Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

When does the sci fi realism bubble burst?

This is prompted partly by the slight debate over whether or not mechs would have lights in their cockpit during night-time battles :D

Obviously they wouldn’t, but that’s nitpicking in comparison with everything else wrong with the situation. If World War I was being fought with mech technology, it would be fought with nukes, from thousands of miles away, and the mechs themselves would certainly not be manned. Why bother? we already have unmanned drones fighting in wars today.

Many Many years ago I remember playing a PC game, it might have been called EF2000 (edit: it was see here!) And although it was fairly accurate and technical and probably very ‘realistic’ it was dull as hell. You never *saw* an enemy plane. The onboard computer identified it, locked the target and you just said “yeah… go on then”. Realism++, fun–.

Most games these days do not take that approach, but more of a laughably shallow and innocent view of what we wish the future would be like, but secretly know it won’t be.  When the black and white flash gordon serials were filmed, they *might* have been able to say this will be the future with a straight face, but not now. Star Wars was world war 2 navy battles, inexplicably in space. Star trek was a western, inexplicably in space, but it almost made sense. There was enough stuff that *did* make sense, and come true, such as hyposprays, communicators, voice recognition and translation in real time, cloaking devices… etc.

Also, there was some stuff we haven’t cracked yet, like time travel, teleporting, blah blah. But that doesn’t mean this can’t be done one day…

Where it all goes wrong is weapons. The Star Wars / Flash Gordon / Star Trek weapons are laughable. Which would you rather have in a fight? An AK47 or a phaser? An Uzi or han solos blaster? The weapons are woeful, doing laughably poor damage, over hilariously short distances. The phantom menace battle droids are truly rubbish. Mechs make no strategic sense. Helicopters are better in every way.

We stick with this, for entertainment purposes, because we suspend our disbelief and remember being 7 years old and ‘buying in’ to the idea of the laser rifle, but for how long will this laughable fantasy work? A kid these days won’t have any innocent years where the whole world believes in laser pistols and space fighter planes dogfighting. These days sci-fi isn’t flash gordon, it’s Iain M Banks and his amazing worlds of smarter-than-us AI fighting battles between self-aware starships millions of kilometers apart using invisible weapons in battles that last fractions of a second. Awesome stuff, but shit for games.

So what do we do? will the belief-suspension bubble burst for sci fi weapons? How long can we keep re-fighting the battle of stalingrad with lasers and shiny space robots? A long time, I hope :D

9 thoughts on When does the sci fi realism bubble burst?

  1. for what its worth, ef2000 was one of my all time favorite flight combat sims… different strokes, i guess…

  2. Well right, when you look at it with a view to realism, you have tanks with see-through cupolas that are lit up like christmas trees. Not good :-)

    But, but… I’ve looked at your GTB screens 3 or 4 times before and it never even occured to me look at them in this way. So that’s your point there.

  3. I don’t think that any gamer will ever expect a game to represent warfare in a realistic way UNLESS someone has put a “simulation” sticker on it.

    What I think is, that the gamer will immerse himself into the game as long as the components of the game are coherent with the game story on hand and the game mechanics.

    It wouldn’t really work if you had all the mechs, tanks and solders running around on the screen and suddenly a WWI double decker flies across the screen with some tiny little people sitting in it dropping bombs… It wouldn’t fit neither into the game story nor into the game mechanics of the rest of the game.

    So, in a sci-fi scenario like Star Trek, it is coherent to have laser guns which do not make much damage (since they have different weapons modes) along with disruptors (which are in fact banned weapons by the Federation Council).

  4. Just think up whatever semi-plausable reason is necessary for every choice made. That’s how they did it for Star Trek. They wrote whatever script they wanted and wrote ‘Tech’ next to things that needed plausibility. Then other people would research/make up reasons.

    For example: Mechs’ are needed because their height puts the horizon further away, giving them a long range advantage. They can also shoot down on the thin top armour of tanks and shoot over barricades and shoot down into trenches.

    Nuclear weapons aren’t used because it would cause M.A.D.

    A Phaser doesn’t require ammunition or require the carrying of several magazines per soldier. The supply lines are too often hit and Phasers are a good way of ensuring that the troops have ammunition. They also have no recoil and can be used to warm rocks for cold nights.

    UAV unmanned drones can’t be used because the control signals get disrupted by enemy ECM. They can’t be AI controlled because of international law, their lack of human ethics, the sentience risk…

    Anything that can’t be explain with a good reason you can just put down to military budgets, people are cheaper to use, government lobbying made things that way, the car factory that now makes tanks could only realistically be used for this technology, etc…

  5. Dude, I’d take a phaser over -anything-. Ahh, childhood imprinting. I still remember seeing my first Trek episode at age 3. The Arsenal of Freedom, for the record. But yeah, WOO PHASERS! Ahem.

  6. I’m actually developing a game of my own–a 4X TBS–and am running into this concern. If your map is an entire galaxy, does having individual planets around each star make things too complicated? Will the player have to drill down through menus to get to the planets? They are where the production and research and colonies and people and etc. are, so they’re very important, but are presented at either one level of remove from the main screen (at least one click) or must be zoomed into in order to see and interact with. And the stars are pretty much useless other than as markers for collections of planets, but you can’t get rid of the stars in a game dealing with colonizing the galaxy…

    And do you go for a realistic, 3D galaxy? It looks pretty and makes the strategic dimension of the game more interesting (more neighbors), but your view will tend to get cluttered and the distances between points and your actual borders will be harder to determine. Plus, the player will have to take more care to position the camera to see what’s going. Similar concerns exist for 3D real-time space combat (as in Homeworld). Is the realism worth it, or could you achieve more in 2D?

    Never mind the fact that your starships should be blasting each other from millions of miles away with lasers that are practically invisible in the intervening vacuum of space and that make no sound… :)

  7. I’ve been reading a lot (probably too much) space opera / military science fiction lately and most of the authors (David Weber, John Ringo, S.M. Stirling) do a pretty good job making the tactics of a space battle seem like an old fashioned wet navy cannon exchange. They have plenty of ideas that would map nicely to games.

  8. This is a common argument among Batletech players, and some while back, possibly at GENCON 2005, someone uttered the following wisdom:

    “Every time you question the realism of a Battletech, a catgirl dies.”

    So maybe you had to be there, but the point is, “If it’s fun, don’t question it too hard.”

  9. Pretty much any depiction of combat in games and movies is vastly unrealistic. I got shot in CoD? Oh, I’ll go hide behind this rock and the bullet wound will close up and heal after a few seconds. If you sprinted, you could have outrun the blasters in Star Wars; if you fired the blaster and then threw it, as long as your target was a few metres away, the blaster would hit them before the shot you fired. I don’t think I’ve ever seen space combat depicted in a way the seemed realistic. GSB was laughably absurd; what could the possible motivation be for bringing giant spaceships that close together be? Why did the spaceships have a top speed, and had to keep firing their engines to keep going at that speed? Some of the fighters’ weapons had a max range that was a few ship lengths long, giving them the equivalent range of a guy with a super-soaker.

    None of these things make any sense in reality, but if you play the game, or even look at a screenshot, it becomes very obvious why it was that way. It looked really cool, and it’s fun to play.

    That said, I don’t want to slam simulation games. They have their market, but it’s a much smaller one than the market for most games. I think people just need to remember that /real war isn’t fun/. As such, a simulation of real war isn’t likely to be much fun for most people either.

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