Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Dramatic Unrealism

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 29, 2015

sith_spacebattleMonsters in “dungeons” in RPGs don’t display “realistic” AI for the same reasons that enemy combatants in kung fu movies take turns getting clobbered by the hero / heroine. An organized defense (or offense) would… well, it wouldn’t be any fun.

But then, an organized attack against an actual entrenched forces dwelling underground in a “realistic” world would simply be plugging up the ventilation points and smoking them out (or to death). Or damming up a local stream and diverting the water to flood the place, and then literally mopping up afterwards. So long as you aren’t trying to rescue hostages or recover something that would be damaged by smoke or water, that would work nicely.

We accept these “ridiculous” tropes because they make the genre work. Same thing for big space battles. I’ve read one book series (The Lost Fleet, by John Campbell) and seen one anime TV series (Starship Operators) that focused on space combat in a somewhat more realistic manner and in such a way that it made things fun and interesting, but in general audiences want to see the Battle of Trafalgar in outer space. Close range, (relatively) slow speed, lots of guns blazing. Piecemeal damage to ships to raise the dramatic stakes rather than instant explosive decompression.

In Frayed Knights, I took some efforts to either give a pseudo-rational explanation or at least hang a lampshade over some of these tropes. But in the end — we do it because it’s fun, and as an audience, we accept it because it’s what we want to play. We’ll willingly suspend our disbelief so long as we’re not asked to go too far.

In playing any game or sport, the most interesting competition is against an opponent who is pretty close to your own skill level. This is true as an observer as well – we like to watch close games. Or in stories – we enjoy seeing the hero snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. In fact, that’s a leading reason IMO why it’s so difficult to have a great player-driven story in video games… players naturally tend to avoid such close calls as possible, and will try and secure a victory as early as possible.

To that end, audiences will accept some level of unrealism (even if they may grouse about it) as long as it makes things more fun / interesting. I always take calls for “better AI” or “more realistic gameplay” to be more of a call for greater dramatic verisimilitude more than actual ‘realism.’ We want the enemies┬ánot to seem deliberately stupid when it’s being stupid in our favor. We want them to┬ábe smart enough to challenge us, but not smart enough to wipe the floor with us. We want to be able to do cool stuff in our virtual worlds that would seem reasonable in the real world (or in a cinematic world), but we don’t want to be hobbled with realistic human limitations.

Or again, maybe sometimes we do.

Tropes can be good, even if not very believable. They just need to be handled with care. Sometimes it’s good to reevaluate the conventions, and either reject them or embrace them with a little bit of a unique or interesting spin. The important thing for creators is that even if they embrace unrealistic conventions, they do so for the right reasons – to keep things interesting, fun, and dramatic.

Filed Under: Design, Writing - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

  • rjp said,

    “damming up a local stream and diverting the water to flood the place, and then literally mopping up afterwards”

    I bet someone has done or had this done to them in Dwarf Fortress.

  • Cuthalion said,


  • Maklak said,

    > damming up a local stream and diverting the water to flood the place, and then literally mopping up afterwards
    Hehe. In Fallout Equestria that’s what they did to one underground fortress after it turned out to be infested by small, fast and deadly pests.
    I’ve also read a WH40k Only War adventure book where blowing up enemy’s air filters or blowing up a volcanoe to drown them in lava are recommended tactics for the PCs.

    Somewhat realistic space battles are in Emma Feldna EDF. The spaceships send ACVs/ drones at each other. Those weghts 10 tonnes, accelerate at 20g and try to hit enemy’s ACVs or their ship. They’re just mass, targeting computer and engine for the same reason raiguns shoot sabots instead of explosive warheads; given enough speed kinetic energy exceeds chemical energy of even the most volatile explosive. By my calculations a gram of explosive has around 4.2 kJ, which is about the same as one gram at the speed of 3km/s, which would be achieved after 15s of acceleration at 20g (by something better than our primitive rocket technology). Anyway, after the ships both swarm, they wait, sometimes for a few hours. Evasive manurers are attempted, but usually to no avail. A hit by a single ACV generally means kilotones of explosive power – enough to destroy the ship. ACVs that miss may attempt another pass, but it may take them hours or even days to decelerate and switch to a new interception trajectory.

    I’ve read a book by Jacek Dukaj that took the idea of space combat even further: drones had one-shot weapons, like nukes or high-powered particle beams / lasers. Several sides deployed them into Sol system and built them so that their target lists could be periodically updated as alliances changed. Eventually the oldest encryption methods were cracked, so everyone was broadcasting messages to reprogram drones that may or may not be there. The result was a clusterfuck where no one could be sure if there was a drone nearby and what was on it’s black and white lists, so “accidents” were a constant threat.

    I kinda like 4X Space games where you at least have the option to use missiles or fighters to take on those pesky oversized enemy warhips with beam weapons.