You Know What I Love? Simulated Physics (and how we don’t even notice them anymore)

Half-Life 2

By 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.

11 comments (Leave your own)

Red Faction: Guerilla is one of my favourite physics sandboxes. There’s something really satisfying about strategically placing the correct amount of explosives in a large building, and watching it all crash down in one fell swoop.


Crysis 1 – Loved leveling them little hutts. Or using a tornado in the map editor to rip it up into the air and throw bits of it across the map.


I agree! Especially about Just Cause 2, fantastic use of physics that fit in the world they’ve created, shows you don’t have to strive for realistic physics, but some sort of physics like that, that suit the game, can go a long way toward helping how a game feels to play.


My favorite thing to do in JC2 was to steal a car and drive it full blast though the jungle, watching the spectacular crashes.


Many many buildings were blown up in BC2 just to watch them collapse in on themselves… and the odd sniper camping inside.


Isn’t “physics” a singular noun?


I remember back in the day when Havok was first being touted. Even seeing stuff like this in Age of Empires 3 and Company of Heroes was amazing. Makes me wonder if the younger generation these days will appreciate the leaps in technology that have occurred in the last 10-15 years.


I remember back in the day when Havok was first being touted.Even seeing stuff like this in Age of Empires 3 and Company of Heroes was amazing.Makes me wonder if the younger generation these days will appreciate the leaps in technology that have occurred in the last 10-15 years.

I’m still in love with the physics in AoE3. While a lot of people didn’t like the change to that era, I immediately fell in love with the cannons and mortars in the game. Watching a cannonball smash through the mast of a ship, sending it twirling into the air then landing back in the ocean. Watching cannons – or even more so, mortars – take a clean chunk out of a building sending debris flying everywhere. Even down to watching the poor little infantry buggers. all ranked up nicely getting cleaned up by a bouncing cannonball, sending bodies flying in all directions.

Just cause 2 for me was a lot of time spent tethering other vehicles to the back of my car and then swinging them around on the road at high speeds, trying to wipe out other traffic along the way. Or using aircraft with a tethered vehicle like a wrecking ball. All while watching the poor, emotionless ‘passenger’ in the driver’s seat of the other car just sitting there enjoying the ride as if it’s just another day driving to work.

Though I admit these days it tends to be more of an expectation to have these physics and not so impressive as they were when they were a rarity. Playing games like Resident Evil 6 you can really notice when a game is lacking them. Trying to shoot a bucket or something and watching as it doesn’t even react in the slightest way really does drain away a lot of the enjoyment that other games tend to have. The same can be said about other little things like being able to shoot a TV/computer monitor in games really. Or probably my biggest peeve, seeing a big round spotlight pointing at you, blinding you to anything near it but you just cant smash that annoying bugger.

A game that is built mostly around physics being a main mechanic of the game, like HL2 or JC2 will always be appreciated though.


I had a similar experience to you Brendan playing Vice City and seeing the cars dive and squat upon shifting gears. I’d never seen that even considered in a game before and it really made the cars feels like they were wheel driven rather than just forced along by code.

Crysis 1 — *Rather than play it that orthodox way, I wonder if I can…*

*Holy shiet I can!*

Crysis 1 Sandbox Editor @ 6 PM — *What if this level encountered red barrels raining from the sky?*

Crysis 1 Sandbox Editor @ 6 AM — *OK now I’ll just shoot this one…*



This is where we should be by now:

This game is 5 years old, back when PhysX was owned by Aegia!

But we won’t progress to this stage in common place until GPGPU simulation is not platform/vendor specific and developers start using this tech to do things other than boring particle spam.


Red Faction: Guerrilla is still definitely one of the best games still to this day with its great combination of Geo-Mod 2.0 with Havok. The level of detail in the destruction and the weight of objects when falling is very realistic to some degree.

Cellfactor Revolution was a fun little PhysX game to play over LAN and since then we haven’t seen anything really like it. Back then it didn’t run very well on the current hardware at the time but now the tech has become more powerful and a lot cheaper also especially next gen consoles are finally now capable of running this tech we should see more games like this coming in the near future.

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