The Bygone Golden Era of Physics In Video Games

The Big Thing(tm) to talk about in video games right now is how the Dunia Engine has changed between 2008’s Far Cry 2, and 2018’s Far Cry 5.

I think the YouTube video that really got everyone* talking was this one from Crowbcat. It’s a good watch, and although I think it’s just as selectively edited as his other work…it’s also totally on-point.

*(A handful of critics, gamers, and other folks).

It’s true that Far Cry 5 has far less physics simulation stuff going on that Far Cry 2. In fact, it has less physics stuff than Far Cry 3, 4, and Primal as well.

In Far Cry 3, 4, and Primal, you can slide down hills. That might not seem like a big deal, but it adds a great sense of fun to just traversing about the world. At the top of a slope, you can start running down, and slide into a faster run at the bottom.

It’s a very natural, fun feeling.

The same simulation detail permeates the rest of the movement in those older games. You can feel the heft of your character as they jump over things and fall down. You’ll watch your own hands realistically pick things up and animate as they open doors. It all adds up to a sense of “being there.”

Far Cry 5 takes a sledgehammer to all of this fun movement detail in favor of speed. Characters move like they’re precision sprinting machines, like a Doom or Call of Duty character. You can run really fast, stop on a dime, spin around, and fire your gun with pinpoint precision, easily annihilating any challenge you come across.

All of that is probably objectively “more fun to control,” and it certainly has a feel to it that’s more in line with most other current action games, but in removing the physics from almost every aspect of Far Cry 5, I can’t help but feel like a little of the personality the franchise had so carefully cultivated, was lost.

It’s a beautiful game, but the world feels like a static backdrop.

Adding insult to injury, other modern Ubisoft games still contain many of the simulation details that Crowbcat laments the loss of in his video. Assassin’s Creed Origins, for example, has foliage that reacts to your character. It has a fire propagation system rather reminiscent of Far Cry 2's. And it has detailed weather, cloud, and cloth simulation systems.

Simulation and physics elements in games really had their heyday between 2005 and 2010, or so. Bioshock 1 and 2 featured thousands of in-game objects with physical properties that would impact firefights. Bethesda implemented the ability to pick up any object in their worlds and place them on guards’ heads (Which they’ve thankfully kept, at least up to Fallout 4).

And Crysis and Far Cry got into a weird battle over who could include the most shootable/destructible trees.

The “immersive sim” genre has never quite had the mainstream appeal of straight first-person shooters, and so many franchises have had to adapt or die out in the process. Bioshock’s sales success was probably a weird anomaly, and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided had a dramatically lower impact on the industry than its successful predecessor. So much so that I constantly forget the name of it and had to look it up right now.

When I first loaded up Bioshock Infinite in 2013, I was ready to throw around objects and block bullets with trashcans…but instead I got a beautiful, colorful, entirely static world. All of the fun dynamism was scrubbed out, and the processing power was put towards other things. The game felt more like other modern shooters and it was and still is beautiful-looking…but everything was glued to the ground and pre-lit via baked-in lighting.

I thought that physics might come back in a big way with the new generation of consoles in 2013. Sure, they didn’t have the relative CPU heft of the consoles they replaced, but maybe GPU simulation would take over. Early titles were promising. Killer Instinct on the Xbox One emitted showers of GPU particles all the time for no reason other than to show off the newly available power.

But these days, snappy gameplay and high resolutions are the order of the day, and heavy physics simulations have taken a backseat. I don’t have any actual issue with snappy gameplay…but the high resolutions don’t always feel like the best application of power. Dynasty Warriors 9 runs at a slower framerate on Xbox One X than it does on a base PS4…solely to pump out a 1440p image that’s then upscaled to 4k.

Upon first experiencing the physics-based procedural character animation of the Euphoria middleware in The Force Unleashed and GTA IV back in 2008, I thought “this is it! The future! Everyone will do this now!”

I can almost count the number of games that use Euphoria on one hand.

And the most recent high profile release is 2013’s GTA V. It’s also the only Euphoria-powered game that made it to the current consoles. And it had more standard animations incorporated to go alongside the dynamic stuff.

Just Cause 3 was the first major title to use the new Havok Destruction API. But it was so CPU intensive and performance heavy that I think all it did was reinforce other games’ decision to run in the opposite direction.

Physics are fun in games because they tap into an innate understanding of our world. We know what happens when we knock things over, and what it feels like to walk around, and lift things. Physics simulations are a shortcut to making a game world feel more alive and immersive…but they’ve now taken a definite backseat to better lighting, anti-aliasing, and traditional animations.

Physical simulation has become window dressing, just another graphical effect.

“We’ll get to it if there’s time.”

Again, there’s nothing wrong with that necessarily. But if Bethesda’s next game doesn’t allow me to put buckets on people’s heads…I’m going to seriously wonder where it all went wrong.

I’d rather play a game in 1080p with realistic simulation elements and stuff I can knock over than have a completely static world at 4k.

Maybe that’s just me?

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Alex Rowe

Alex Rowe

I write independent game reviews and commentary. Please support me directly if you enjoy my work:

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