On the new “confab” edition of Michael Abbott's Brainy Gamer podcast, which aired sometime last week, there was a lengthy discussion of the fall's coming games; despite a brawny release schedule, smack in the middle of the consoles' life-cycle (usually a plus), the mood of the discussion was cautious. Big promises have been made for this crop of games-- promises of lifechanging technical and ludonarrative innovations, but there was a healthy amount of skepticism about these pledges given the industry's track record of delivering on all of these ambitions.
This wariness gave way to some vivid enthusiasm by the time the assembled sages got around to discussing specific games (and who can resist a 4-player cooperative zombie apocalypse? Not I, for one) and musing on the potential payoff of all these promises. As this console generation has shows, the potential of all these new technical innovations is undeniable.
But what I thought when I heard this discussion is that the challenge for modern game design is not a lack of technical tools-- improvements in artificial intelligence, procedural narrative, and the like. While it's true that the breadth of expressive possibilities in video games is tethered to our technical capacities (especially where it comes to the limits that technology puts on our range of possible interactions with a virtual world) it seems to me that the problem of modern game design is a lack of imagination when it comes to the capabilities we already have.
By this I don't mean that there is a lack of audacious ideas out there. What I mean is this: we haven't done enough with the good ideas we've already seen. As I wrote a while back, I've been playing through Eternal Darkness recently. Though that game has some deficiencies as a entertainment product I can't say enough good things about its sanity mechanic and the way that it manipulates the player's perception of the world. For those of you unfamiliar with Eternal Darkness, there is a meter-- like a life-bar-- that is damaged by certain enemy attacks. But taking “sanity damage” doesn't cause death. Rather, it causes these hallucinatory effects to creep up in the environment. You hear loud banging on nearby doors, see blood dripping from the ceiling. Sometimes you'll walk into a room and some typically phantasmagoric delusion will play out-- your character 's head will drop off and quote Shakespeare, or your body will slowly sink into the floor, and you will be powerless to cast spells or alter your demise. The whole effect is an effective transposition of nightmare-logic into the medium of games, made all the more palpable because the sense of powerlessness is conveyed through the game-mechanics; your spells fizzle and your weapons jam. And there is really something oddly compelling about hallucinating in the third-person perspective. It creates this effect that you, the player, are hallucinating on your character's behalf. This isn't scary, really, but it's interesting. It makes you think of all the things you could do with the idea aside from trying to scare people with it.
From my perspective we haven't even begun to mine the type of creative potential exemplified by Eternal Darkness-- creating different and interesting experiences through the use of basic gameplay elements like the user interface. For some reason, makers of survival horror games have been unusually alert to the ways that the information displayed on the screen mediates of our experience of a game's world, and have made creative use of the user interface in order to deftly manipulate the player's sense of vulnerability. I think they realized that the very texture of the interface plays a huge role in terror; any display element (a meter, a representation of a weapon, anything) is something familiar and sane that the player can cling to in order to stave off dread. Silent Hill achieved this terrific feeling of vulnerability and isolation by just leaving the whole display bare. All you see is your character wandering a desolate world; a radar on the interface would have been a beacon of calm, so instead you are given a radio which emits an unnerving crackle of static in the presence of enemies.
Other modernist and post-modernist art forms have made works of depth and subtlety by probing the nature of perception. From Rashomon to The Waves, modernists have been obsessed with finding techniques to represent the perspectival nature of our access to a shared reality., and they've created all these fascinating widows into the structure of our relationship with the world and other human beings. And in games we have a medium with unique capacities when it comes to representing perception-- like a movie, a game can show you how same world looks different from viewpoints, because it can place you in the heads of different characters. (Like in Indigo Prophecy or Call of Juarez.) But games also have a unique capacity to represent how different characters inhabit a world, how they interface with the world, how they invest it with significance through their thoughts and actions.
It strikes me that there's a set of tools here already at hand, waiting on technique. There have been games that have shown real creative vision, like the way Metal Gear Solid 2 knowingly twisted the player's access to the game in order to represent the pursuit of a hostile AI, or the battle in the original Metal Gear Solid that flashed the video screen-cut (as if the TV had been turned to another input), and required the player to plug his controller into a different port in order to defeat the boss. I don't think we've begun to scratch the surface in terms of using the already-existing elements of game design in order to create new sorts of narrative effects.
At times it seems like we have been so caught up in refining the successful research programs-- the Halos-- instead of looking to the possibilities of the offbeat and unusual design ideas like those in Eternal Darkess or Metal Gear Solid. We've spent so much time trying to create a fantasy of what the world looks like with a high-powered assault rifle in your hands. And I'm not going to lie to you, it's pretty great. But we have a medium that can put us in different roles and show us the world from so many perspectives-- I'd like to see something new and strange.