Hyperrealism, Immersion, and The Division 2

Ubisoft’s 2019 release “Tom Clancy’s The Division 2”, has taken the games industry by storm, headlined by its breathtaking depiction of an overgrown Washington D.C. in the wake of a biological war, an exhaustively crafted 1:1 re-creation of our nation's capital. Massive Entertainment has cultivated a truly next-generation experience with the release, affording players the opportunity to defend some of the most recognizable landmarks in United States history; including the Lincoln Memorial, the Library of Congress, and the White House. I cannot help but wonder, however, what the future may hold for the medium popularized on aspects of escapism, as more titles begin to forego creating an original world in favor of a 3-D scan of the real world, or if “The Division 2” can really capture the sense of realism which it set out to achieve.

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“Realism” and “Immersion” are often conflated to describe the same concept; how the culmination of a game’s narrative, atmosphere, and world come together to give a player the illusion that they are taking part in something living, breathing, and dynamic. The concept of the open world has been a staple world-building element used by developers as they attempt to create truly “immersive” experiences, dating back to 2003’s “Grand Theft Auto III”. Some of the most popular Video Game series make use of the open-world; Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed, The Witcher, Watch Dogs, Grand Theft Auto, among so many others have attempted to change the way gamers navigate a 3D space by giving them the freedom to complete a narrative in whichever order they choose, thereby simulating a sense of agency not afforded by the linear experience afforded in more traditional media (Television, film, etc.). Unfortunately, several compromises must be made in order to accommodate the substantial amount of resources necessary for building an open world. Frequently this results in a lackluster narrative, unfinished visuals, or game-breaking bugs.

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Conversely, if a developer chooses to mitigate resources towards building their open world, it can lead to a product of excellent quality but with nothing to do. I like to refer to this as “No Man Sky Syndrome”, in reference to one of the most famous failed open-world games, 2016’s “No Man Sky”. Hello Games’ first foray into the industry
became infamous for its massive procedurally-generated open-world that offered almost nothing for a player to actually do. A truly fantastic open world is crafted with a balance of both breadth and depth. “The Witcher 3” was able to achieve an almost perfect 9.6 out of 10 on Metacritic, due to its exceptional balance of gameplay (combat, dialogue, crafting, etc.) and an open world which felt alive, giving the player the feel that their actions can impact the everyday lives of the game world’s virtual residents. A good open world is crafted around the gameplay, not the inverse. These games may not be “realistic” in the literal sense, but they are most certainly “immersive” in every sense of the word.

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“The Division 2” has taken the open-world genre to an entirely different level, as it attempts to create a hyper-realistic experience, conflating the game world and that in which we live. Making use of LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging, a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure the Earth) and Geographic information System (GIS) technologies, the developers have created a digital version of Washington D.C. almost indistinguishable from reality. This is a substantial improvement over the rough approximation of Manhattan in the original “The Division” title, and there is plenty of reason to applaud Massive Entertainment for their achievements. Creative director Julian Gerighty described the scale of this undertaking in an interview with GamesBeat, saying, “We have almost too much information, everything from the age of every tree to the location of the park benches”, and as previously stated, the execution of all that data cannot be understated. Nevertheless, the critical acclaim of "The Division 2” cannot be attributed entirely to the improvements in environment. Rather, several substantial gameplay elements have been improved; including enemy variation, end-game content, and loot quantity. It’s almost unfortunate that such a substantial amount of the game’s identity pertains to its world, as underneath lies a genuinely enjoyable experience.

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Regardless, the overworld of “The Division 2” is what creates the sense of urgency when progressing through missions, a depiction of our United States so realistic that the player feels that their actions truly have weight. It is immersive in every sense of the word but fails to really capture any sense of realism outside of its visuals. Ultimately, “The Division 2” is a product, and while Ubisoft is in no immediate danger of bankruptcy, over a thousand developers were directly involved in the production of the gameplay experience, therefore fostering the decision to abstain from taking a political stance in favor of appealing to a wider audience. Ubisoft is an unapologetically progressive company, leading to my expectation that “The Division 2” would have something to say about the United States, their ideology of exceptionalism, or how the violent culture of guns impacts society. Rather, the player is launched into a generic tale of neutral political interest, where, in typical Ubisoft fashion, a super-soldier pumps bullets into spongy, generic enemies in an attempt to capture various control points.

In this way, “The Division 2” has facilitated discussion about whether or not the effort put forth in creating such a realistic depiction of the real world was necessary. Do players really need to interact with their real-life apartment buildings? While it’s a novel concept, and novelty can be fun, it actively works against the idea of escapism which is one of the fundamental characteristics of Video Games as a medium. However, this novelty is sure to wear off, as an increasing number of developers turn to the Google Maps API – revealed at the Game Development Conference (GDC) 2018 – to build game worlds out of real-life environments, to save on the costs of developing their own original game worlds. The perception that gamers just want to run around in a slightly altered video-gamey interpretation of the real-world stems from the same pervasive attitude that “the better a game looks the better it will be” which has been around for decades, an idea that consumers have pushed back against as of late. In the end, the quality of a game is determined by each individual player’s gameplay experience, and with such a substantial effort put into re-creating reality into Video Games, I am weary that future generations may lose the charm of the fantasy lands of Hyrule, Tamriel, and Niflgaard.

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