So, it's been quite a while since my last entry in this blog. Also been a while since my last entry in my story blog, though I actually am very gradually working on the next entry for that too, don't worry. In the meantime, I done thunk a thought while browsing /r/worldbuilding (I've been frequenting there and working on my own world for quite a while now) and I felt like making a proper rant about said thought since it's also relevant here for various reasons, and what better place than in the very blog I made to rant in?
As you can no doubt tell by the blog title, this is a can of worms I'm opening up. A big wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey ball of worms. There will be blood. Firstborns will be sacrificed. Half-Life 3 may or may not be released.
Grabs can opener.
Alright. Let's talk a little bit about the concept of "realism", and the overlapping but not actually identical concept of "internal consistency", in the context of TES as well as fantasy in general. If one has a look at any armor mod that is skimpy or generally impractically-shaped (boobplates, ineffective coverage, too big and bulky, spiky shit everywhere that would make it dangerous to even put on in the first place, etc.), or likewise any impractically-shaped weaponry and such (vanilla Skyrim is a massive offender of this, which is unfortunate because weapons in the previous games did lean a bit more towards realistic shapes and proportions, so praise be to based LeanWolf), and lord knows there's plenty for either category, there's always a non-zero chance that the topic of realism comes up regarding why that armor would even be worn or how that weapon would be in any way, shape or form effective in actual usage. And there is likewise a non-zero chance of a response that, while perhaps or perhaps not worded exactly like the following, will still be along the same general lines: "It's fantasy, there's magic and Dragons and Elves and you're worried about something like this?". We've probably all seen a discussion along those lines at some point.
Now, as someone who loves the TES series and is able to work with fantasy as much as I lean strongly towards grounded realism, is decently educated in the mechanics of medieval-style combat, and is familiar with certain key fundamentals of worldbuilding and the concepts one might choose to employ or employs whether they're conscious of it or not, I have a very simple response of my own to that response: Bruh, you're missing the fucking point.
Let me break this down. There's this either common or uncommon but still very present belief that fantasy is "anything goes". That because it's fantasy, it has carte blanche to do whatever it wants. And that's not necessarily incorrect, the author can indeed do whatever the hell they want, it's their story. However, and here's where things get complicated, that doesn't mean it's always advised to exercise that freedom.
Or, I should say, there's a difference between exercising it and abusing it. And abusing that freedom is what brings us to the issue at hand.
Load up Skyrim, or just about any other game really, but I'm using Skyrim for this example. Aside from the fact you're controlling the game with your KB/M or a gamepad or what have you, and you're looking at a monitor, aside from all the given differences of actually interfacing with the game... what stands out as "wrong"?
That might seem like an odd question, but bear with me. What seems "wrong" when you play? Run around. Jump around. Notice you fall back down after jumping up. Run into a bucket on the ground, and see it's knocked away when you collide with it. You can see, and everything looks as it should; trees, ground, sky - two-mooned, but, still -, all recognizable concepts. You can hear, and everything hears as it should; wind, flowing water, birds, people talking in the background. When you move forward, reality doesn't warp and make you move upwards as if the physical collision of reality has been rotated 90 degrees from its visual representation, and you need to physically cover the distance from A to B. When you kill something, it generally doesn't get back up and waltz in 3:4 time or something.
You might still be wondering about what I'm getting at, and the number of my drug dealer because I'm clearly on something awesome. Alas I am entirely sober, and here's my point, a reiteration: What seems "wrong"? And the answer is... nothing. Nothing is wrong. Skyrim is Skyrim and some physics stuff is wonky and the world isn't as interactable as real life is, but generally speaking, enough stuff works the way you'd expect it to that you're not immediately bothered. The absolute bare fundamentals are there, like gravity, light, sound, physicality, so on and so forth. It's a 3D world perceived the same way the real world is, and running on the same basic functionality (even if in-universe stuff arrives at that functionality differently).
What this means is, there is a fundamental core of realism. A lot of stuff works as you would expect it to. As you would expect in real life, to be specific. And therein lies the crux of the issue, which is that you will always have that core of realism. That's just an unavoidable fact of portraying a 3D world similar to our own. You can't have your cake and eat it too.
Which then brings us to the next point: Fantasy. Where stuff does diverge from reality. And why there's a common misunderstanding between "realism" and "internal consistency". And I'll establish those here before I continue. Realism is, of course, pertaining to real life. Something working in a fictional setting the same or a similar way it does in real life given similar circumstances. When you jump up, you fall back down. When you fall a long distance, you possibly hurt yourself to varying (potentially even lethal) degrees. People die when you kill them. Something physically in the way of your arrow will possibly block it and save whatever your original target was that's behind the obstacle. All obvious stuff. "Internal consistency", however, is not exactly the same thing. It just means refers to things happening that make sense within the setting. It doesn't violate the established rules of the setting. For example regarding violations, everyone suddenly all being superpowered heroes when before everyone was just normal. Magic working contrary to how it's been established to work before (imagine if TES ever dumped the Magicka meter). The Towers turning out to just be nothing more than really big lawn ornaments despite everything we know of the metaphysical need for their existence. Fargoth being the Nerevarine.
These would all be significant internal inconsistencies, because it's already been established that things work a certain way or ways and not another way or ways. And as such, as long as everything follows those established ways and maintains consistency and coherence, it's fine. Dragons and magic and Elves are not realistic, per se. But they are internally consistent. They exist in the TES setting and the physical laws it runs on. It runs on decidedly realistic laws (hence i said "per se", because Dragons and Elves and such do in fact have their own realistic elements to them, they just don't actually exist in real life which is what i was getting at), as well as some extra stuff layered on top that works in tandem with the realism. They have their place in the setting, they have history and explanation for being there. They have justification for existing. Boobplate, however, does not. There are no established laws stating why boobplate would work out positively. As such, realism automatically fills in, because Occam's Razor establishes that in absence of anything stated to the contrary. And boobplates are not realistically effective armor. They're actually extremely dangerous to the wearer, because that's a big wedge aimed directly at the sternum. Fracture that (be it because someone struck you there, and the boobs of the armor would literally guide blows in, or perhaps you simply fell forward and smashed the armor into you that way, because newsflash, human flesh is not rigid, that shit's gonna give), that sharp bit is quite likely to stab you straight in the heart, and you're officially RIP. Same for weapons, weapons are very specifically shaped they are in real life because it's the most effective shape for each individual weapon's intended purpose. They're all generally light so you can physically carry and use them without immediately tiring out. They're all extremely simple in shape because anything more than that is extra weight and unnecessary parts that can get caught on stuff at inconvenient times or render the weapon effectively useless at its intended task, not to mention it's additional material the smiths have to use up. And same for weapons against armor and the effectiveness or lack thereof of each kind of weapon versus each kind of armor. Real historical arms and armors are shaped the way they are for very specific reasons involving taking someone's life and keeping your own intact.
Because there's no stated internal laws in TES justifying the use of impractical (and outright dangerous to the user) armor and weapon designs, the automatic conclusion is that they're shaped that way not for an internally-consistent reason (and remember, realism is not the same concept, but it is still present and as such is also subject to the same scrutiny of internal consistency), but out of reliance on cliched fantasy tropes that, in my opinion, do a disservice both to the series itself and its players. We don't need this. Some people do in fact like the unrealistic stuff, and power to you, but that doesn't mean it's needed. Something being liked isn't a good justification when it then negatively affects the overall quality of the end product. We can indeed accept realism, and in fact portraying proper authentic realism is itself a very standout concept because of how uncommonly it's done. Something like For Honor, while not being totally historically accurate because it still relies on the same Hollywood fantasy tropes in its fighting (and i'm obviously not delving into the fact that Knights, Vikings and Samurai didn't all clash together in real life, For Honor runs on an alternate timeline), is still refreshing in how it does still portray some stuff (halfswording, mordhaus, a lot of the armor designs, etc.) much more accurately than is commonly done (or that it portrays some of that stuff at all. Prior to For Honor, when's the last time you saw halfswording or mordhaus portrayed in a common mainstream game or movie or whatever?).
I can accept Dragons. I can accept magic. I can accept Elves. They're all established parts of the TES setting and maintain consistency with its laws and logic. That's an example of good fantasy, one where everything fits together like it should. Impractical armor and unprofessionally swinging weapons around like clubs instead of versatile tools of war? That I cannot accept. Because that is not internally consistent, either with realism or the not!realism laws of the setting. Visual portrayals do not automatically constitute as law establishment for the purposes of sidestepping the issue, because there's still no explanation for why those laws would work the way they do. There is an explanation for Dragons, there is no explanation for why you're wearing a skimpy boobplate in a battlefield in the middle of a blizzard, or why you're wielding an impractically massive or overdetailed weapon that A. you cannot realistically swing worth a damn, and B. even if you could use it normally, those extra bits and bobs all interfere with the standard functions of that weapon, rendering it highly ineffective compared to a simpler historical design that's already proven over the course of millennia that it can function properly. It doesn't explain why I can't just snag my weapon in one of the many spikes on your armor or helmet and wrench you to the ground to more easily deliver a killing blow through a gap in the armor, thus exposing the incredible liability of wearing such an armor compared to a proper historical design that lacks much in the way of grabbing edges, specifically so nothing catches and stuff just glances off (seriously, why do you think historical plate armor is rounded? That shit is what kept people alive back then). It doesn't explain why you've put all this excess weight on your sword so now the balance and handling is way the fuck out of whack, and those extra bits you've put on now make it hard to properly bind with the crossguard to stop their attack and leverage your own blade around, or why you're just wildly swinging at a dude in full plate armor (which should be doing like no damage, you need blunt weapons to cause decent trauma through the armor, or piercing weapons or piercing tactics like halfswording to get through gaps in the plate, and even then you still have chainmail and cloth/leather padding underneath to get through. Proper plate specifically negates blades) instead of fighting like an actual professional (i have yet to see professional-looking combat in a TES game, unfortunately. These are supposed to be trained fighters, not Neanderthals with clubs). I could go on about a ton of other things, but I'll move this along.
The fact it's a game doesn't render these criticisms invalid, because Bethesda themselves have obviously spent a lot of time and effort in building this setting. And again, I love the series, I love the setting, and I always want to see more of it. I wouldn't be putting the kind of effort I do into my ongoing fanfic and screenshots if I didn't care. But the fact they've put that effort in means the "it's a game" argument holds no water whatsoever, because the devs themselves have put in more work than it takes to notice and state these criticisms, and we're entirely within our rights to make them as fair and mature expressions of our opinion. It's not just a game now, it's a setting (don't forget there's two TES novels so far, so it's most definitely not just the games anymore). Bethesda cares about the series, we have more than enough leeway ourselves to also care for it and to scrutinize it. And while these issues don't stop me from enjoying the series, they are still quite glaring and do impact my enjoyment of the series, because I can't help but look at them in any given situation and think "why on earth would they be doing that?". Why are they wearing that, why are they fighting like that, why are they doing everything in their power to make it easier to kill them in even the simplest realistic ways?
These are supposed to be people, people with at least a basic sense of self-preservation, a basic desire to stay alive and make it home to their families and friends and carry on with whatever goals they might have in their lives. These are supposed to be people inhabiting this world, living and doing their own thing. Just take a look at ESO to see how they're fleshing out how even the common folk live in the various cultures in the setting and at that particular period in the timeline. They're fleshing out the people. They're putting the spotlight on them and acknowledging their existence and what they go through in their day to day lives. People exist in the setting. And that's why it falls apart when you then show them in these impractical arms and armor. Because then they're no longer people. They're just artistic liberties. They're gameplay elements. They're no longer trying to stay alive to see their families again and wear proper gear to facilitate that goal. They're just putting something on that the game's mechanics determines will reduce the number of hitpoints they lose and increase the amount of damage they deal to someone else. Because if they were actually realistically concerned about anything, and the gameplay likewise functioned realistically to match, they wouldn't be wearing armor that actually quantifiably makes them easier to incapacitate and kill.
And that's where this stems from, isn't it? Gameplay. Gameplay taking center stage before aesthetics. Which isn't a problem in itself, because, of course, it's a game. Gameplay always comes first. But there's a difference between it taking center stage, and it being a crutch for bad design elsewhere. By which i mean, impractical armor and weapons being good in the game only because the gameplay mechanics decide it's good, not because it makes sense it's good in any practical way. It's not good because it's properly shaped and proportioned and got the right material in the right places, but because a number in its CK entry is set higher than something else that might actually be more protective in a realistic scenario (or at least, less of a danger to its own wearer).
In other words, the fact that an armor's or weapon's physical shape has no effect whatsoever in the actual gameplay mechanics is then used to excuse the existence of these fantastical designs. And whatever, it's a gameplay thing, but the issue is it's not internally consistent with the actual lore. Remember, reality fills in the gaps when not established otherwise. That's simply intrinsic to portraying a recognizable 3D world with similar functionality to our own. Because you're portraying it so recognizably similar. The safe assumption is that other stuff works similarly, because if it didn't, there'd be no idea of how it works. And that is not an advisable place to be.
So i'll wrap this up before we have to start weighing this wall of text on the Richter Scale. What it comes down to is, the next time you're responding to someone who uses the usual argument of "but it's fantasy, it has Dragons and magic and such, why are you worried about this?", feel free to point out "Dragons and magic are explained in TES. Boobplates are not". It'll be interesting to see if they can reasonably counter that.