Who spilled the realism in my formalist pie?

I was playing Metroid Prime 3 today and felt inspired to mentally butcher realism and formalism into this post on realism in video games. Formalism is probably at the heart of most video games. Creating mythical lands of the unreal for people to play in is not exactly a realistic representation of the “real world.” However, without some of those realist representations crossing over the formalist expression (video game) is largely unplayable, perhaps even incomprehensible.

Metroid Prime 3 is about Samus Aran, a female human-ish bounty hunter who goes out and kicks intergalactic butt. The franchise is decades old and one of the most successful in the games business. The setting is obviously formalist as I have yet to jet around space on interstellar bounty hunting missions to defend the universe against armies of brain sac looking, life force sucking creatures. Also, I can not compact my body into the size of a basket ball and roll around at high speeds … yet.

However formalist the game may be, elements of realism pervade, especially the reference back to Samus Aran’s humanity (arguably the player’s humanity, since you control Samus). The game is played through a first-person perspective with the player always looking through the visor built-in to Samus’ helmet. A particularly cool trick of the developers is to show a reflection of Samus’s human eyes in the visor when the lighting is just right. It just so happens that the lighting is “just right” after every major battle where the steam from your weapon fogs up the helmet. In short, after every major battle that distances the player from their real situation (I don’t fight many space piractes) the game flashes a set of very distinctly human eyes on screen to bring you back down.

This is just one example and there are dozens or hundreds more. Guns look like guns, humans like humans, political-military structures remain in tact, etc. The minutiae of the game are entirely realist while the “spectacular” are formalist. To me, there really isn’t any other way to build any form of media. You need anchors to the real to help your audience make sense of your message.

As this bad idea has develop in writing, I realize that Prince’s notion of the “perceptually real” is just as spot on in games as it is movies. Though, he doesn’t quite address the minutiae of the real combined with the spectacular of the perceptually real and/or formalist fake.

Enjoy some Metroid Prime 3 montage!

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