The Art of Absurdity

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When it comes to storytelling, in any medium, it is important to keep a tonal balance. In film and television, if the tone is always dark and gritty, it can get wearing and even break the immersion, becoming melodramatic. At the same time, if there are too many moments of levity or humor, the experience becomes more casual and harder to get invested. The same sort of thing can happen in games. It’s important to keep a balance of realism and absurdity, not just in story, but also in game mechanics.

Realism can add a lot to a game. I, personally, appreciate when games add elements like limb damage, stamina, and bullet drop (depending on the game, of course), but sometimes it’s taken too far. In Shenmue II, the ending of the game includes a hiking sequence, with little interaction, that takes 2 hours in real time. In DayZ, you have to consider sore feet, rain making you cold, staying fed, ingesting bacteria from dirty water, etc. DayZ, obviously appeals to some people, and I’m glad that it exists for them, but I think there is a line where realism turns from strategic considerations to frustrating or boring tedium. These games can be interesting, but will rarely have a lasting playerbase.

On the other side, there are some games that are too absurd. I think that absurdity is a highly underrated feature in games. Absurdity can create some of the most fun moments. In Wolfenstein New Order, you impersonate a scientist to sneak into a Nazi research base on the moon. Killing Nazis on the moon while dual wielding sniper rifles that can transform into laser guns is an incredible amount of fun. In Fortnite Battle Royale, you can build ridiculous, physics-defying structures to outmaneuver opponents while dressed as a bush and then fire a rocket at a teammates feet to pick them up and send them flying across the map while surfing on a rocket. It is absurd and amazing and incredibly fun. Some games, however, are built around absurdity, and while entertaining, have very little staying power. A perfect example of this is Goat Simulator. Flying around a map as a murderous, glitched out goat, constantly knocking things over and causing mass destruction is fun and gimmicky, but only for an hour or two before it gets old. Octodad and the Just Cause series are the same way.

One of my favorite games is The Last of Us. It is a masterpiece of pacing, storytelling, and character growth. It does really well with balancing its tone as well. The setting and story are very dark and serious, but there are beautiful moments where the characters and the players take a moment to release some of the tension. The giraffe encounter in Salt Lake City was incredibly moving because it was a perfect counter balance to the depression and trauma created by the encounter with David. Ellie’s teasing of Bill helped distract both the player and Joel from Tess’ death. Mechanically there is realism in the arrows breaking based on how the corpse falls and the noise created by starting up a generator, but there are also considerations for the sake of enjoyable gameplay, such as being able to listen carefully and see through walls or being able to stick several hand guns, a bow, shotgun, rifle, a brick, several nail bombs, lit molotov cocktails, shivs, ammo, and many more things in a single backpack. Wolfenstein is another good example of a game that has a good balance.

I should clarify that I understand that games like DayZ and Goat Simulator have people that they directly appeal to, but for the general gamer audience, it’s different. Like so many things, games are best as a collection of elements from both sides in moderation. Realism and absurdity are both valuable qualities in games, as long as there is some of both.

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