Editorial: Size and Weight Are Misunderstood

Hello, Lusireadorians! I write today about two qualities that are well understood by physicists, but not often well understood by gamers and game developers. One thing about objects that many people forget while playing a video game is that objects in the real world are substantial. They have a size, so there is a limited amount of space in which objects can fit, and they have weight, a product of their mass, the (inverse) radial distance between their center of gravity and that of the earth (squared), the mass of the earth, and Newton’s Gravitational Constant. This means that objects create a force toward the surface of the earth that often makes them difficult for people to carry. (You are welcome for the physics lesson, readers.)

Looks like somebody bought a Handy Haversack before adventuring. Good thing he found those other folks in that tavern.

This is only a small portion of Link's real inventory. He also carries two swords, three shields, several sets of clothing, and three pairs of boots, one of which is made mostly of iron.

Often, game developers will ignore these qualities of objects. They do not want that level of complexity in their games, and sometimes, it is justified anyway. Some video game characters, such as Mario or Sonic, will never carry enough items to break their own backs, though people may argue that point when it comes to coins and rings. Sometimes, the lack of a weight and size system in games is almost enough to break my suspension of disbelief. In the older Legend of Zelda games, for instance, Link’s arsenal would grow quite large. He would carry a hammer, a shield, a bag of many bombs, a wallet, many wands or rods, a musical instrument or two, a boomerang, a bow and several kinds of arrows, a sword, sometimes a second, larger sword, and a shovel, just to name a few. The player is supposed to believe that Link, a man who only just learned how to use a sword in most cases, can fit all of those items on his person or in a little pack on his back, and can also carry all of those items while combating monsters. Link’s bomb bag alone is illogical, fitting up to 50 very large bombs at times. Even in games that developers claim to be more realistic, such as those in the Call of Duty series, do not measure item capacity in weight and size, but instead by numbers that seem arbitrary to the average gamer. A player can only hold a certain number of bullets for a gun’s clip, along with a certain number of grenades. How much space do those grenades take up? How much do they weigh? Where are they kept? These are all questions that game developers are counting on gamers not to ask (because most reasonable people will not ask them).

Forget the inventory, I just want that guy's bag.

So, this person can carry at least three different axes, several bows, two swords, and many other different kinds of inventory, but you are telling me he is not strong enough to strangle a dragon to death with his bare hands? Come on, Bethesda.

Some game developers attempt to take weight into consideration. Take Skyrim, for example. Skyrim gives the player a carrying capacity, and when the player exceeds that capacity, their character is slowed and unable to sprint. The player is given magical means by which they can expand their capacity, which makes perfect sense in a world of magic. However, there is no absolute maximum carrying capacity. The player can carry as much as they want as long as they are willing to accept that their character will move more slowly. There is no amount of equipment that can be piled onto a character that will cause them serious injury or render them immobile. The character’s pack also seems to be bottomless. Though there is a carrying capacity in terms of weight in Skyrim, there is no size restriction. No matter how many items a player wishes to carry, nor how large those items are, the player can rest assured that those items can be easily shoved into their pack without tearing the pack or damaging other items in the pack. Got a gold harp from a dragon’s lair? Just shove that thing right into the pack next to the priceless antique vase! The items will be perfectly safe, and there is no danger of the pack splitting open.

In real life, bags are not magic. They can be stuffed too full and become unable to be zipped up or closed, or can even burst a seam, spilling their (possibly valuable) contents all over the place. Items can be heavy. Sometimes, items are so heavy that people cannot even lift them, let alone carry the items with them to their destination. And unlike Skyrim, where all of one’s carrying capacity issues can be solved by simply jumping onto the back of a horse, if a person jumps onto a horse’s back carrying a thousand pounds of gold, that horse is going to suffer a serious spine injury, and both of them are likely to die. Should all games have carrying capacities for players to worry about? I would say no. However, I would say that if a game developer is going to figure carrying capacities into their game, they should go for broke. There should be a maximum weight limit, beyond which a character cannot pick up any more items, and there should be realistic size limitations when it comes to items in packs. I would like my realism real, please.

7 Comments

  1. Lusipurr
    Posted 2012.01.31 at 14:18 | Permalink

    Games are games; they are not made to be actual depictions of reality, whatever lip service the developers may give to that odd little goal.

    The primary goal is, first and foremost, entertainment. If reality is your primary desire, there are better ways to obtain it–they usually begin with putting down the controller.

    If reality works conveniently with entertainment, then reality won’t be unwelcome in the game. But the moment reality interferes with entertainment, it’s going to get the push–and so it should. We’re playing video games here, folks, not documentaries.

  2. Deimosion
    Posted 2012.01.31 at 14:54 | Permalink

    The Iron Boots one was always a little funny to me. If they’re in his pack, they don’t weigh him down, but as soon as Link puts them onto his feet, he sinks like a stone? Amusing.

  3. Mel
    Posted 2012.01.31 at 18:16 | Permalink

    I usually feel that if I’m suspending my disbelief that an animated skeleton or some other monster is attacking me in a game, I’m more than equally able to believe that the items I’m carrying are weightless, usually invisible, and take up no space on my person for the sake of utility (ie, better gameplay and a less annoying experience).

    But, honestly, I have been taken out of the game by things LIKE this. Like “cutscene super powers”, where a character I’m playing can do amazing things out of game, and nothing nearly as amazing when I’m in control. The whole medium is full of these kinds of things if you look close enough.

  4. Slab Bulkhead
    Posted 2012.01.31 at 21:19 | Permalink

    Yeah. Well, what I really am trying to highlight in this article is that developers will stress that their games are realistic when in reality, the closest those games are realistic is that the guns in them fire bullets and eventually need to be reloaded. I suppose it’s more of a semantic argument, but I feel like it’s valid. To me, it’s like making an angel food cake with chocolate frosting and saying it’s a chocolate cake. Sure, there’s chocolate IN it, but that doesn’t make it a chocolate cake.

    For the most part, I’m against realism in games anyway. Some games, like the Uncharted games, get away with a certain balance of realistic and unrealistic experiences for the player (the entirety of the inside of the sinking ship in the third game is an example, in my mind, of an unrealistic experience). At the same time, these games still have enough realism that the player can suspend their disbelief. The same thing goes with games that involve magical powers. I feel like if a developer wants to create a magical world and have extraordinary things happen in that magical world, they should have a reason within the game for these extraordinary things to happen. “It’s just magic” is never an adequate reason for me. I want to know that the sort of magic that causes extraordinary things to happen happens for a reason, whether there is a powerful divine or arcane force in the game causing events, or the player is simply learning to harness magic.

    Realism to me isn’t just realism with respect to the real world, but realism with respect to the world that developers try to build within games. What pulls me out of a game (or movie or book for that matter) is when whoever works on the game/book/movie/etc. establish clear rules that govern how things happen within that universe, and then utterly break them, because “magic” happened (which is code for ‘it sounds cool’).

  5. Oyashiro
    Posted 2012.02.01 at 04:29 | Permalink

    I dislike how carrying 300 Lbs is okay, but once you put some a extra life savers in you bag and suddenly its like your damn legs are broken.

  6. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2012.02.01 at 07:02 | Permalink

    Realism can die in a hole!

  7. Ariel
    Posted 2012.02.17 at 12:19 | Permalink

    I see how you are annoyed that a company will call their game realistic when in fact certain things in the game cannot possibly happen. I think what they mean is that their game is more realistic than a talking blue hedgehog or a wizard combating a dragon or in some cases the graphics may be considered realistic. I’m sure they understand what you should or should not be able to carry, and they think it’d be less fun with those limits.

    So, what makes games realistic? Can it be the graphics? Can it be the experience of the game? Both? Different aspects of the game can be realistic. Such as Resident Evil games-particularly the new ones. Those people look damn real, but I know that I will never have to face a virus/monster/parasite in real life (or at least long gone before they are a reality). Games aren’t meant to be real. If people wanted real, they would go out and do things and not worrying about they’re junk weighing them down or their light arrows not doing damage to anything but shadows. I just always imagine Link’s items shrinking to fit in his pocket anyways.

    Enjoy your games; I’m off to play Zelda.