home stadium, and golf games license famous courses, reproducing their slopes, contours, traps and foliage with enough fidelity to feel realistic, at least in game terms.

I don't see this trend ending any time soon -- the investments being made today to model real-world environments will continue to pay off in the future, and as storage space and memory continue to increase, game worlds will improve until they're detailed enough to make further investment unwise. I've blogged before about human characters, and how difficult it is to make them seem real; environments are a different matter, and I look forward to more such armchair travel in the future.

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