One thing that I've felt is significant in terms of fictional representation is the concept of "hand-waving". This is when an object's properties are not discussed in terms of its processes, but instead are simply given a vague excuse about its workings and not further explored. This is significant to me because it cuts out a lot of the meat and bones of the design process in favor of advancing the story along. In contrast, worrying about the composite or aggregate picture formed by small details working together creates a more believable - and more tangible - world by explaining the logic of the world to the audience.
One example of this is the process of character design. Let's say, for purposes of examination, that there are two concepts of character design. One is about designing an iconic, visually striking character - a character who stands out, both in their environment and in the audience's mind. The other is about designing a character who makes sense in their own universe, whose outfit serves a logical purpose and whose appearance is overall a product of their environment and their role. Of course, these two concepts are not necessarily in conflict, but they're not in total agreement, and it's easy to find instances of the former being more important than the latter.
One example of these two aspects being in conflict comes from the PS3 Tactics-RPG "Valkyria Chronicles". The design can best be summed up as a bright, colorful anime series meets a war aesthetic. The result is a combination of practical (sensible uniforms with a visible undershirt, visible ammo pouches and grenades hanging from belts) and impractical (bright colors, no helmets, hanging bits of armor that seems to serve no purpose). This contrast creates a strange picture, because the parts that do make sense reflect strangely on the parts that don't. The question becomes "why are they wearing that?". Why are they wearing bright colors in a country made mostly of forests? Why aren't they wearing helmets if headshots do more damage in-game? Overall, Valkyria Chronicles' design seems more intent on capturing the spirit of "war stuff" than the actual concepts of war. Why do they have uniforms? Because that's what soldiers wear. It's about the iconic aspect of the design, rather than the sensible aspects. Alternately, it could be seen that there is an attempt to make things sensible that is overridden by the need for things to be stylized and identifiable. These are conjectures based on the intent of the designers, so the answer may never be known (unless someone asks them).
Another example of the conflict between "fantastic" and "realistic" comes from Naked Snake (and, to a lesser extent, his descendants) in MGS3. Snake has a fairly reasonable gear: a camouflaged Battle Dress Uniform, a contemporary set of pouches and carrying equipment, and some unexplained under-layer potentially for purposes of sweat retention or something like that. Overall, there's a lot of thought put into the design - thought that falls apart in the actual gameplay. Snake can change camouflage patterns as a normal part of gameplay. His inventory is huge and entirely unconnected to the tiny pouches around his waist (which would be enough for some food and ammo, but not entire weapons). His unexplained under-layer can't really be criticized, but it doesn't look particularly comfortable and unless it actually is optimized a la the stillsuits from Dune it doesn't make a lot of sense. In this case, the problems arise from the "videogame" nature of the character, rather than from iconic necessity. Given the general atmosphere of the design, it would be just as recognizable to make him realistic, but doing so would change the gameplay.
MGS also deserves a special note for having enemy characters who are generally pretty good (the GRU in MGS3 stand out for their reasonable design), with the glaring exception that they all wear face-concealing balaclavas all the time. As anyone who has worn a balaclava can attest, it's not really meant for extended usage in most situations, and would get fairly uncomfortable. However, their role in the game universe is to conceal the faces of the soldiers - not for real-life reasons like anonymity, but for reasons of either limited facial design (which becomes evident in MGS4) or purposes of dehumanization. Essentially, balaclavas are a form of gear that has its uses (especially for special forces on raids and so on) but as normal patrol gear it's just infeasible.
Certain factors can make either of these issues less of a concern. In some cases, for example, visual design can be used to indicate things about a character that may be of importance to the character themselves, but not to the player (in general). This includes clothing (warmth and comfort) and backpacks/carrying gear (food, water, bedroll, and other miscellaneous sundries of life). One example of a successful use of this (in my opinion) is the Goblin from Final Fantasy XI, seen to the left. While in game terms the goblin is just another enemy, it's graphically obvious that the goblin is carrying everything it needs on its back. This includes a metal drinking cup and a pot of some kind (possibly a rice cooker). Just by the simple presence of those items, a larger set of behaviors is implied. In-game, of course, you'll never see one cook a meal or lay down a bedroll, but the design indicates that it's plausible - at least in-universe. While obvious comparisons can be drawn to the MGS example above (mismatch of visual appearance and in-game reality), I think that the goblin is simply just not depicted doing the kinds of things that would require the use of those items. In contrast, Snake is clearly carrying more than is feasible - the player has access to his inventory, and it's obvious that it wouldn't fit in those few pouches. The goblin represents a world beyond the game; Naked Snake represents a game beyond the world (or some similar phrasing). The goblin is plausible, Snake is impossible.
Another game that I think does a good job depicting the world beyond the game is "Lost Planet: Extreme Condition". In LP, the snow pirates (and most other characters) have thick, heavy clothes, a breathing mask, and a backpack that also has a tank for the energy source for purposes of staying warm. It's a pretty perfect combination of gameplay and background: they've got everything they'd need to survive in that environment, including something that ties into actual game mechanics (collecting the thermal energy).
In Red Orchestra, the design contrasts the standard German uniform and carrying gear with the improvised nature of the Soviet uniform. Germans get helmets, bedrolls, and various other pouches. Russians get no helmet and what is basically a sack worn over the shoulder. For both parties, similar necessities are carried, but the difference in visual style emphasizes the difference in their condition. The Germans are proud soldiers of an elite empire, and the Russians are cannon fodder often scrounged with minimal support. Many players may not even notice this difference, but once you do notice it, it's hard to not expound upon. Other WW2 media ranges from pretty good (Band of Brothers, Company of Heroes) to ridiculous (Wolfenstein, Medal of Honor) based on the accuracy of the depiction. In good series, the gear will be accurate to real life, which will make it internally consistent if only because the actual people who wore those uniforms needed to carry all their supplies. In less accurate series, these details are simply ignored for the general feeling of "Germans wear grey, Allies wear like green or something I guess".
Toye: Three day supply of K-rations, chocolate bars, charms candy, powdered coffee, sugar, matches, compass, bayonet, entrenching tool, ammunition, gas mask, musette bag with ammo, my webbing, my .45, canteen, two cartons of smokes, Hawkins mine, two grenades, smoke grenade, Gammon grenade, T-N-T, this bullshit, and a pair of nasty skivvies
Perconte: What's your point?
Toye: This stuff weighs as much as I do, I still got my chute, my reserve chute, my Mae West, my M-1.
Perconte: Where you keeping the brass knuckles?
Toye: I could use some brass knuckles.
This exchange from Band of Brothers helps show just how much stuff these soldiers are carrying, and yet it does more than that: it illustrates something about their characters and their role in the story. They are soldiers, yes, who will need to engage the enemy in various ways, but they are also human beings who need food and clothing and tools. It deepens their character because it helps to "defictionalize" them, a process certainly made easier by the actual truth of the story. Even the discussion of weight helps one to connect to the character's physical burden, whereas glossing over that would disconnect the audience from that aspect of sensory data.
Of course, backpacks and pouches are not the only ways that aggregate character design can help establish a character. Everything a character wears, uses, and carries can do it, from the smallest thing to the largest. Here's some simple examples.
Clothing is a good first step in a character's design because, naturally, most of us have dealt with it in some form or another in our day to day life. We may not know what a steel breastplate feels like, or how it feels to move in full armor, but we know the difference between a tank top and a down jacket, especially when winter rolls around. Connecting the audience's understanding of what clothing does to the characters who are wearing it allows for a very basic, yet tangible, sensory connection.
One of the simplest uses of clothing is related to temperature and climate. In real life, it's a pretty simple mechanic: if it's cold, wear more, and if it's warm, wear less. While the actual nature of temperature-based outfit changes isdebatable, it pretty much connects to a base part of the human mind. If the clothing is convincing enough, the audience should connect with their own experiences of being especially hot or cold. If characters don't convincingly respond to the temperature, then that sensory data is not going to connect with the audience.
For example, in the movie "Stalingrad", the cold is an overbearing presence. Everything from the characters' body language to the whirling winds and freezing breath makes it obvious that Russia in the winter is pretty darn cold. Living in a fairly cold region myself, I found myself noting things like exposed skin and gloveless hands - which would have been incredibly uncomfortable in such conditions. Their hands, especially, would have been numb with cold, which makes the scene at 1:20 where a soldier is trying to wire an explosive together all the more difficult. Gloves seem like such a little thing in the "big picture", but in terms of human comfort they're a key feature separating comfort from discomfort. Stalingrad in general is a really good movie for sensory material, because it goes out of its way to show the grit of military life.
Even a cartoonish series like "GI Joe" opted to give all of its characters warm, thick coats when they were in the cold - even when those coats were over totally ridiculous "normal" outfits. What's strange to me about it is that the idea that "in a cold area everyone bundles up" makes sense, but then sometimes it's ignored (not all the characters are wearing cold-weather gear) and in the normal show everyone wears the same costume almost all the time. Still, given its merchandise-driven nature, there are plenty of examples of GI Joe characters dressing properly for the environment.
Hot weather can be used in a similar way to the cold - substitute sweat and heatstroke for shivering and frozen fingers. The Pacific gets some good use out of this, with marines generally stripping down whenever possible and their shirts being soaked with sweat. The use of body language and environmental signs allows the audience to connect more closely with the environment as represented. This can even be connected to the temperature "in real life" - if the audience is cold, then they'll be more easily able to connect to characters in the cold, and vice versa. The time between seasons means that the audience may be more easily able to understand the weather if, for example, they just came into the theater from the same kind of weather.
In more "civilian" senses, warmth or coldness can be represented by a choice of attire. Heat brings on tank-tops and shorts; cold makes characters put on sweaters or hoodies. This obviously isn't as dramatic as freezing to death in the Russian winter, but it does give a good solid connection to the sense of "touch" in a scene. If characters are wearing clothes that make sense, then the audience will believe them more. If they're wearing things that don'tmake sense, they're acknowledging that they're fake through a failure to react to stimuli.
DampnessIn media, rain is sort of just depicted as, for lack of a better phrase, "a thing". It's not really uncomfortable or whatever if you stand out in it for too long, it's just sort of something that makes you get all wet. Furthermore, games generally have characters dry off after a few moments because of technical limitations - only rarely is there a moment where a character is really soaked, to the point of being at risk for pneumonia. Of course, there are exceptions, but unless this is part of the narrative it's something that's not really focused on all that much. Rain is just a background effect, it doesn't usually affect things like how slippery or muddy the ground is, or how soaked the character is (which also connects with temperature). It might as well be confetti.
Like cold or heat, rain can be indicated by environmental cues. The sound of rain on anything from umbrellas to helmets to roofs can be enough to evoke associated memories. Furthermore, there are different kinds of rain, each with their own sensory reactions. There's a big difference between light sprinkles, heavy downpours, and windy storms. Even beyond the simple concept of "being wet", there are plenty of ways that the environment can evoke different sensations. In general though, I feel like games would do more with rain if they could - it's just beyond most games' capacities. Still, the image of a poncho-clad soldier is compelling both in terms of senses and aesthetics. The Pacific also does a lot with rain, and rain effects can be seen in the intro to Gundam 08th MS Team.
The civilian version of this is, of course, the ubiquitous umbrella and raincoat. Having characters behave "realistically" to the rain - i.e., trying to avoid getting wet and being annoyed if they do - is a way to make the rain feel more tangible. It stops being a background thing and becomes "rain, you know, like that thing in real life".
PainThe role of touch and skin exposure cannot be underestimated when it comes to "subtle touches". In the above example regarding the cold, I mentioned gloves and the unpleasant experience of touching cold metal while one's hands are numb. This, in general, can be extended to any form of skin contact. Imagine crawling through a thorny bush in clothing that didn't provide total coverage, or having to touch a heated metal object without the use of thick gloves. There are many sensations that an individual can connect to as part of a mundane real-life activity, and these things seem to be ignored by a lot of media.
One exception is in The Pacific, where the crew of a water-cooled Browning machine gun has an oven mitt to carry the gun when it's overheated. The glove being lost at one point is a pretty big deal, and in real life you would probably be loathe to carry a metal cylinder full of boiling water. The heat produced by a gun is never really depicted in fiction, but in this way your brain can connect it to "hot" and "metal" and sort of get a feeling of what it would be like.
Barbed wire is a similar example. If you don't live on a farm, you might not know what barbed wire feels like, but you might still know what it feels like to have sharp things ripping your skin from any number of other sources (thorn bushes, animal claws, and so on). Connecting those experiences to the concept of touching barbed wire creates a sensory connection via the method of "like something you know, but worse". The same concept can be applied to any other larger method of injury, as well. If you know what it's like to be cut by a knife, you can imagine the sharp, searing pain magnified to reflect being slashed or stabbed by a sword. If you know what it's like to hit your head on something, then you can imagine the dull, throbbing pain being more severe in the form of a club or bat.
In this sense, protective clothing should serve the same function as armor: "putting something between you and a thing that would cause you pain". While the specifics may be harder to pin down, the audience should still be able to connect to things through sensory experiences they've had. If a character is crawling through thorny bushes in short sleeves, they should respond appropriately. If a character knows there's going to be thorns, they should dress appropriately. In real life, something as simple as "long sleeves and gloves" can mean the difference between one's arms being fine and one's arms being scratched up and gouged.
Having a character dress appropriately for their environment is useful in the sense that it allows the audience to connect with the characters' sense of touch. Of course, those characters don't really have a sense of touch, which is why it's up to the writers and artists to depict it. By making characters respond to the environment, the development team is creating a reasonable facsimile that the audience can empathize with. Having a character respond to the sense of touch through their outfit deepens the experience.
In fact, the neglect of this concept is comparable in a lot of ways to, say, a show or movie where the characters don't acknowledge something that they can clearly see: it should be jarring, and it often is for the audience. However, in the sense of "touch", the fact that the audience themselves can't actually experience that "touch", when they can "see" things that the characters should be expected to also see. Again, it is up to the developers to ensure that the characters' reactions match the environment, which is why it's so unusual that "non-sensible clothing" is as common as it is. It's a visual cue that shows the audience how the characters are experiencing things, and underplaying it removes that sense of "actual events" from the work.
Have you ever thought what it must be like to wear armor? Not only in terms of appearance, but also weight and constriction. Imagine wearing a heavy, solid-metal helmet that covers your face, or a full suit of thick plates over your whole body. Imagine trying to move while wearing it - or to roll, or climb, or sprint. Naturally, your image of this will probably be a lot more stifling than most depictions of armor are. Armor in games is just another kind of clothing. However, by averting this phenomenon and depicting armor in a more plausible fashion, not only does the armor make more sense for the wearer, but it's also easier to connect the audience to it, rather than it being another kind of outfit.
The role of protective gear in games (ranging from pen-and-paper to videogames) is largely symbolic. In one sense, the idea of "armor" = "less damage", or some equivalent, is an established rule and basically has always been. However, armor itself is not treated the same as real armor, primarily for reasons of necessity. It's not possible, in most cases, to make a game so exact that specific gaps in armor can be targeted, as would be the case in real life. Thus, most armor becomes a visual artifact used to indicate high defensive numbers, but following little of the logic that would actually accompany armor development in real life.
Armor is based on three general principles: Coverage, protection, and mobility. The first refers to what parts of the body are actually protected by the armor, the second refers to how much force the armor is actually capable of stopping, and the third refers to the armor's weight and restriction of movement. Coverage should be the most well-represented, in general, because it helps reinforce the difference between "what happens when armor is hit" and "what happens when flesh is hit". With this in mind, let's look at some examples.
Fire Emblem serves as one of the primary examples of what I call "comparatively reasonable" anime designs. That is, people can and do say that it's more "reasonable" because there's characters wearing heavy armor and so on, unlike many other anime or game series where heavy armor is only worn by underlings and enemies.
However, due to its stylized roots, Fire Emblem is a prime example of armor being entirely symbolic and not at all practical. The picture to the left illustrates some of the major design flaws: too much coverage in some areas, none at all in others. Fire Emblem characters do not wear any sort of under-armor like maille, opting instead to have incredibly thick and heavy-looking plates on some parts of their body and literally no armor on others. This is great if they are hit in that specific area, of course, but not if they're hit anywhere else. Furthermore, it's a lot of weight to carry (presumably) considering that it only protects those specific areas. A Fire Emblem character is the equivalent of a vehicle with armored doors, but no armor anywhere else: enemies would almost have to go out of their way to hit the armor.
In gameplay terms, the armor is perfectly practical, since the role of armor is...basically nil. Defense and HP are just stats, and the amount of armor worn is usually based on class. You can't have characters put on or take off armor, it's just their outfit. Sure, armored knights have more defense than unarmored swordsmen, but it's in a general sense. The armor exists only as a costume, nothing more.
Warcraft / World of Warcraft
Warcraft has changes a lot since its earliest forms. Originally, it used a lot of black-and-white art (as seen to the left) that gave it a bit more of a sensible feel. Proportions were often heroically exaggerated, but not to the point of cartoonishness. The armor wasn't exactly realistic, but it looked solid, tough, and battered. It looks, most importantly, like it's actually made of metal - the illustration does a pretty good job of using things like shine and impacts to convey the heavy, metallic nature of the armor.
However, by Warcraft III a lot of this had been lost due to the new, more cartoonish art direction taken by the series. In WC3, the art and designs were still fairly solid, but the in-game graphics were much more colorful and, as a result, less believable. This was emphasized in one cutscene (Arthas' return) when the over-exaggerated design of the character conflicts with the general realism and detail of the cutscenes. Arthas appears hilariously large, and his armor, while obviously metallic, seems a lot more bulky than necessary. Still, the cutscenes in general were much more believable and tangible than the gameplay.
By World of Warcraft, Blizzard had slipped fully into cartoon mode. Everything was highly stylized - shoulder armor being the most notoriously exaggerated, and because of the texture design nothing really feels like it's made of metal. A WoW character might as well be wearing paper mache, because it all feels like wallpaper layered onto a sheet of cardboard. This can largely be attributed to the actual graphics system, which at this point is fairly dated and also has to accommodate all the data used by the system. However, the artistic direction is largely at fault as well. The plausible-but-stylized armor was replaced with brightly colored, easily identifiable armor. Everything looks like a superhero comic, and there's no connection to any real materials or substance. World of Warcraft is, in design terms, floaty and ungrounded. Combat consists of two sets of animations playing, with no real connection to each other. Weapons don't even have to connect. The only thing that's important in Warcraft is the green circle under your character and the numbers in the background; everything else is basically a hologram for the benefit of the player. The armor, like everything else, helps to contribute to this sense of intangibility by not looking like it's protective so much as it's a Halloween costume.
The title image for this update was taken from Demon's Souls because I feel that, for the most part, Demon's Souls rides the line between "sensibility" and "aesthetics". I don't mean that it necessary strikes a balance between the two, I just mean that it tries to do both as much as it can given the restrictions and nature of gameplay.
In Demon's Souls, armor functions as a coverall defensive measure. That is, putting on armor makes your defense number go up, but also makes your equipment weight go up. It's a pretty simple, sensible setup. However, this also cuts out the coverage aspect of armor, discussed earlier. Furthermore, when your character is hit, there's not really a sense of the armor being impacted - it might as well be a body glove.
Instead, the "meat and potatoes" of Demon's Souls' design is left to the artistic development. Armor is metallic and solid-looking, with lots of feasible aspects. It looks thick and solid, despite the gameplay. The heavy footsteps of an armored character, versus the light patter of an unarmored one, help reinforce this. Even if a character is strong enough to roll quickly in heavy armor, it still clanks and clatters (though not as much as if the character is forced to do a slower, clumsier roll). The depiction of armor in the game falls almost entirely on the shoulders of the artistic team, while its role in gameplay is the same as any other RPG. This makes it feel much more believable and tangible than the examples given above, even though Demon's Souls still takes place in a world of monsters and dragons and magic.
The iconic armor of the Kerberos Saga is known as "Protect Gear". It is an unrealistic element of a series that otherwise tries to seem plausible: an alternate history where Germany won World War 2 and later occupied Japan. Protect Gear is clearly designed with aesthetics in mind more than functionality - the glowing red eyes make that abundantly clear. However, there are a few specific things that should be addressed about it.
The first issue is the issue of protection. In "Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade", Protect Gear shrugs off automatic fire at close range without so much as a stagger. Later, however, a training incident results in broken bones for one armored soldier despite being hit with rubber bullets. While this might be realistic for what would happen in real life, it completely contradicts the previous scene. Why is a rubber bullet more damaging to an individual than a real one? Why does one scene rely on reality and the other completely ignore it? It's impossible to ascertain the "feel" of Protect Gear because it's based on wholly contradictory data.
Another issue is the weight of the armor. There are plenty of plausible explanations in a similar sci-fi scenario featuring powered armor, most importantly a combat exoskeleton. Protect Gear doesn't really offer that kind of explanation since it's largely based on WW2 tech. Instead, it's just a big suit of armor with a backpack radio/battery, a gas mask, and night vision goggles. The bulletproof properties of the armor are already disputable, but to have that much armor and actually have it be thick enough to be bulletproof would be insane. Each soldier would be wearing the equivalent of a tank on their body with no support, and they're still shown running around as needs be. See below for a similar, but more limited, version of "bulletproof steel armor" from World War 2 and try to match up the issues with the Protect Gear concept.
When designing or analyzing a piece of armor, there are a few simple questions you can ask yourself to see the plausibility of the armor: What is it like to wear it? How much does it weigh, and how much would it slow me down? Is the helmet stifling or restrictive? If I had to wear it for a long period of time, would it be comfortable? How protective is it, and what would it be like to be hit while wearing it? Are there any ways that I could be hit in a non-protected area, and would it be possible to prevent that while maintaining mobility or comfort?
This is a picture of SN-42 armor from World War 2. It is one of the last armor types that simply consists of a wall of steel, rather than fiber composites or other materials meant to slow the bullet and reduce its impact. It weighs 3.5 kilograms (or 7.7 pounds) and was capable of stopping a sub-machine gun round fired from 100 meters away. It found usage in urban fighting because of this. However, it proved to be impractical in longer engagements. I offer the SN-42 because it hits a few of those key points. It's heavy, it only covers the chest, and it's only capable of stopping small rounds. However, with these traits in mind, armor as a whole can be understood better. Think about a hit on the armor - either penetrating or being deflected - versus a hit on exposed flesh. Think about the weight of the solid steel design. There's such a contrast between "man" and "metal" that it's hard to think of them as being the same, but that's essentially what game design does: armor and flesh are equally strong, it's just that armor is shiny and flesh is not.
Obviously, not everyone is going to wear what "makes sense" 100% of the time. Sometimes people will allow their sense of fashion or style to interfere with their sense of utility. At other times, they'll simply make a tradeoff (protection for mobility, for example). However, it's useful to have a baseline understanding of what IS useful so that divergence from that standard can be properly represented. This will ground your work and allow for a greater sense of sensory connection even if the characters themselves are choosing to wear things that aren't optimum. In many cases, it even increases the tension: a character caught without armor and forced to defend themselves is a much bigger deal if armor has been shown to be important thus far. It is the sense of contrast that is valuable.