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.