Realism in our video games is a good thing, in theory. After all, the more realistic the gaming experience, the better your chance, as an audience, of being pulled into the atmosphere of the title, and audience immersion’s vital to any form of storytelling. Players laud it, developers seek it, and game publishers tout it. “Realism” is a buzzword that every AAA developer in the business seems eager, even desperate, to be able to attach to their product.
There is such a thing as going too far, though.
For all that we value realism in our games, there are certain conventions to them that defy real-world logic, yet are nonetheless far better than a more authentic alternative. When we play a First Person Shooter, we usually don’t want things so real that a single bullet puts our character down for the count, as it would in real life in most situations. When we play a platformer, we usually don’t want things so real that our character can only jump like 2 feet up, making actually platforming in our platformer pretty much impossible. And, of course, there are plenty of RPG conventions in which it is far better to suspend disbelief than shoot for absolute reality, too. And, because not everyone can achieve great things with their life, I have compiled some of these situations below. Enjoy.
Short, All-Healing Inn Rests: Let’s start off with an easy one. This is a situation that people have been poking fun at for decades now. You know the deal: you drag your bruised, battered, bloody, and bereft of life party members into a town, head to an inordinately inexpensive hotel, and after 3 seconds of a dark screen and a reassuring little sleep jingle, everyone is right as rain. From the ritziest resort hotels to a single pile of straw inside an actual mud hut, there is no ill, no injury in the universe that cannot be cured completely by spending 1/30th of a minute in an RPG bed. It’s a funny quirk of the genre we all know of, so easily lampooned that there are even some RPGs that lampshade this--Undertale, for example, allows you to use the inn at the town of Snowdin for free, because the innkeeper doesn’t feel it’s right to take your money when you’re only using the bed for a few seconds at a time.
The thing is, although almost all of us are only gently ribbing at RPGs when we bring up this silliness, I have actually seen a few people online honestly criticize the lack of reality with this trope. So I’ll just say flat-out here: you do not want a more realistic sleeping-healing arrangement in the genre. You do not want to have your less than 5 second wait time be extended to more appropriately match a full night’s sleep. Hell, it bugs me in Fallout 4 when I need to have my character sit down and wait for 8 hours so I can sell some stuff to those blasted diurnal merchants, because the waiting process takes a whole 10 seconds or so. That’s just 10 measly seconds, and yet the fact that it’s over twice as long as a standard JRPG’s 8-12 hour night-to-day period makes me impatient! Trust me, strange internet people out there who have actually made sincere complaints about this, you do not want a more realistic wait time for your party’s shut-eye breaks.
And you definitely do not want to wait a more realistic time in terms of the healing aspect of this situation. The period of recovery from having a random encounter monster unleash a blazing inferno on you and then tearing your chest open with its claws is not one which you want to wait out in real time.
Decaying Weapons: Goddamn do I hate it when RPGs force you to constantly perform weapon maintenance. YES, developers, I know that in real life, you could not slash hundreds of rats, goblins, slimes, dragons, skeletons, zombies, and so on without, at some point, taking a moment to clean, polish, sharpen, and hammer your weapon back into working order. That doesn’t mean I want a weapon health bar hanging over my head all the damn time! Micromanaging the health of not only my characters, but my tools as well, is not fun! Especially in an RPG, a genre which has you encounter and kill enemies in the literal thousands, making any weapon repair system in place a constant annoyance.
And no, Fallout 3 and New Vegas, I do not give you both a pass on this. Yes, the concept of weapons breaking down and needing to be repaired is, indeed, very appropriate for the setting and themes of the Fallout franchise. But you know what? Just this once, the needs for smooth, enjoyable gameplay trump the higher aspects of the game, because the constant frustration of knowing that every bullet you fire makes your gun less effective makes the setting and theme less enjoyable and engaging even as it better expresses it.
Weapon- and Armor-Breaking Abilities: While we’re on the subject of frustration with mortal equipment, the occasional game you come across that allows combatants to permanently break their opponent’s weapon and armor will always, sooner or later, invoke great cursing from me. Hey, I admit, it is a lot of fun in Final Fantasy Tactics to use Meliadoul or Orlandu to render your enemies harmless by destroying their weapons. But you know what far, far outweighs that fun? When an enemy does it back to you, and ends up destroying a piece of equipment that was unique and you’ll never be able to get another. Yeah, it’s realistic that fierce combat can lead to the destruction of one’s weapons and protective clothing, but the potential for frustration with this is just too high to make it worth incorporating.
I still have nightmares about enemies breaking my equipment in Lunar: Dragon Song.
Money from Monsters: Another quirk of RPGs that has been long lampooned is that random monsters are apparently carrying some seriously stacked wallets around, just waiting for you to kill them and steal their mysteriously earned cash. This is so unrealistic in so many ways. Non-sapient creatures don’t carry money, most of these monsters don’t have a place to be carrying it to begin with, sometimes the creatures carrying the money are so small that it doesn’t even seem like they could be lugging around this much change when their world’s currency is coin- or gold-based, there is no possible way that any kind of economy could be sustained when money just grows on (monster) trees, and so on.
The thing is, as silly as this is, it’s the easiest, most direct, and least annoying way to handle money-gathering in most RPGs. An RPG with a robust and easy to use barter system, like any given Fallout title, manages well enough without monster-money, but most games that try to avoid this trope and replace it with something more realistic don’t gain much from doing so. Sometimes you’ll have a system in which you’re not taking money from enemies you defeat, but rather parts of their body, like tusks and furs and such, and then selling those parts at a merchant as your primary source of income. And that works fine, I guess, but really, all that’s happening is that you’re still just going to a shop after beating enemies to access and spend your money, except with a few extra windows and button presses each time as you sell items instead of just having the money automatically. Oh, and I guess that if you have something you need to spend money on before you can reach a merchant to sell the items, then you’re shit out of luck. Fun.
Travel Speed: Is it realistic that you can take an airship, just a big hot air balloon with some propellers, across the globe and back again within the span of 60 seconds in half the Final Fantasy titles out there, along with countless other games? Not unless the average RPG planet could fit inside my tiny hometown.*
But let me tell you something. The day you play Suikoden 4 and spend over 40 minutes sailing from 1 end of the map to the other, that is the day that you stop being at all troubled by the idea of unrealistic travel speeds in your RPGs, forever.
Running Endurance: Most RPG characters are utterly tireless running machines, it seems, capable of traversing every enterable location in the entire world at a brisk jog without a moment’s rest (so long as you hold down the Run button, that is). Myself, I get winded after just about a minute of running. Actually, it’s more like I get winded after just about a minute of thinking about running. Even for those of us who are actually in shape, though, it’s not realistic to think that we could run from 1 end of an ancient abandoned city to the other without a single break in pace, save for the occasional random battle to the death.
But I’d much rather believe that Dean Karnazes is the shared ancestor of every RPG protagonist than deal with what a lot of games do to make for a more realistic simulation of running: the dreaded, annoying as fuck Fatigue Meter, a visible (or worse, sometimes unseen) limit to how long your character can run before having to go back to walking for a moment to recharge. True, not every RPG uses this concept poorly--The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword incorporates a Fatigue Meter for Link very well into its gameplay--but as a general rule, well, I want to be able to get from Point A to Point B on a dungeon map as fast as I’m allowed to. Yeah, sorry game artists, but your dungeon backgrounds will never be so majestic and beautiful that I want to slow down and take them in rather than play the damn game. And true, not every game with a running limit is unendurable to walk through--you really only end up wanting/needing to run in Fallout 4 every now and then, for example--but by and large, imposing such limits results in an unpleasant gameplay scenario where you’re just dashing as much you can through the screen, and getting annoyed every time your endurance runs out and you have to watch the character crawl forward at his/her pathetic walking pace.
Fewer Random Enemies Remaining = Lower Encounter Rate: I’ve only encountered this problem once before, in the game Lords of Xulima, but I really hope that’ll be the only time. Sometimes you have a game in which the enemies you can randomly encounter are limited, and thus there is a finite amount of experience you can get from the game during your playthrough, making that experience much more precious. Now, realistically-speaking, the fewer enemies remain in an area, the less frequently you should encounter them, since there are fewer invisibly lounging about for you to run into (and, frankly, you’d think they’d probably start actively hiding from you after a certain point). Yes, realistically, your rate of random encounters should lower as the number of enemies left decreases. But when Lords of Xulima tried this out, all that happened was that I got bored and frustrated from running around in circles for 5 minutes straight without encountering a single enemy. LoX is the kind of RPG where every experience point you can get matters, so to make the process of gathering that XP far longer for no reason save an unnecessary bit of realism that no one asked for was a really dumb and/or mean-spirited design choice. I’ll take the convenience of steadily encountering limited enemies over the tiresome realism of long gaps between encounters indicating the recent scarcity of monsters.
Swimming with Armor On: For a bunch of guys and gals weighed down by iron plate mail and steel weaponry, not to mention hundreds of consumable items in their packs, RPG characters sure don’t exhibit much trouble with buoyancy. Hell, they usually need to go out of their way to try to sink--despite the fact that he’s carrying a sizable metal shield and multiple steel swords, not to mention a host of other weighty doohickeys like a hookshot and a hammer outright named Megaton, Link has to actively equip the Iron Boots in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time to sink to the bottom of a body of water, for example.**
Nonetheless, I’d rather suspend my disbelief about suits of armor that double as life jackets than risk a return to the other extreme, so popular in the early days of gaming--the old Water = Death days from 80s platformers and RPGs like Startropics and The Magic of Scheherazade. Having to see any random puddle as a life-threatening obstacle is not a gaming cliche I wish to return to.
Underwater Breathing Limits: Is it really all that realistic that the party of Final Fantasy 5 can hold their breath in the Sunken Tower for a full 7 minutes even though they can potentially be spending a lot of that time performing the physical activities associated with combat? FF5 would be a much more interesting game if Guybrush Threepwood was its protagonist, but sadly, we’re stuck with Butz and his prosaic posse, so the 7 minutes of holding their breaths while performing rigorous activity is a little less than realistic. Nor is it realistic that Cloud and company have a whole 20 minutes as they somehow battle on the ocean floor to kill Emerald Weapon.
However, I owned the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game for the NES. So I will never, ever, EVER criticize any game that wants to forego realistic breath-holding times in favor of just letting its heroes inexplicably take as long as they need to in underwater temples, caves, and whatnot.
Limitations to Inventory and/or Carry Weight: 99 bottles of Potion jammed into the same backpack, 99 bottles of Potion...you take on out, drink it down, 98 bottles of Potion jammed into the same backpack...along with assorted other restorative agents, a few bombs, dozens of magical rings and baubles, and a few entire sets of armor. Yeah, maybe not entirely realistic. But I prefer accepting that all protagonists order their bags from the same catalogue that Mary Poppins does, to those infuriating moments when you have to throw away a rare or unique item to make room for another because your inventory’s full, or the tedium of having to slowly crawl back to your home base in a Fallout game because you’ve found more valuable salvage than your carrying capacity wants to deal with.
The Fallout World’s Decay: I love the setting of Fallout, a sentiment which I have expressed here before more than once. But let’s face it: as great as it is for depicting its post-apocalyptic world, there is no way that the ruins you find in parts of the D.C. area, near and in Las Vegas, and throughout the Boston region should be in as good condition as they are in Fallout 3, New Vegas, and 4. We are talking about 200 damn years of time! The places that haven’t been significantly inhabited or looted in these games over that period of 200 years should not just be rusty, broken, and falling apart; they should be pretty much unrecognizable rubble!
Still, the beauty of Fallout is how much it tells us about ourselves and our culture as you find and explore the remains of our civilization. So many of the great moments of Fallout come in the form of the notes, holotapes, and computer entries of the people from before the time of the Great War. Yeah, the holotapes of the woman in Fallout 4 who sacrificed herself for science in an attempt to find a new radiation-removing drug shouldn’t still be functional after sitting for 200 years in the warzone of Boston (nor, for that matter, should the house they’re located in even still be standing), and the computer in Fallout 3 which you can read the entries of a doctor trying, in the days following the bombs dropping, to keep a group of people from dying to radiation poisoning should not still be in working order when it’s just sitting out there, exposed to the elements and the curiosity of raiders, super mutants, and heaven knows what else...but without these connections to the people of the previous age, without these structures standing and waiting to be explored and understood, Fallout would not be nearly as good.
Bathroom Breaks: Credit to my sister for this one. As with movies, shows, comics, books, and everything else, video game characters are granted the blessing of only having to go take a dump when it is narratively convenient. Which, for most RPG characters, means that they'll go the entirety of an 80-hour game without even so much as a single uncomfortable, yearning glance at the bushes. And that's good! Because when the average RPG adventure involves trekking cross-continent over the course of days, weeks, and months, the last thing you want to have to do is start stopping every half hour or so to manage potty breaks. Take a road trip with a 5-year-old if you really must have that experience.
And I suppose that’s all for today. What’s the point of this rant? I dunno. Probably just that I like to talk about stuff. But I guess if I wanted you to take anything from this, it’s that realism in storytelling, video games included, needs to be tempered by what is legitimately best for the narrative and the purpose. We may rib, mock, and even criticize some of the odd quirks of RPGs, but we should keep in mind that there are certain conventions to the genre that, strange and silly though they may be, are better to accept and roll with than have replaced by a more realistic alternative.
* Well, I guess Democratus from Anachronox could...but I’m pretty sure that’s the only one.
** What makes even less sense of this situation is the fact that Link is also technically carrying those metal boots with him at all times after he finds them, yet they only actually drag him down when he’s specifically wearing them. What, do they suddenly stop weighing anything once he takes them off?