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3:36pm on Sunday, 3rd September, 2017:



Just because a world has dragons, that doesn't mean anything goes.

When you play a game or read a novel or watch a movie, you are entering a world of fiction. There are truths about the world depicted that are not true of the real world. You are a medieval general. Sherlock Holmes was a person. A mother and daughter are looking for love. The fiction constitutes the premise you have to accept if you're to buy into the world.

What about everything the fiction doesn't describe? Well, it defaults to how it is in the real world. Horses can't shoot arrows. Queen Victoria was a person. People live in the United States of America.

Sometimes, things occur that the fiction doesn't explain but you know why they're there. Perhaps arrows fly a little further than they should because that makes for better gameplay. Perhaps Watson limps in the wrong leg because the author forgot in which one he was wounded. Perhaps no-one ever uses the lavatory because, frankly, I don't want to see that thank you very much.

The reason that everything the fiction omits defaults to the way the real world does it is that we understand the real world. We're following a story and we want to be able to think about why things have happened and what that means for what will happen. This requires us to have an operational model of the fictional world. Without one, we can't establish hypotheses or make deductions. When you have a good game designer, or a good novelist, or a good director, you can trust that what happens happens because it makes sense. If the enemy doesn't advance, it's waiting for a reason, not because of bad AI. If a boy hugs himself when being asked questions, he's afraid, it's not just just a bit of business to slow down the pacing. If the mother starts to lose weight, it's because she's developing a terminal illness, not because the actress has changed her personal trainer.

In the early days of virtual world development, we called this concept "realisticness". A better word would be "verisimilitude", but realisticness was preferred because it tended to be used in the negative: concepts were said to be "unrealistic" if what happened didn't match the player's understand of what "should" happen. If I drop a hedgehog off a tall cliff, the hedgehog should die. My character dies when I fall off that cliff: so should the hedgehog. The hedgehog doesn't die, though. That's unrealistic.

If the hedgehog had previously been flagged as being magical, OK, well maybe you might cut it some slack. If it appears to be just a regular hedgehog, though? Well, in a game that you feel you can trust, the reason it doesn't die is perhaps because it's magic, so you're being given information about the hedgehog which you didn't previously have. You would feel justified in exploring this, and be disappointed if you discovered nothing: it is indeed just a nothing-special hedgehog that ought to die when tossed from a cliff (but doesn't).

You can also get unrealisticness when the fiction doesn't hold. I just melted a hole through a castle wall with that wand: why can't I use it on this tree you want me to fell?

When something is unrealistic, it means there's an inconsistency. Suddenly, either the fiction fails or you have to appeal to the fiction to explain why the non-fiction fails. If the fiction can't answer, then it's bad fiction. This is why people don't like it: their model of the made-up world is being broken for no good reason, and their theories about what might happen next are worthless.

To take a recent example, Game of Thrones on TV has a fat character who never loses weight despite trekking for thousands of miles through war-torn countryside. People complain about this. Why, though, if those same people are willing to accept the existence of dragons, would they gripe about people who should have got thinner but haven't? Well, they'd complain because the fiction explains the dragons, but it's silent about what happens to people who are getting a lot of exercise on little food. When queried about it, the correct response is either "there's something about this character you don't know" or "oops, yes, you're right, he should be a few pounds lighter". The correct response is not "why are you saying that's unrealistic when there are dragons in the world?". This is because we know the answer: the dragons are covered by the fiction, but supermetabolismman doesn't seem to be, hence the question.

This is important, because it's about trust. Jon Snow falls into water through broken ice and is utterly drenched through, yet he drags himself out and continues without hypothermia. Realistically, he should have hypothermia. He doesn't. Why doesn't he? Well, if I can trust the fiction, it's telling me something. Maybe his sword is protecting him? Maybe he has the same ability to resist cold that Daenerys has to resist heat? Both those have interesting implications. However, if the reason he doesn't suffer is "don't worry your pretty head about it, audience dear, just accept it like you accept the dragons", well that's not good enough. If I did accept it like I accept the dragons, then his survival should mean something special, because the dragons are something special.

Hmm. I should probably stop ranting now.

I hope the fans continue to complain about such things. Otherwise, it'll be Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull every day.

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Copyright © 2017 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).