The idea that games are becoming more realistic seems to stem from the evolution of a more complex visual and narrative aesthetic. Video games are becoming more intricate, requiring more attention to detail, and more awareness of plot nuances. Games are also becoming more self-aware - titles like Far Cry, Call of Duty, Mass Effect, and Assassin’s Creed all deal with complex sociological issues that immerse the gamer in a world similar to their own. But, especially when it comes to games like Assassin’s Creed, it’s clear that a lot of the “reality” of these games is in the tone. Modern games, such as Assassin’s Creed, deal with realism in challenging ways. By taking it out of its context, we can see Desmond’s journey as silly and magical, but the game tries to ground his journey in historical fiction, and the narrative appeals to our sense of reason.
By carefully shrinking away from humor, games have become more “realistic” due to this sense of reason. Violence in Borderlands is humorous, in Halo 3 & 4, the violence is a necessary evil - Master Chief and Cortana become weapons necessary to save the galaxy. While we are able to take the narrative in games like Halo serious, we often ignore the realism in more “silly” and “playful” games, such as Borderlands, because the tone defies our sense of reason.
The tone is everything when it comes to creating a “realistic” world - Borderlands deals with challenging topics by piling on satire. What makes Borderlands unique is that it deals with many of the tropes of the sci-fi first person shooter genre, but manages to avoid the dark tone of games like Metal Gear Solid, Halo and Mass Effect. This breaks down when the narrative of Borderlands is examined.
(Heavy SPOILER alert following.)
Cortana and Angel are easy to compare, but serve incredibly different roles in the narrative. As artificial intelligence, they stay with the hero throughout, and assist him (or, her) through various means. Both were/are living human females, and both possess some sort of technopathic powers. Cortana’s identity is a key focus of Halo 4, but Angel’s identity, while an important question, is lost in a sea of characters. Most other NPCs in Borderlands 2 are more colorful and more present in the game, especially the cast of former protagonists.
To most, the death of one of the major protagonists is what finally spurred a revenge quest. For me, Borderlands 2 hinged on an all-too-real tragedy of a father-daughter conflict. While games such as the Walking Dead and Assassin’s Creed are built around hyper-realistic characters, the satirical, magical world of Borderlands hides its dark secret. By your actions in the game, you are finally able to achieve vengeance and save the planet by violently tearing a family apart. The game rewards you for this task, and holds your hand throughout it - Clap Trap remains your loyal companion, and his antics are lovable and lighthearted. By the end of the game, the evil mask has been removed, and Hyperion has been defeated. There is no harshness at the end of Borderlands 2 - the deaths have all been avenged, and all sense of seriousness has been conquered in favor of blind destruction.
A major type of game I chose to avoid playing is the “horror” genre. Games like Dead Space, Resident Evil, and Aliens: Colonial Marines all deal with “serious” topics to incite a reaction in their audience. Because these games shy away from humor, their tone is serious. Even Resident Evil, ripe with betrayals and conspiracies, feels real, simply because of the artistic choices put into place when creating the game. There is no magic, and no fantasy - only technology and science. Still, the games tell fictional narratives, and storytellers with stronger wills than I would likely find much more enjoyment and entertainment out of these “serious” narratives.