Realism through a fuzzy lens

victorian_gothicCommenting elsewhere and going into a mini-rant about the Victorian Era made me think of Steampunk (which us closet punkers/punkettes have been writing a bit about lately, especially with reference to Gatheryn), and together they made me ponder realism in games.

See, I detest the Victorian era as a whole. It was bigoted, supercilious, self-satisfied, stupidly sentimental yet coldly cruel, and incredibly hypocritical. It was also, of course, an era of unmatched exploration, discovery, and invention. (Artistically, however, I’d contend it was kinda stale, apart from the emergence of the novel as art form, but that’s getting a bit rarefied even for this blog.)

On the other hand, the Victorian era does make a really cool setting for games. I loved Cthulhu by Gaslight even though we didn’t really play Cthulhu all that often (mostly to preserve what little SAN our chars had left). I suspect Victoriana would make a great setting for online games too, visually — grimy streets, plush interiors, rags and riches, danger and/or adventure lurking around every prosaic, gaslit corner. It’s the age of Sherlock Holmes, H Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, the Industrial Revolution and its contrasting Romantic Movement. It’s the age of Babbage, Charles Darwin, Dracula, Extraordinary Gentlemen and, of course, Hyde and Mr le Ripper.

So yes please, definitely slap me some Victorian-era setting. But don’t include (too much of) the bigotry and self-satisfied fat-cat cruelty unless you allow me to be some cheeky young sprat who fights it (or upper-class twit who discovers there’s more to life than cricket on the green and promenading in Hyde Park). Gaming is entertainment, similar to movies, and most of us like a healthy dose of rose-tinted nostalgia with our historical entertainment. Show me the great gowns in Elizabeth but don’t bother with too much of the scofula and starvation, kthx. I’m not saying I’m happy to throw historical accuracy out of the window, because usually I’m not, especially not in settings that purport to be “historically accurate.” (You should see me get all irate about stirrups on saddles before that piece of riding kit had actually made it to Europe.) But in games especially, we have a great deal more latitude. Medieval becomes “fantasy-medieval” where we can take all the fun bits and leave all the bits we don’t want, or even take only some of the fun bits, like the Hanseatic towns & league, and ignore other bits like the Reconquista; and the same principle can be applied to any other era. The idea, in games, is to make a thematic era recogniseable without necessarily making it 100% accurate. Verisimilitude, that’s what we want.

But while I’m happy for the realism to be a little fuzzy, what I’m dying to see is a little more depth in the portrayal of a given era. Don’t just make a grandiose Victorian-ish city — make a grandiose Victorian-ish city that has people in it! I mean, more than just the 2 vendors near the train station and the 18 quest givers scattered around from the docks to the creepy churches to the flower market. Vanguard’s New Targonor was a great concept and looked pretty good, but it was sterile, empty, and dead (and also a lagfest of almost Ironforge-esque proportions);  Khal, one of its Qalian counterparts, was a little more lively but I kept wondering where all the people in this supposedly-bustling town actually lived. And besides, when did a dozen static NPCs become game-shorthand for “bustling”? Twelve is not bustle. It’s barely a small crowd, and only if you pack them into a broom cupboard. Bustle only starts at 25, and that’s the rule (that I just made up).

I realise that adding NPCs whose sole purpose is to move around and provide background colour requires resources, both to create and to run. But I’m long past the point when I can see a few houses, with a few NPCs standing always in the same place by these houses waiting to quest me up or buy my rat tails, and not find that ridiculously UNrealistic. There’s got to be some kind of middle ground game design can find between hogging all the resources on “decoration” and creating places that are devoid of life. Some settings require it more than others, and the “teeming masses” Victorian era is, to my mind, certainly one of those. Frankly, I’d give up many many polygons in order to gain many many “fluff” NPCs.

Better yet, have some sort of rolling NPC-call where only part of the created colour-extras show up at any given time. Create, say, 50 of them, and use 30 of those at a time; after a while, have some of them go away and bring out some of the other ones. That way I’m not always seeing “Kevin the Cheeky Urchin” when I pass the corner of Tentacle Steet and Lepidoptera Lane; sometimes I’ll see Bob the Miserable Brat (his cousin), and other times I may see Sam the Shady Sausage Salesman (last name Dibbler, of course).

Oh and hey, designers — listen to your artists, and vice versa. “Really pretty” (sorry – “visually stunning!!”) does NOT equal “atmosphere.” There’s more atmosphere in some of the much less polished older games than there is in most of what’s been touted as “amazingly atmospheric” in MMOs in the last few years. Atmosphere, my kingdom for some atmosphere.

5 thoughts on “Realism through a fuzzy lens

  1. Atlantica Online actually does have NPC’s that wander from city to city. They also serve additional duties aside from just being local color. You have generically named NPC’s like Wandering Old Men. If found wandering outside a city, they can be convinced to move to your city if your guild controls one. You can even convince those on their way to another guild’s city to relocate to yours. Wandering mercenaries can be plied with gifts and promises to join your party.

    There are even named personages that will teach you craft skills, exchange useless skill books, or buy valuable cultural treasures.

  2. This is one of those areas I really spent a lot of time thinking about because, like you, I like a city to have atmosphere. I like to feel like if I walk into the seedy part of town that my character might very well be in danger of having his pockets picked, getting mugged, etc … I’d like NPCs to be more interactive, have lives of their own (not just walk back and forth). Fable (2) does a good job with this in that all the NPCs have scheduled lives. They go to bed at certain times, wake up, go to their jobs, etc… Yes it’s repeated, but you’re going to get that in any game or the code necessary to make it not repeating would be huge.

    Anyway, I don’t think designers (or at least I HOPE) make it their main focus to include EVERYTHING about an era in their version of it. I mean, for every dark age themed game we’ve had, imagine if we had to put up with the plague and all the sicknesses and leprosy. It would suck. Putting in only the things that can be circumvented or viewed from afar work, but then you start to get a feeling that your character is separated from the world and you feel detached so … *shrugs*

    I know that the plague they did near the launch of EQ2 was a badly executed idea, but it was a good overall idea. If they had done it different … might have worked.

    As for the talking down to people, I’d think that the main premise of such an era as the victorian era would be either A: being a fat cat and realizing they’re all superficial idiots, rebelling against them and finding your own way or B: fighting them as a quirky little sprat as you said before would be the best way to accommodate would-be adventurers. Let them be their own way (and yes I’m sure some people would choose to do it for the sake of anonymity and what not, but fuck them) and just kill them 😛

  3. @wiqd

    I would love to see and play a fable/fable 2 MMO. I kept on thinking that while i was playing it.

  4. Nice article, Ysh. I’ve argued for a while that “atmosphere” is why the WoW art style works despite not being bleeding edge. I’m biased because I’m an artist in the industry, but I can and will always argue for strong art direction and a style guide wherever possible. Pretty != high poly count/texture resolution.

    I wish more devs understood that.

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