[In this editorial, Game Developer magazine editor in chief Brandon Sheffield calls for developers to consider whether continuing to chase high-fidelity reality is the only valid choice for games.]

Remember when the norm for a video game was a blue hedgehog that ran fast and collected rings and emeralds? Or a plumber that took mushrooms to become large, and grabbed a flower to throw fireballs? In reality they do none of those things, but in the name of a game, they make sense, inspire wonder, and create a new universe.

This isn’t another one of those articles about the good old days, and how everything used to be better. Rather, it is an article about missed opportunity.

Time To Create

As the graphical capabilities of computers and home consoles increased over time, and as demographics skewed older, the temptation to emulate and recreate reality grew stronger and stronger. To that end, games increasingly tried to make their systems and design follow realistic constructs, boasting the most realistic cars and licenses, or the most realistic guns, or a military contractor on staff to advise on tactics.

But games are not reality. They are games.

We’ve seen time and time again that the closer you try to emulate reality, the more the “game” aspects begin to stick out. Invisible walls in Final Fantasy, or grenades spawning at your feet when you go the wrong way in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 are examples of kicking the player out of that illusion of reality, and letting them know that yes, this is a game, and yes, the rules are designed to keep you in the space of this world, not the real world.

In reality, as a soldier I could disobey my orders and go exploring around the other side. I could be cowardly and turn back to base. Games shouldn’t have to plan for every eventuality, of course, but it’s not so hard to create universes that are compelling but where the unusual, or even simple backtracking, is not so unfeasible.

Emulation of reality also brings with it all sorts of moral concerns about what is being taught to children or impressionable folk. Not that this should influence creative decisions, but when a cartoon mouse hits someone with a mallet it’s a lot different to when a prisoner in Manhunt does it. The discussion needs to take place, even if the decision is ultimately to go with reality.

Pandora's Box

Games that emulate reality do have the powerful opportunity to make people think carefully about the world around them. By placing the player in real-world situations and applying real consequences in-game, a spark may well go off in little Jimmy’s brain. But there’s a high likelihood he still won’t see the consequences as real. After all, you turn off the TV or the monitor and that entire world is gone.

I’m not a fan of James Cameron's Avatar, but its simple story resonated with a lot of people, and I’ve heard more people talking about injustice and the politics of power based on having watched a movie about fake blue people than I have heard them talking about Guantanamo Bay, or the war in Afghanistan. It doesn’t mean these people are stupid, or even necessarily uninformed, but it does mean that in order to really reach them, they had to be approached in a different way. I think that this can be true of fun as well as serious messages.

We miss out on some of the great potential of this medium if we focus too heavily on the real. We have the power to create entire worlds—isn’t using this power to create a shadow of reality a bit of a cop-out? And really, it’s only a conceptual cop-out. In practice, reality is quite hard to recreate. This is why the lushly-detailed world of Avatar’s Pandora is so compelling to people. It’s new, but recognizable. It’s compellingly different, but not alienating. This is the potential that exists within games.

Maybe in the past we created crazy games simply because we couldn’t recreate reality with the technology. Consider Bayonetta. Here you’ve got a woman whose clothing is made of her hair, and has guns in her shoes. I’ve heard a lot of people, journalists especially, talk about how crazy this is. In 1992 this would not be crazy. This would be par for the course in the creation of a video game.

Choose Your Adventure

There is a choice that developers can make now. We know that we can visually emulate reality to a pretty convincing level. Now is the time when we can decide whether we want to use that power to recreate reality or forge universes of our own. We don’t need space marines or aliens to do it, either. The world of BioShock’s Rapture captivated audiences immediately. It was recognizable, but different, and this is something that resonates with people.

I just downloaded and played the Heavy Rain demo on the PS3. I urge readers to do the same and see how they feel about the reality emulated there. Sure, there are complex emotions and scenarios in place here, but when I’m playing I’m just pressing random buttons that come up on screen and have nothing to do with the actions I’m performing. Whether you agree with designer David Cage in his choice to make the game this way is not the point. The important thing is that he did make a specific choice, as he told me in a Gamasutra interview.

When a game is made, think, "What universe fits my view? Can I tell my story with a Rapture? With a Pandora? Or does it need to exist in my reality?"

If these questions are answered honestly, and with real thought, games will resonate better, and their messages, their fun, and their immersion will only increase in potency.