Sunday, December 21, 2008

It's the Little Things

First, some housekeeping. I made my first-ever podcast appearance on Michael Abbot's Brainy Gamer Podcast under a pseudonym. (My last radio appearance was on the WBRU Jazz overnight back in '01.) Good times all around; you can hear me sully what scant indie cred I possess by declaring GTAIV my game of the year. Also, my piece on “the year of being there” recieved a nod from N'Gai Croal's Level Up blog. So, with this being-alluded-to-by-N'Gai-Croal out of the way, now I can die in peace.

I greedily devoured James Wood's new book of criticism, How Fiction Works, over the two days I've spent here at the Pliskin family seat in Cleveland. Like his other books, it's compulsively readable and inexhaustibly perceptive. How Fiction Works is many things: a treatise on the representation of subjectivity, a short history of the novelistic form, a meditation on the elusiveness of realism. But above all it is a primer on literary technique, with examples.

Wood gives a good deal of attention in this slim book to the importance of detail in literary representation. For Wood, the modern novel comes into existence with Flaubert and his obsession with the selection of detail. Flaubert's prose is not just a lucid camera passively turned on reality. He knew how to focus the lens of his prose on just the right elements of the manifold of experience: “Flaubert seems to scan the streets indifferently, like a camera. Just as when we watch a film we no longer notice what has been excluded, what is just outside the edges of the camera frame, so we no longer notice what Flaubert chooses not to notice. And we no longer notice that what he has selected is not of course casually scanned but quite savagely chosen, that each detail is almost frozen in its gel of chosenness.” (40) It's this devotion to the variegation of detail, the spatial and temporal dynamism of the selection, that creates the impression of reality in all the savage artifice: “The effect is lifelike-- in a beautifully artificial way. Flaubert manages to suggest that these details are at once important and unimportant: important because they have been noticed by him and put down on paper, and unimportant because they are all jumbled together, seen as if out of the corner of the eye; they seem to come at us 'like life.'”(42)

These conventions can't be transposed from literature to video games, as they are different mediums. Unlike the novelist, the game designer doesn't have license to manipulate the focus and the tempo of the represented experience, because the player ought to have control over these elements. They should control how the world appears to them-- what they see and how long they notice it-- and this is a devilish problem in game design. But the use of detail is no less essential to reality-effect of a simulated world.

Niko Belic doesn't scramble headlong down the stairs of the Hove Beach rail station; he descends with a stiff-legged sidle. You can tell from his carriage that he doesn't have a young man's spring in the knees. It's not just that the animation captures one of the subtle particularities of human movement; Niko's gait incarnates his durability, the steady world-weariness that defines him.

There's a hole in the roof of my safehouse, in Leboa-Sako. There's a tree interposed between the sun and the roof; and when the wind catches its leaves their tangled shadows flit across the smear of sunlight on the dirt floor. I've half a mind to sleep for a couple hours and see if the little yellow tache of sun moves its way across the floor. When I visit other safehouses I keep an eye out for this same patch, and am cheered by its absence. This is what it's like in real life: each roof is different in its irregularity.

The most credible element of the courtship between the Prince and Elrika is the gracefulness of their bodies moving in tandem. When they have to switch places on one of the innumberable wooden beams, they link arms and pirouette around each other. It looks like they've been practicing this move all their lives, it's done with such quickness and ease.

All of these moments were are impossible without the great leaps in technology we've seen over the last two decades. There's no denying that the lexicon has expanded greatly. But my feeling is that the barriers to verismilitude in video games aren't technological-- lighting effects, texture work, mocapping-- but technical. They're matters of technique, mastering the extant toolset in order to produce the novelistic details that make for the feeling of authentic transport. Game design doesn't need a better camera, or a holodeck. What it requires is old-fashioned artistry and imaginativeness, an obsessive and nerdish Flaubert who will come along and show us how games work.


Kylie Prymus said...

I'm a little lost here, perhaps because I'm not familiar with Wood's work. You suggest that games, unlike other media, should give all control over the player, thus allowing them to determine what details to focus on. This would eliminate - it seems - the need for a designer to have a specific artistic eye towards what to leave out, what details to "make important in their unimportance".

But this would seem to require greater and greater leaps in technology, which you say aren't necessary at the end. If you genuinely want to give the player freedom then the entire world of possibility must be opened to them since they can then choose what details become important.

However what I see as the possibility of real artistry (and may be what your point was but I missed it) is in providing a world with appropriate detailed inclusions and omissions but that is structured (through gameplay and narratve) such that the player will naturally want to explore only those areas deemed important by the artist/designer. The artist is still making choices for the player, but the player feels as if they made those choices themselves - the illusion of freedom. I experienced something like this recently playing Everybody Dies. There's both a respect and a frustration with a game that does this well - respect that they create the illusion, but frustration on repeat plays because you feel like you led along by the nose the whole time.

But maybe that's an argument for not replaying certain games.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@kylie: yeah, I probably didn't explain that part all to well. What I was trying to say is that unlike a novelist or a filmmaker the designer doesn't have control of the camera. (Wood himself uses the camera metaphor to talk about how novelists use detail) And so detail has a different role in game design.

I guess what I have in mind is that designers have a choice over how they fill up the environments and they choose their animations, and by doing this right they can achieve a kind of realism that's different from the kind of realism you get with a higher polygon count.

Here's what I was thinking: I didn't put this in the piece, but one thing i notice a lot is that indoor environments in video games are often really generic. Even in good games with great texture work it's like every table looks like every other table. Every couch looks like every other couch. (in big games everything looks really modular over time) What I would really like to see is a house, in a game, where every piece of furniture is different in unique, every picture on the wall tells you something about the people who live there. Like, when you visit a person's house in real life you can tell a lot about them by looking at the book on the shelves, seeing what kind of decorations they have. This can be really subtle.

Anyways, I think your point here is really good: the designers could structure the game in such a way that they are encouraged to explore and uncover these sorts of details of their own accord.

Kylie Prymus said...

@iroquis: I see your point now and it's a good one. It requires a bit of a paradigm shift on the part of developers however, because it's a great deal of work that goes into details that many players may fail to notice. But that comes with the territory and just means getting truly comfortable with giving up control to the player.

There's great potential with this idea, especially with so-called morality games. Rather than offering fairly straight-forward good/bad choices the player can be given options which they may view as good or bad depending on what details they've noticed in the environment. There's always more to every story than what we're told and conveying more information through details that may or may not be seen emphasizes the player's role not just in making moral choices but in acquiring and interpreting the information used to make that choice. The designer could even abdicate responsibility for labeling a choice as "good" or "bad" because, as is so often the case in life, that decision could validly differ depending on what the player knows.

Those details could also go a long way towards making a player feel more connected to a character as well as putting the responsibility on the player if they find the characters lacking in personality. You could have characters with a genuinely subdued personality who don't feel one-dimensional just because they aren't over-the-top and forthcoming with their life story like most characters with any "depth".

Nels Anderson said...

Delayed response due to catching up on my post-holiday Google Reader backlog, but I thought this was interesting:

"What I would really like to see is a house, in a game, where every piece of furniture is different in unique, every picture on the wall tells you something about the people who live there."

I'd argue that this is a problem that's much easier to solve with technology than with technique. Generating unique assets for every house in a game (unless there's a very small number of houses) is an impossible task for an art team.

But a procedural system that could pseudo-randomly generate living rooms could potentially solve this problem, once the technology gets there. Further, if it possessed the ability to translate photographs into in-game textures, it could crawl the net looking for images of living rooms and feeding those into its data sources. And before you know it, we'll have SkyNet and the we'll be fighting the world's deadliest interior decorators. Remember, I called it here first.