The Growing Challenge of Belief Suspension

Consider the following video game scenarios:

  • In the BioShock series, you frequently heal your character by eating random foodstuffs found on the floor or in garbage cans.
  • Nathan Drake cuts down hundreds of enemies in the Uncharted series, with such a total lack of conscience that he’s clinically a psychopath.
  • In the latest Tomb Raider, Lara Croft frequently undergoes horrific body trauma, yet manages to shake it off within moments. She also murders hundreds of people and stops being upset about it after the first couple.
  • In Watch Dogs, Aiden Pierce can run over a group of civilians (accidentally or intentionally) and despite the total surveillance state Chicago is portrayed as in game, the authorities seem unable to track him down with any accuracy or expediency.
  • The house in Gone Home is ludicrously oversized for the size of the family living there and how the game portrays the economic situation of said family.

What two things do all these scenarios have in common?

Firstly, they’re all completely unrealistic, improbably and in some cases, just plan ludicrous. Secondly and more importantly, they all take place in video games which are not real.

I’ve noticed in a lot of recent game discussions I’ve come across, that many people seem to be having a harder and harder time suspending their disbelief when playing certain titles. They’re almost always titles that take place in a world based in some way off the present world we live in. Most of the time in present day (or the recent past) and with human characters. In these conversations, you’ll often see the term ludonarrative dissonance appear. A term often used by pretentious people to sound pretentious, it basically means that it makes no sense that the character you’re playing is able to accomplish what they do because their actions and consequences (or lack thereof) have no grounding in reality. Whether this is murdering hundreds of enemies with ease, healing by eating out of the trash or getting away with heinous crimes in a police state, the discussion will usually be centered around how that makes no sense and the game is worse off for not portraying things in a manner more believable.

Personally, I’ve never had a problem suspending my disbelief and leaving it firmly suspended. I’ve been playing video games for over 30 years now. To me and I dare say to most others, they’re an opportunity to break from the real world and experience something that’s not constrained by the societal and physical rules that our normal lives are. That’s why I love them, they’re an escapist media and one where you’re in control of it. So it’s always struck me as odd how people will be put off by what is ultimately a fantasy, not being closely tied enough to reality. When I see people criticising BioShock for its trash healing items or Watch Dogs for its lack of lawful consequences or Nathan Drake for his lack of conscience, my response is always “So what? It’s a video game.”

Furthermore, I find it odd how a lot of the discussions I see on this subject only cite certain elements of games as the ones that are hard to believe. Never in a discussion of Nathan Drake’s supposed psychopathy did I ever see people complain how unrealistic his regenerating health is. Yeah, in the real world it would be pretty disturbing to see someone mow down armies of mercenaries with little more than sarcastic quips but the dude can fully heal up from getting shot a dozen times! Those bullets just drop right out of him and the wounds close over all by themelves! He can also reload a partial clip of ammunition in his gun without losing the excess and he’s able to do it within seconds every single time! That’s downright miraculous and something that would never, ever happen in the real world.

Thing is, a video game isn’t the real world and that’s what makes all of this OK. A world in which we had to wrestle with Nathan Drake’s conscience or had to individually heal up every wound (which wouldn’t even happen because after the first couple, your body would just give up) would be horrendously boring, frustrating and not at all fun. Which is tricky when video games are ostensibly supposed to be about fun. There are games out there that attempt to portray real life scenarios with as much exacting real life detail as possible. It’s great that these exist but there’s a reason they only have niche audiences of super hardcore players.

One of the reasons I like Watch Dogs is because it presents an interesting world with its surveillance state of Chicago but it’s also a world you’re encouraged to have fun in. Much of the value of video games is breaking the rules of the real world or just the absence of them. To give it the rules and limitations of the real world would be to suck the fun out for all but a devoted few and that few can’t fund a AAA open world game. When I look at Watch Dogs or to a more extreme degree, the Grand Theft Auto games, I don’t see a world that’s frustrating because it doesn’t closely mimic the one I live in, I see a bunch of possibilities for goofy escapism because it doesn’t closely mimic the one I live in.

People can choose to like or not like a game for whatever reasons they wish of course but I’ve seen this subject come up more often lately and I’m curious why. Maybe it’s a byproduct of big games pushing ever closer to that graphical end point of photo realism. Perhaps it’s that too many games are focusing not so much on conflict and combat but encouraging you to dispatch enemies in increasingly brutal and unrealistic ways. Or it might be that as game storytelling evolves in complexity and character depth, it’s simply becoming harder to suspend our disbelief and see these as purely virtual elements. When you’re controlling a realistic looking 3D character with a well exposited back story and a voice instead of a mute sprite, maybe it becomes more difficult to not relate to them in a real world context.

If the sentiments I’ve been seeing continue to grow, this is something future game designers are going to have to wrestle with. How do you make a game that can appear to be something viable in the real world while still making it a video game whose principal function is to entertain? I certainly don’t have the answer to that. Personally, I’m happy to keep my real world and my video games separate. When the lines start to blur, a lot of the entertainment value for myself and I suspect many others starts to diminish rapidly. If there is a growing market of people who want stuff more closely tied to reality, maybe there’s an interesting venn diagram there where the two make something truly awesome.
I’m all for pushing the envelope and making stories, worlds and characters more easily related to but you know what? If my choices in BioShock are instantly eat stuff out of the trash to heal or having to find, prepare and eat food, then waiting for it to actually start healing me, I’m happy with the former. Remember how Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater had you manually heal your own wounds? Yeah, that sucked. It’s not my idea of fun. If you’re spending more of your time with Uncharted psychoanalyzing Nathan Drake than experiencing the world, that’s fine and maybe that’s what fun is for you but in that case, you may also be playing the wrong kind of games.

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