Friday, September 26, 2008

Seeing Things in Games

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.


Nels Anderson said...

I had the same reaction to Night Watch. The movie itself had some issues, but the way they utilized subtitling in the film was amazing. Instead of just overlaying text on the shot, the typography of the text "interacted" with the scene and the characters speaking the lines. Seeing this, I thought "Why has no one done this before? The capabilities have been in place for a long time."

I really think it's important that we shake off the dust every once in a while and really examine certain common components. Their functionality may evolved into best practices and that's fine. But there's a fantastic opportunity for innovation when nothing but inertia is responsible for certain decisions.

Scott Juster said...

I wish that more experimental games made their way to market; Eternal Darkness is one of my favorite games. However, I think venturing into unknown is a big risk for developers.

Eternal Darkness was a critical hit, but a sadly underperforming seller (in comparison to games like Halo). This is a tragedy, because if creative and artistically innovative games don't make for good business, they won't get the funding and resources they deserve. This just lead people to play it safe and release things sure to sell.

There must be some way to subsidize experiments in order to shield them from the more brutal aspects of the market. Not everyone can pull a Jonathan Blow and sink 100k+ into a pet project. Maybe academic or government sponsored grants? Or will we just have to be happy with cheaper, small-scale experimental games?

Steve Amodio said...

The sad part is that largely the people calling the shots at the major publishers that have seen success have been taught through years of turmoil that a conservative business plan is what often gets you continued success in the business world and the landscape out there is extremely unfriendly to new and experimental ideas because of the stature and resources you need to get any kind of real start in today's market.

Nintendo took a long time to finally realize a dependable philosophy of controlled risk, and while most "hardcore" gamers out there feel abandoned as they're no longer being catered to, Nintendo is trying to think outside the box with a lot of their projects and get us to redefine what a game is capable of. Wiisports is the closest experience over the last few years I've got to compare to something like MGS or Final Fantasy II. The real question is going to be now that Nintendo has achieved tremendous success taking risks whether they keep on innovating and constantly trying new things or just try to ride it out until those formerly risky innovations stop working. History would indicate the latter.

Kirk Battle said...

2K seems to do a good job about putting together a basic engine/rendering platform and then allowing various teams to play with the pre-existing materials. Bully, Manhunt 1 & 2, then later titles like 'The Darkness'.

Each of those games made minor tweaks and creative shifts, but they did so on game designs that already existed. Bully is a very different game from its GTA brethren, featuring a school mechanic and 2 separate cultures of rules that interact. That's just one example but it does come out in various ways.

Hopefully the low processing power of the Wii will keep coercing developers to push the boundaries rather than maxing out their bloom effects per level.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@scott juster: I've been hoping that the downloadable services will be a good nice for games that want to make a few experiments with things like the UI and interface and all that. And I do think we're seeing some good stuff there, but in the large-scale games it's really hard to find any teams that have total creative license. How do you justify takeing huge creative risks when AAA games cost so much to make?

@steve: Nintendo is a really good example of smart risk-taking. I was thinking mostly of software-side stuff but it's totally true that Nintendo has done the most to expand the range of interactions you can have with the game by making the wii hardware. And I think on that front we're still not seeing all the creative things you can do with the wiimote.

@L.B.: good case in point. I think this kind of dovetails with Scott's point. Only a few developers with huge-scale hits (your Rockstars, your Kojimas) get the chance to make creative risks on AAA titles.