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Artistic License Engineering

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In Real Life, an engineer's job is to design processes, machines or structures that perform a certain task, and perform it efficiently, reliably and safely. It's a challenging job, involving analytical thinking and mathemathics, as well as creativity — and last but not least, common sense.

Not so in fiction. When you let a writer of fiction dream up a machine, odds are good that you'll end up with something that is horribly inefficient, unsafe, or just plain physically impossible.


The reasons for this vary:

  • Many writers will not even think about functionality when designing a machine. They're more concerned with the "look" and "feel" their machines convey rather than whether they actually make sense given the function they're supposed to perform. This is often the case with spaceships in softer Science Fiction.
  • Even those writers that pay some attention to functionality often can't be bothered to think things through. Fuel consumption? Maintenance needs? Heat dissipation? They're the last things most writers worry about.
  • And then there's failure to think outside the box — that is, failure to consider that there might be other, perhaps less spectacular ways to get the job done. Even machines that have been properly designed and thought out will make no sense whatsoever if there is clearly another, much more efficient way to do what they do.

If the work is set in modern times, you're supposed to ignore it, but if it is in a sci-fi or fantasy setting, it's a toss-up whether it will be ignored completely, explained as being made of Unobtainium or Applied Phlebotinum of some nature, or only working because A Wizard Did It or a Higher-Tech Species shows us how.

A very frequent cause of Awesome, but Impractical. Cool, but Inefficient is a subtrope. Related to No OSHA Compliance, as process safety is a pretty big issue for most engineers in Real Life.

See also: Artists Are Not Architects, Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale, Square-Cube Law.




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    Anime & Manga 
  • Most Humongous Mechas except for these:
  • Mecha in general often touch this trope. A bipedal machine is, with anything resembling modern technology (or in the near-future sans Handwavium), a horribly complex, inefficient, and dangerous way to design a war machine. Just the stabilizing and moving systems alone would be a nightmare.
    • Add a double dose of this when considering Combining or Transforming Mecha. The sheer number of moving parts alone would give any engineer worth his salt a drinking problem let alone connecting the control systems and electrical circuits from two or more separate craft into a cohesive whole. Also consider how hard it is for pilots to refuel in mid-flight through a fuel line and then imagine ramming another mecha in order to combine...
  • While Neon Genesis Evangelion narrowly averts this, it still gets caught in bad physics and impossible anatomy. The Evangelion mechas are actually giant humanoid gods/aliens cloned from a giant alien that is linked to the creation of man. They were also placed in armor so tight and confining that they couldn't move without being piloted. However, the Square-Cube Law would still keep the Evangelions from moving fast at all. Also, the midsections of the Evangelions are very thin, being even more narrow than their heads. So, they shouldn't even be able to stand, let alone move around.

    Fan Works 
  • Lampshaded in Fantasy of Utter Ridiculousness, in which Megas's Plot-Sensitive Button makes it clear that "Technology Does Not Work This Way". Pushing the button results in a reverse-MIRV being fired. note 
  • Mostly averted in Left Beyond with the exception of nuclear technology, which the writer intentionally did not want to depict accurately. All the new technological development introduced by the Omega in the 2900s would be prefaced by an article showing something similar under development circa 2015.

  • Star Wars: There is a lot of debate of how possible/impossible the city-planet of Coruscant is, and not least the concept of miles-high buildings and the infrastructure required to maintain them and the population they contain.
    • One notable offender is the Senate Building. Its central chamber is so large that unless the air inside was kept extremely dry, clouds would condense in the upper tiers. note 
    • There's also the issue of how a city-spanning planet could possibly void all the heat that it generates, and the gaseous exhaust of trillions of vehicles, building systems, and industrial facilities.
    • Another: The Square-Cube Law notwithstanding, the buildings are so slender in comparison to height, that the slightest breeze would probably cause them to buckle.
    • The chicken walkers (AT-ST's) are just walking targets. The Hoth walkers (AT-AT's) make a bit more sense, if we take into account that repulsor coils big enough to make something as big as an AT-AT float would be such an energy drain that the power plant wouldn't be feasible for mass production. The only reason two AT-AT's got taken out at all was more Luke's Rule of Cool then anything else. note 
    • The prequels and Clone Wars series make this worse, since the earlier designs were much more effective. The Clone equivalent to an AT-AT could walk straight up cliffs, had a lower center of gravity distributed further apart on more limbs, and had weapons that didn't all face forward just for one example... and vulnerable to the above-mentioned mines that the AT-AT have long legs against. For the record, the disadvantages of low height actually came up in the first Clone Wars cartoon, where Durge and his lancer droids were able to trash the AT-TE walkers with their lances.
      • Except that the two walkers have very different roles. The AT-TE was a main battle tank/walker. The AT-AT was a self-propelled artillery (and less importantly, personnel transport). Now, what do you need in an artillery unit in a universe where almost all weapons are line-of-sight? Indeed, if you do the math on the Hoth assault, it turns out the AT-ATs opened fire on the generator as soon as they got line of sight - which was several kilometers more than if they were the size of AT-TE's.
    • Maybe this is excessive —Suspension of Disbelief exists for some reason— but if as according to EU sources the reactor of Imperial Star Destroyers generate the same energy as a small star, unless they had very good heat dissipation technologies (not just the exhaust vents the Death Star had) there'd be enough waste heatnote  to vaporize them. The Death Star's hypermatter reactor, far more powerful, has those same problems Up to Eleven.
  • In Laura, the clocks' strike is a key plot point in the movie—but wind-up clocks need separate drive trains for moving the hands and striking the time, and so require two keyholes on the clock face. The prop clocks seen in the movie only have one keyhole, which would be for the hands; hence, they could not actually have struck the time.
  • In general any time an elevator car falls due to the cables being damaged or cut, most writers don't seem to be aware of the redundant emergency braking systems in place on the car rails. If they are featured they tend to take a long time to kick-in with lots of impressive sparks and grinding noises.
    • In real life when people questioned this when the elevator was first demonstrated at a world fair the inventor assured everyone by getting into the car himself and ordering the cables to be cut. The brakes engaged immediately as designed.
  • In The Net, an IP address is shown as "23.75.345.200" but IPv4 addresses can't contain numbers higher than 255, because that's the highest number that an eight-bit byte can represent.

  • Architecture and machinery that fits, or appears to fit, this trope is common in Dr. Seuss books, which are nonsensical anyways.
  • Averted in the Vorkosigan Saga; all the engineering is realistic, and the 5-space theory expounded in Komarr sounds plausible.
  • Honor Harrington has multi-hundred-story skyscrapers that are strong enough to stand on their own. They use countergrav for construction and to allow people to avoid spending half their lives in elevators.
  • The chemistry setup Sherlock Holmes is using in the Adventure of the Naval Treaty makes no sense. Not even if you don't know squat about chemical glassware. Even if retorts had two spouts (they don't), dripping the distillate into two separate receiving vessels, then mixing the contents of these vessels is just like puring two glasses of water only to pour them both into a third glass. Cool, but Inefficient.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The 100: In the second season, Jaha descends to the ground using a nuclear missile. We can assume that it wasn't specifically converted into a shuttle because the warhead is still inside, yet it has a braking parachute and enough internal room for Jaha to climb aboard. Ironically, before he was Chancellor of the Ark, Jaha was an engineer.
  • In Halt and Catch Fire, Cameron's computer experiences a power surge, burning out her hard drive. Donna and the Cardiff Electric engineers attempt to recover the data by removing the platters from Cameron's dead hard drive, mounting the platters onto a second drive, and if the FATnote  is still intact, move the data onto a third drive. It's a rather convoluted solution that could theoretically work; however, Donna and the engineers were handling the platters out in the open rather than in a controlled, dust-free clean room. Removing the cover off a hard drive outside of a clean room environment will destroy it; the clearance between a hard drive platter and its read/write head is less than ten nanometers and contaminants as small as dust, smoke, and human hair, which are measured in micrometers, will ruin a hard drive and its stored data if the platters are exposed.
  • The Man in the High Castle: The Nazis have rebuilt downtown Berlin according to Hitler's master plan, with swastika-festooned megastructures all over the place, most conspicuously the truly-enormous Volkshalle. Unlike Wolfenstein: The New Order, which handwaved it with a "super concrete", no attempt is made to explain how such enormous structures can stand in a city built on a swamp.note  Another engineering problem with the Volkshalle is also left out, namely that a dome that size would have its own indoor precipitation because of the humidity brought in by 100,000 or more people standing inside.
  • Revolution: Electricity isn't the only thing Monroe needs to get his helicopters flying from episode 10 onward. These machines have sat idle for 15 years, and fuel and lubricants do not last indefinitely. There's also a good chance that the avionics have physically degraded with time and exposure to the elements.
  • Star Trek: Routinely violates sound engineering principles. If you took a drink for every time the TNG Enterprise was nearly destroyed because something like the reactor failsafes failing, you'd be comatose within a few episodes. Limited (or lack of) systems redundancy, no compartmentalization of critical systems, lack of surge protectors that cause control consoles to explode just about every time the Enterprise gets shot, using active measures like force fields for biohazard containment (instead of, say, a freaking box marked "biohazard") ... the list is endless.
    • Let's not forget the original Enterprise's pencil-neck, which by all means would snap off whenever it did anything resembling a turn. Later ship designs downplay the length and thicken the "neck" section, generally making it slightly more believable, even if it was still a rather unsound design. This particular weakness gets graphically demonstrated in Star Trek Beyond when Krall's swarm attack slices off both warp nacelles, preventing the Enterprise from pulling a Hyperspeed Escape, before cutting through the neck and leaving both the saucer and drive sections helpless.
    • Star Trek also misuses terms such as "alloy" and "compound".
    • But averted in TNG when Scotty tells Geordi that he wrote the original regulations conservatively. It's not (just) that it makes him look good when Kirk asked for more and Scotty could deliver, it's also that it's simply a good idea to not run the device at redline the whole time (reduces wear and tear, for one thing).
    • On a more philosophical level, the franchise generally doesn't seem at all clear on the vast differences between engineers, spacegoing engineers, scientists, and so on. Presumably an artifact of having The Main Characters Do Everything... on the other hand, this might explain a lot about Starfleet.
  • Star Trek: Voyager:
    • They decided that it would be a great idea if instead of metal wiring, most of the ship's utterly vital systems are connected with gel packs, which are basically biological goo. Not only does it open up engineering weaknesses that no good old copper wire would face (such as one instance where it was poisoned by Neelix's cooking) but also cannot be replicated or grown. Yes, they chose the one system that couldn't be made on the fly with their replicators. They also have have other engineering slip ups like have no emergency lights and manual door overrides that don't work if it doesn't have power.
    • And perhaps the most incomprehensible engineering choice in all of Star Trek, making the power supply for the Voyager holodeck incompatible with the rest of the ship. A power generator built into Voyager is somehow incompatible with the rest of Voyager. Why any engineer would design such a baffling system has never been explained.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Just about every single thing to come out of Warhammer 40,000 is either made out of shot traps, should collapse in on itself, or both. Even the more reasonably designed Imperial Guard tanks like the Baneblade are literally built out of shot traps, with short ranged guns that have bores nearly as large as their length as standard armament. It's only that tabletop rules forbid doing so that stops anyone from simply shooting the Baneblade in its Demolisher cannon and destroying it.
    • If anything else, the WH40K fighting vehicles resemble the World War One tanks, which themselves were ungainly and primitive contraptions of an era when nobody really knew what a tank ought to be. Eventually all other designs were surpassed by Renault FT-17 because it simply was the most practical, and they even today follow the same format: one revolving turret with one gun. In Real Life, the WH40K tanks would be large, poorly maneuverable targets with awful shot traps and perpendicular surfaces.
    • Digging into the lore of Battlefleet Gothic produces quite a few more of these. Among other things a "torpedo" is an eighty-metre long self-steering engine that overloads its reactor core when it gets close enough to something, which sounds reasonable enough... until you realize it gets transported from the magazine to the tubes by armies of serfs with pulleys and a trolley.
    • When they actually go and present the specifications behind the equipment in the setting, the results are often underwhelming, as one image comparing the Land Raider to the M1 Abrams.
    • Surprisingly enough, averted in some of the armour designs - The "walking tank" style model of Ghazghkull Mag Uruk Thraka was sculpted by someone with a background in mechanical engineering, who made a point of making the joints, pistons and servos actually be there for a reason. note 

    Video Games 
  • Apparently the Combine in Half-Life 2 do not know about hand brakes, which is why they have to secure their APCs with stop blocks that can be easily knocked out from under the wheels to send the vehicle plummeting down a slope into a river.
  • This trope came back to bite the creators of Red Faction: Guerilla. Apparently the combination of their famed Geomod engine with a realistic physics engine caused the outrageous "futuristic" buildings they planned on using in the game to collapse under their own weight, forcing them to go back to the drawing board with more sensible architecture. Explained by Volition themselves here.
  • The Sims, falling under acceptable breaks of reality, since house building can take a long time without you thinking how many pillars to put to support the entire structure. Of course, there are also bugs that allow things like a floating house.
  • Minecraft doesn't so much have an artistic license as it has entirely separate laws of physics from reality. On one hand, sand, gravel, and most living things will respect the laws of gravity while most other blocks ignore it entirely, enabling floating continents and fortresses to be built and naturally generate with a little effort. Yet on the other, most anything electronic barring mods follows the laws of electronics mostly swimmingly (well, minus the fact that redstone torches produce seemingly infinite power).
  • Dwarf Fortress. An entire fortress held up off the ground by one single brick of soap? They've been done, and that's considered relatively insignificant. Then again, without Dwarfy physics, we wouldn't get the mind-bendingly complex Death Traps and megaprojects that Dorfs have been known to build. Case in point, DOMAIN, a suborbital Kill Sat defense network that works by pumping magma up to dozens of Z-levels above ground level and dropping it on opponents, is still making the rounds on the Bay 12 forums.
  • Rado's Annex, a free-standing two story subtower connected to Darm Tower by a walkway on the sixteenth floor in the Ys series is pretty much structurally impossible. Yunica actually points this out when she first sees it in Origins.
  • Franchise/Starcraft:
    • The Viking transforming assault fighter can flip from starfighter to ground-walking mecha. The background description in the game strongly implies that transforming can kill an insufficiently agile pilot somehow, which is just plain idiotic. There's no call for the interior of the cockpit to be somehow involved in the transformation, nor would you ever want to field something that could kill the pilot as part of its normal performance going right.
    • An In-Universe version with Terran buildings, which continue to burn down when their HP is in the red without enemy assistance, due to electrical shorts, ruptured vespene tanks, and "hasty and often improvised construction." You'd think after decades in the Terran sector, they'd have learned to fix these, especially when the UED (remember, the guys from Earth) show up using the exact same buildings. One of the available upgrades in the campaign are firefighter drones that deploy when a building is in the red and fix it up to half its HP.
    • A subversion with the Odin, which is noted to be laughably Awesome, but Impractical. So Swann comes up with the Thor, a smaller-scale, mass-producible version... but by no Means a Mini-Mecha, the thing needs to be airlifted by a Drop Ship that can hold two tanks.
  • The Metal Gear series makes heavy use of Humongous Mecha in general. Notable in that one of the games actually lampshades how impractical the design is.
  • The M808 Scorpion tank of Halo has several highly questionable design elements. The Scorpion is apparently a "light tank" that is larger than the Panzerkampfwagen VIII Maus. Here's a scale comparison between the Scorpion, aforementioned Maus, and the sanely designed M1 Abrams, which is itself criticized by some as excessively large. Its M820 successor, introduced in Halo 5: Guardians, has a slightly more sound design (and a much higher-caliber cannon). To put this all in comparison, here are the actual numbers:
    • The M1 Abrams is 8ft tall, the Maus is 11ft tall, and the Scorpion is 14ft tall. M1 Abrams is 12ft wide, the Maus is 12ft wide, and the Scorpion is 26ft wide.
    • The Scorpion's max speed is 54km/h, while the original M1 Abrams can do 72km/h on roads and 48km/h cross-country, beating most of it's contemporaries, excluding the french Leclerc which can match the Abram's road speed and hit 55km/h cross country. In fairness, it is faster than the Maus and its top speed of 20km/h.
  • The spinigun assault rifle barrel in Borderlands 2 is attached below the receiver, meaning the bullets have to curve from the chamber, down the bore, and into the rotating barrel assembly.
  • Suffice to say, Five Nights at Freddy's is not an accurate representation of animatronics:
    • The animatronics are far above real life animatronics, being more like full-fledged Killer Robots as opposed to computer-controlled puppets. Most animatronics are completely unable to walk around due to their wires, power supply etc. typically being below a stage and attached through the legs (which, incidentally, are not often built with functioning joints), and even if they could, they would break apart as animatronics are often designed to break if enough pressure is applied so as to prevent injury. If the Bite of '87 really happened, an animatronic's jaw would be the only serious casualty. Game Theory ran the numbers on this at one point and concluded while you could build a Bite-capable animatronic with standard pneumatic drives on the market today, doing so would be an example of such hideous over-engineering anyone would assume you had deliberately built a killing machine. (In short, the drives required are 1000 times more powerful than those typically used by a Chuck E. Cheese animatronic.)
    • Their endoskeletons resemble thin skeletal robots, which are a far cry from the more complex endoskeletons in real animatronics. In addition, they're identical aside from their costumes, whereas realistically each character would have a unique endoskeleton.
    • Mangle, despite being taken apart and put back together in a haphazard fashion by children (a feat which itself raises eyebrows), can move around, hang from ceilings and support its own weight while doing so. Realistically it shouldn't be able to do more than be a pile of scrap on the floor.
    • The springlock suits mentioned in the third game act as both fully functional animatronics (again, with no apparent power supply or computer lines) and employee costumes via retracting the endoskeleton pieces around the sides of the suit. Looking at one such suit (Springtrap), however, you'll notice that even if the endoskeleton could still work as an animatronic after essentially being torn apart, there really isn't much room for the pieces to go to around the suit (especially in the limbs, and the feet, which are basically large blocks of metal) and comfortably allow a human to fit inside.
  • Farming Simulator 17, being a simulator, goes out of its way to detail the graphics of the vehicles and attachments with such things as power take-offs, three-point hitches, ball hitches, and fifth wheels. But when it comes to actually hooking the equipment up, you can get away with all kinds of shenanigans. For example, you could run a beet-harvesting wagon behind a pick-up truck with the harvester's power take-off driveshaft obviously hanging in midair. note 
  • Wolfenstein: The New Order: The design of the Gibraltar bridge in the game is completely unfeasible for linking Europe and Africa. The Strait of Gibraltar may only about 9 miles or 14 kilometers wide at its narrowest point, but it also varies from 300 to 900 meters (almost 1,000 to 3,000 feet) deep. Building just the pillars of the game's design would be an even greater engineering challenge than the bridge itself. Actual designs for the bridge range from an underwater suspended tunnel system to a hybrid of suspension and cable-stayed.
  • Serious Sam: Flavor text from NETRICSA says that the Laser Gun is made of titanium so as to not overheat. Titanium actually has very low thermal conductivity – a titanium laser gun would in fact overheat faster than one made of, say, steel or aluminium alloy. Not that it matters for a game firmly on the "Classic" end of the Fackler Scale of FPS Realism, mind you.

Alternative Title(s): Artistic Licence Engineering


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