February 29, 2012 by dbfeder
This Article Report addresses the article “How’s the Weather: Simulating Weather in Virtual Environments” by Matt Barton. Link: http://gamestudies.org/0801/articles/barton
“How’s the Weather: Simulating Weather in Virtual Environments,” a paper written by Matt Barton, takes a look at weather simulations throughout the history of video games. A largely ignored facet of game design until recent years, early instances of weather simulation in games generally occurred only when central to gameplay. The few cases that included weather as an aesthetic function were unable to render it well, drawing more attention to the game’s fictional nature rather than enhancing reality. This failure was due to technological limitations, as the processors that existed could not handle the task of rendering raindrops that were affected by wind, looked accurate and soaked the characters on screen. With the advent of stronger computer capabilities, games have been more able to include rain and snow as an aspect of ambiance, but the difficulties of such inclusions persist, and many games continue to make mistakes or leave weather out entirely. Barton argues in the article that this exclusion is a mistake, and that continued progress on realistic weather is crucial to the advance of games. However, this assessment gives far too much credence to the effect weather conditions have on a gamer’s experience; although certain games are enhanced by the presence of weather, either through effects on gameplay itself or through its aesthetic abilities, games are not harmed by a failure to include weather conditions.
Barton’s strong statements to the importance of weather begin early on in the paper; he asserts in the introduction that one of the “most significant of [aesthetic] ‘lapses’ in videogames is convincing weather simulation.” Complaints through the body of the paper refer to games’ failures to allow weather to effect gameplay when it is included, notably in Contra (Konami, 1988) and Donkey Kong Country (Rare, 1994). The conclusion wraps up these sentiments, claiming that “weather simply plays too important of a role in the real world to be ignored in virtual ones.” The argument, for Barton, is that interactive weather provides a more realistic experience for the gamer; if the goal of the industry is to produce a believable, immersive experience, then weather patterns must be included.
This argument claims too strong of a connection between realism and the ability of a game to engage a player. While realistic depictions in graphics have allowed for greater believability – compare the plausibility of modern role-playing games to the earliest Atari or arcade games – by no means is a perfect simulation of the real world necessary. Barton criticizes developers for ignoring weather in games like Unreal Tournament 2004 (Epic, 2004) which are set outdoors, but I would be surprised to meet the player that noticed this omission while killing enemies on the elaborate landscapes that game provided. While the inclusion of credible (and slippery) sleet in the competitive maps of first person shooters may have drawn an initial “Wow!” from players when first noticed, its absence is not conspicuous. The game’s ability to immerse players in its world is defined more by its gameplay than any of the graphical aspects. If accurately rendering stormy conditions is difficult for developers, I see no reason to worry about its lack of inclusion. I believe I would be joined by many gamers in saying that my experience of the intriguing narratives of Final Fantasy VII (Squaresoft, 1997) or the intensity and strategic mechanics of the Command & Conquer series was not harmed by the fact that both presented world maps devoid of any clouds, let alone rain or snow.
This is not to say that weather effects are completely useless in games. The aesthetics of a well-rendered rainfall can be quite beautiful, even breathtaking, and inserting stormy weather can inform the mood of a scene in any narrative-driven game. Other games use rain, snow or windy conditions to affect gameplay in a very positive manner. Sports games have been doing so with excellent effect for years, with a Wide Receiver in Madden more likely to drop a slippery ball in a blizzard than a dry one in regular conditions, or long passes just barely staying inbounds when the wet grass slows the ball in a rainy game of FIFA. Barton’s account of these types of games is exhaustive, paying lip service to many of the first games to include this aspect, and the credit he gives these developers is well due. Any technique not often included in aspects of an industry deserves respect when used for a positive result, and weather conditions in video games fall under the same heading. His conclusion extrapolated from these instances simply goes a step too far.
Barton’s assessment of the condition of inclement weather in video games currently is informative and accurate. He successfully explains the difficulties that underlie programming of weather events, and his account of the games that have circumvented this difficulty provides a strong argument for the times when weather can be used to enhance a gaming experience. He does not even assert that weather programming is imperative for all games – thankfully, Tetris (Bulletproof, 1984) is excluded. However, he takes these concepts too far, declaring that video games are flawed by their lack of inclusion of a common real-life phenomenon like snow flurries. The inclusion of storms would be a welcome addition, but the effect it would have on the gaming world would be negligible, not profound as Barton attempts to claim.