Do you remember the first time you were blown away by in-game physics?
By Brendan Keogh on April 16, 2013 at 12:59 pm
You know what I love? Simulated physics. I love watching objects fall and tip and fling and crash and crumple in dynamic and believable ways. Simply by implementing a believable (not necessarily realistic) system of physics and gravity that affects the objects in the game word, a game is given a literal and figurative weight, and is opened up to all kinds of dynamic and exciting outcomes.
Half-Life 2 is nine-years-old. Nine years! Since then, simulated physics have become so common-place as to hardly be noticed.
We don’t notice anymore when a slab of wood pushed just a few pixels too far will slowly tip and fall. We don’t notice when a barrel rolls down a slope, then spins out of control as one side of it clips a pole. It’s just objects acting how objects act. It has become normal.
But when I first played Half-Life 2, one of the first games I ever played that tried to simulate realistic physics across all its world’s objects, I was mesmerised. I spent hours literally picking up objects and dropping them again, mesmerised at all the ways they behaved. I’d pick up a bottle and drop it so it just clipped the side of the table. I’d pick it up again and drop it so it landed on the table and rolled off. I didn’t need massive explosions or spectacles. Just watching the infinite number of ways that objects could tumble with a real weightiness felt like the biggest leap in videogame technology since I first played a game with polygons (it was Starfox, if you were wondering).
Most interesting was how it affected my relationship with the numerous people and aliens I was shooting. I had become so used to enemies having pre-scripted death animations when they die that there was something shocking and impactful about how the Combine soldiers just crumpled under my bullets, the way headcrabs just crumbled under my crowbar. It made them feel real. It made them feel heavy.
Several years later, a similar commitment to gravity and physics made Grand Theft Auto IV my favourite game in that series to date. While I certainly enjoyed the comic, cartoon tone of the previous games, there was something heavy about Grand Theft Auto IV. Not just in Niko’s mopey narrative, but, again, in the way bodies would just crumple. The way cars felt like they were a ton of metal beneath the earth’s gravity. In Grand Theft Auto IV, gravity felt like an omnipresent beast, always there, always making things heavy.
But that isn’t to say that a game’s physics and gravity have to be realistic. If you’ll excuse me mentioning Just Cause 2 (like I am legally obliged to do every column), I loved the way that the physics were made to simulate the world of an action movie rather than the real world. The way a car would explode if it hit another car just after you jumped out. The way wrecks would tumble and slide an impossible distance.
And that’s why I love simulated physics, even as they have become so normal to be unnoticed. A world’s physics is its personality: a sense of something that you never actually see, but which you feel through the way you interact with its objects.
City 17 and Liberty City had heavy, sombre personalities with gravity pushing down on them. Panau had the bombastic personality of a movie that is so bad it’s good, with a carefree ignorance of how the world is meant to work, as long as it looks cool.