298 – The State of the Game

Coming this holiday season, Space Invaders 3D!

I’m into my final days living in Britain. Everything’s packed bar a few odds and ends too small, too large or too odd to fit into the boxes I’ve already finished. I’ll find a way to fit them in eventually–he says with three days remaining.

The only things I haven’t touched are my TV, my computer and Xbox 360. Once those are gone my place will be barren, emptied of the devices I use on a near daily basis.

Not that I use them for playing games. The Xbox is a media centre; I download TV shows, transfer them via USB and watch those rather than the drek that fills UK television schedules. All my games have been packed away to be unboxed at an undetermined point in the future; the games console that was once the height of modern technology now has all the functionality of a VCR.

It wasn’t always like this. The 360 was the last console I bought, at the lowest ebb in my interest in gaming. It rekindled my love for gaming when it was guttering. This is something many of us go through–a gaming menopause from which we might not return. We become disillusioned with the games currently on offer. We find other hobbies and give up for a while.

It’s healthy, I think. Right now I’m going through the menopause a second time. Granted, I don’t have money to fritter away on the latest titles–which is certainly a factor contributing to my current gaming doldrums. There are a few games that have caught my attention in the run up to Christmas but there are just as many high-profile titles I’m simply not interested in. Watching videos of some of these games is depressing. Far be it from me to judge a game by its cover but so many of them seem to tread the same old familiar ground.

Not that a video can convey what its like to play a game. Footage of the upcoming Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim doesn’t convey the experience of exploring an entire country on foot and horseback, spending hundreds of hours doing whatever the hell you want in a reactive bottle universe.

Still, watching footage of The Legend of Zelda: The Skyward Sword–an Edge 10, don’t you know?–has left me cold. Everything about it seems so familiar; if it wasn’t for the odd manner in which the hero holds his sword–as if the sword was holding him–I’d think I’d already played it.

While this cynicism isn’t particularly likeable–especially for those listening who’re still very much into games–it’s healthy in the long run. If I come back to games a year or two from now I’ll have much to catch up on. Everything that now seems tired will be fresh in the future. I’ll become a gaming evangelist once more, grabbing people on the streets to show them advances in gaming technology their untrained eyes barely acknowledge.

The thing is, but for my current lack of enthusiasm I love video games. I’ve said so for years: I love games and what they can be. But as gaming’s moved into the mainstream, the field of what it’s financially tenable for games be has narrowed. The open market of my youth in which developers sold games about brushing your teeth or tidying away toys has closed. The vast majority of games these days are adversarial, pitting players in digital combat against either artificially intelligent characters or each other in a limited number of settings. There’s an unwritten rule that this is what games are now, when to more open minds they could be as abstract as they were once upon a time.

What is a video game, anyway? It’s a virtual space in which players interact with objects and each other. Much of the language we associate with video games–health bars, extra lives, enemies, scores, winning and losing–are as extraneous to this virtual space as we are to our to our own planet–if not more so. I mean, we’re bound to this planet, having taken only small steps into the cosmos beyond, and we’re certainly bound by the laws of physics. For the most part video games simulate reality as we know it–but they don’t have to. Braid plays with physics, asking what it might be like if a step forward in space meant a step forward in time as well and what would happen if dimensions moved independently of each other, in surprising directions. The Paper Mario series does something similar, allowing two dimensional space to be viewed in three dimensions and asking what would be possible in a world where people could be folded like origami.

Other games play with physics in a much less blatant manner. For years 2D scrolling beat-’em-ups either tried to simulate 3D space (as in Golden Axe) or worked on a single 2D plane (as in Kung-Fu Master). During certain levels of Shinobi players moved between the foreground and background to fight enemies specific to those planes, while Guardian Heroes had three planes players could jump between, fusing 2D gameplay to 3D space.

When I started playing video games three dimensional space was often depicted isometrically or using wireframe vector graphics–or not at all. Don Priestley’s Popeye on the Spectrum was a bizarre attempt at feigning 3D space through two dimensional graphics that had players walk into or out of the screen, to avoid enemies and duck behind scenery. There was little indication of where the player was in relation to the rest of the objects on screen; you just had to hope for the best.

And the game was built around this concept. There were holes hidden in the floor that could only be found through trial and error, that would lead to other parts of the game you’d otherwise be unable to reach. As frustrating as it was, that was part of the fun. Priestly wanted to make a 3D game and rather than be limited than by the technology of the day, he damned well made one.

Of course, aside these games only deal with the dimensions we’re more accustomed to. Technically there’s nothing stopping developers from inserting objects with four physical dimensions into current 3D games. It’s not such a huge jump–after all, we’re used to objects in video games having strange physical properties. In the first Dizzy game there was no reason why you should be able to use mushrooms as trampolines: it was simply part of the game’s logic. In Super Mario Brothers mushrooms made Mario grow to twice his size while in New Super Mario Brothers large mushrooms made him grow even larger. While this enlarging effect isn’t exactly part of the mushroom’s physical properties, this could implemented in a future Mario game. What if Super Mario’s mushrooms worked in the same way as Braid’s physics, inflating any creature that touched them to gargantuan size? What kinds of puzzles could be designed using these properties?

Braid is just one of a new breed of puzzle games applying physics to existing genres. In Portal, players can open wormholes between two places in space, allowing them to walk through one end and emerge instantaneously from the other. The game’s physics engine keeps track of players’ momentum. allowing them to fall at great speed into a portal in the floor and fly with the same velocity from a portal in a wall, perpendicular to their original vector. In the sequel players use different coloured gels, each which its own physical properties in conjunction with these portals: players bounce from repulsion gel, slide at speed along propulsion gel, etc. Though the game was praised for its innovative and fiendish puzzles these gels would have been familiar to my younger self as implementations of the mushrooms from Dizzy or the conveyor belts from Manic Miner. The ideas themselves are old; its the new ways they’re being used–and the climate they’re being used in–that makes them interesting.

As another example, take the gravity gun from Half-Life 2. Guns that fire projectiles have been in games for years but with the gravity gun ammunition weren’t an abstract idea: you could pick up any object around you and fling it as a weapon at your enemies. Some of these weapons had other physical properties: paint cans spilled their contents, circular saws sheared bodies in two. You could retrieve ammunition to use again because it existed in this other place, it was physically modelled in the same way bullets in first person shooters were not.

This is exciting stuff, so why aren’t I more excited?

Video games have always been iterative. Compared with early arcade sequels even the most tired of modern video games franchises are terribly innovative. Anyone complaining that a franchise is being milked would have to admit this is hardly a recent phenomenon. I guess my problem is that for the most part the industry is stagnant. In a push towards larger audiences and greater profits games are starting to feel samey. Most are viewed from one of two perspectives–first or third person–both of which have the same control schemes. Everyone’s working from the same template, because this is what games are.

Nobody’s going to make a game like Popeye, which was essential broken from the off. Don’t get me wrong–there are lots of innovative games out there but the majority of them are made within the same sandbox. The most innovative titles borrow from existing genres and add their own twist to them. Portal co-creator Kim Swift’s forthcoming Quantum Conundrum experiments with in-game physics, letting players shift between dimensions where the objects within have different physical properties. It’s a great idea that touches upon many of the things I’ve mentioned in this article but it must be said, it still looks a hell of a lot like Portal.

Like Hollywood the games industry has become too large to take chances. The indie gaming scene has become more popular in recent years as cynical gamers have become disenchanted with mainstream releases, but even the indie scene has become bloated with tributes and copy-cats–how many rock hard retro-styled platformers with chiptune soundtracks do we need?

And I’m at fault myself. I’m rarely inclined to play games these days. I wonder how many other people whine about the industry with stacks of unfinished games on their shelves. Maybe video games are only a convenient target for our cynicism when what we’re really dissatisfied with is ourselves.

I do wonder what I’d do with an infinite budget and a team of eager artists and developers at my disposal. I’d quite like to see The Elder Scrolls fused with Planescape: Torment. True, it would be as creatively bankrupt as many of the games I’m complaining about, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a vast role-playing adventure fuelled by character and conversation rather than levels and combat. From the way the industry’s going, it’s something I doubt we’ll ever see again.

Not exactly a One A Day post this one, and not the one I set out to write. “Fiddle-de-dee,” said Scarlet. “After all, tomorrow is another day.”

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