Definition: Verisimilitude


The quality of seeming to be true, of resembling reality

Why is Wii Bowling like a Hemingway novel? (Beside the fact that they are each made better by adding alcohol.) They both benefit from the effects of verisimilitude. Authentic characters and believable dialog enhance the reader’s engagement in a story; they do not call attention to the fact that they are fictitious by violating our expectations about what might really happen. In the same way, the way the player’s movement in Wii Bowling matches the form and timing of real bowling avoids the awkward break with reality many people feel when playing video games.

Verisimilitude is important for many aspects of game design. Poorly tuned physics systems, bone-headed AI behaviors, inaccurate collision tests, unrealistic lighting, and scores of other common problems all result in a game feeling “off” or “fake”. That is why players can complain about an “unrealistic” space marine pulse rifle; even though no such thing actually exists, they have an intuition of what it would be like if it did exist.

Teach me!

Exactly like this...

However, nowhere is a lack of verisimilitude felt more strongly than in poorly designed controls. If an in-game action clashes with the input method to which it is mapped, it will always break the player’s flow and they will never be comfortable with the controls. Ideally, when the player is engaged with a game, the controller fades into the background and they are no longer aware of it, but an awkward or discordant control scheme is a constant reminder that they are playing a game. Here are some guidelines to avoid mismatched mappings:

  • The duration of an input should match the duration of the action. If a single button press is mapped to a melee attack, the animation for the attack needs to be short and responsive, just like the button press. If the animation needs to be longer, it should require several presses, or a press and hold, that takes roughly the same amount of time for the player to execute. Rapidly tapping a button during a grapple is a bit cliché, but it works because it extends the duration of the input to match the onscreen action.
  • Do not map discrete actions to analog inputs. A game where the player initiates a melee attack with the throw on a thumbstick is using an analog input (the range of motion of the thumbstick) to trigger a discrete action (punching a Triad thug in the face) which makes the player feel detached and removed from the action. This is often described as “soft” or “unresponsive”.
  • Do not map unrelated actions to integrated inputs. The D-Pad is not a set of four buttons, no matter how many games treat it as such. It physically represents four cardinal directions, and it is virtually impossible for a player to get comfortable with treating them separately. In the same way, a thumbstick is not a an arbitrary number of discrete buttons arrayed in a circle, and using them that way will prevent most players from engaging completely.
  • Do not use two-step inputs for single-step actions. The easiest way to add inputs to the controller is to use chords, two buttons pressed at the same time. This works great for “zoom” and then “shoot” because it is a two-step action, but is jarring when used for actions that appear to happen all at once.
  • If an action cannot be mapped to the controller, it should be cut. This is the hardest rule, but the most important. Some actions conflict with one another on a fundamental level, and though it may be tempting to cram them both on the controller, the game will suffer for it. It’s better to have a single action that players can execute confidently and competently than multiple actions that are confusing and cluttered.

3 thoughts on “Definition: Verisimilitude

  1. Great examples. In terms of natural mappings I like this too:

    Use spatial relationships on the controller to map logically to character or actions. A good example is jump. Having it on the lowest button (X on PS3) feels best as it’s low where our legs are. A decent but not quite as ideal substitute is on the highest face button (Triangle on PS3) because this at least matches the intended action, jump higher.

  2. Yeah, sure, or an even more straightforward example might be “Left Trigger shoots the Left Gun and Right Trigger shoots the Right Gun.” At first I thought that was too obvious to bother including, but I just remembered somebody (who will remain nameless) kept insisting we should have the right trigger fire both guns at the same time when the player was dual-wielding in Halo 2, so maybe it isn’t so clear.

  3. One thing that’s been driven into my head recently is the thought that melee and ranged attacks should NEVER be mapped to the same button. First noticed with Army of Two, where it was an annoyance. But I’ve been playing Red Dead Revolver for a while now and the fact that the knife and your guns are on the same trigger is one of the most irritating things I’ve run across in a game. (The fact that the game automatically leaves your weapon set to knife after skinning an animal or cutting a rope makes it downright infuriating.) As far as I’m concerned, when playing a shooter, pulling the right trigger should always fire a weapon. (Requiring you the pull the left trigger then the right to essentially blind-fire is also not pleasant.)

    I didn’t mean this to be about just Red Dead, but I have to say that it is a perfect example of a game that is actually made worse by its controls. The entire setup should have been scrapped and redesigned, IMHO.

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