Verisimilitude – When to Stay within the Realm of Probability
Verisimilitude is the technical term used by writers to describe the readers’ acceptance of the facts and events within the story. When the story steps out of the realm of probability, the readers get frustrated.
Works of fiction must suspend the readers’ disbelief if they want to keep the reader. Readers are only willing to accept so much. How much varies with the reader, which often separates the readers of classical fiction and literature from those of fantasy and science fiction.
Computer games have it easy because their target market is much more likely to be readers of science fiction and fantasy. Though the so-called "break through" titles which establish new genres of games often go beyond the sci-fi and fantasy market. Titles like Sim City, Tetris, Civilization, Deer Hunter, and sports games of all types don’t make any grand leaps of logic or fantasy, and they entice players who’ve never shot a single alien. Even so, sci-fi and fantasy oriented games are the vast majority of games made today.
So assuming you are working on a sci-fi or fantasy game, you do have certain latitude (or indeed, a certain obligation) to extend the realm of possibility for the players. But it’s important to know when and where and how far to stretch reality. Players like the realm of possibility extended more for themselves than for other characters. While this seems one-sided, it’s what players want. Players feel cheated if the AI enemy kicks their ass by doing something amazing and beyond their capabilities. They prefer to have their butt kicked by an opponent who’s limited to what they can do. Then they can at least be impressed and comprehend that it is just a skill issue.
On the other hand, players enjoy pulling off amazing feats beyond the scope of the AI capabilities and romping the AI for a spell. So give the players what they want. Let them enjoy themselves with a little god-like power. But be aware that giving that ability to players all the time can lead to a dull, unchallenging game. The trick is to balance it so that players don’t always have that edge, either by limiting the use of the ability or by countering it with enemy powers. In an ideal level, the players will face overwhelming odds and overcome them by leaping beyond the apparent realm of possibility. That way they can feel like they have done the impossible and that they’re real heroes.
The lead designer should describe the boundaries of the game reality to level designers. This will give you a concept of how the fantasy world works and what you can do.
Additionally, this reality often evolves as the core gameplay is balanced and new ideas are introduced, because preconceptions often fail when the game is complete enough to play. The so-called "fun factor" outweighs the unsubstantiated premise every time. However the boundary is set, it should be maintained throughout the game. Having one level that distorts players’ sense of the game’s reality and their own limitations can break the verisimilitude and potentially ruin the game.
Armed with this understanding of level design theories, you can begin creating your own levels with greater confidence and a clearer insight into what will make them successful. Next week I’ll present a set of rules for level design and offer advice to aspiring professionals.
Tim Ryan is an independent game designer working under the pseudonym "Muse of Fire Productions". He has been working in the game industry since 1992 and published numerous games on a variety of platforms. His recent work can be seen in the hit PC game MechCommander. Direct questions or friendly comments to [email protected].