Friday, January 04, 2013

Realism and Red Baron

The first videogame I ever really played was Red Baron. I had the Windows95 version and it was one of the only real games we had at the time.

Being quite young, I didn't fully understand the concepts, much less the design, but it was fun to fly around and the aerial battles were, for a game of its time, pretty thrilling. I always loved flying tri-planes.

My father taught me just enough about the menu to get me into a game, and I picked up a little bit more on my own over time. The campaigns were great, but there was one part of the game I could never get the hang of.

Oh, the dreaded "Realism" menu.

My ten-year-old self had no idea what the word meant. A fair number of people I know would argue--perhaps correctly--that my 22-year-old self still doesn't know what the word means. It was some mythical concept that changed the whole game and made its story impossible. I stayed away from that menu altogether. Realism would make me crash repeatedly no matter what.

From a game design perspective, Red Baron was a really remarkable flight simulator for its time. Sure, the physics were bad, but true to an actual World War I experience, your engine could freeze at any moment and your guns would jam every time Manfred von Richtofen was bearing down on you. It was infuriatingly realistic.

The game was much more fun with reduced realism. Like many games it minimalized the luck and chance involved in surviving a war and made it about the player's skill instead, which helped create an "ace" persona for the player. The game used some smart implied story to emphasize the war environment beyond just gameplay: newspaper clippings, months in P.O.W. camps, mission briefs and some really superb photos created the experience.

In creating a player ace, Red Baron also revised history. The player could shoot down some of the greatest pilots in WWI. Taking those actions within the story of a brutal war created an ethical twinge as strong as the hopeless lack of control when one's carburetor froze mid-battle. The fantasy in Red Baron created depth beyond a single, unlucky event. In making a player's actions mean something, the story's contradiction of historical glory could be much more meaningful.

There are realistic works that are meaningful. A discrete use of detail to turn the audience's eyes inwards can raise evocative, self-reflexive questions. Sometimes exact detail can show banality or hopelessness perfectly. Writers, of books or games, owe themselves imagination, too. The banal detail is often much more powerful when the scope of a story has already been stretched to its limits or when the world is one we as readers do not fully understand.

We do not live inside ourselves. I loved the possibility of Red Baron. I loved the situation it created using revisionist history grounded in actual events. In a way, the game had the perfect balance of realism and fantasy: enough potential to grab and entertain, empowering the player until it made the realities that much more potent.

In some ways, the survivors of war bear the most guilt. Red Baron revised history so that with enough ability, a player would survive WWI. That is hardly realistic. Most people who fought in WWI did not survive. They also aren't able to look back on it and learn from it. A player who died on his second mission every game didn't ever play long enough to get a sense of the simulated war experience.

The experience doesn't have to be real in order for people to learn.

After all, I flew tri-planes and always felt slightly guilty about shooting down enemy Germans, precisely because it was pointless within the game. And that was real.

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