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REALITY BYTES : Pondering the Limits of Realism
by Darby McDevitt on 12/18/13 02:21:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

1.

I have a vivid early memory of sitting down with my father one evening and booting up my Apple IIc to show him the first chapter of Sierra’s campy Space Quest series. It was 1988, making me thirteen, a teenager with a consuming passion for graphic adventure games. Sierra's first Kings Quest title had been my gateway and from the mid-eighties through the early-nineties, I played every title I could buy, borrow, or steal – Space Quest, Below The Root, Leisure Suit Larry, The Colonel's Bequest, Manhunter: New York, The Secret of Monkey Island to name a bare few. The list was long and the copy-protection was fragile.

Just 13 years old, I had grown up using computers. Now in his late 40s, my dad could barely flip a floppy disk. So I gave him a quick lesson, showing him step-by-step the basics of the game's interface and how to steer his avatar around the screen – a nebbish Janitor named Roger Wilco by default, currently living and working aboard a spacecraft in the distant future. When my dad had heard enough he shooed me from the keyboard and took over. For a time he carried himself well, guiding Roger about the corridors of a ship on high alert, using the arrows to walk and nouns and verbs to investigate his surroundings. This second feature was quite alien to him – the idea that he could type plain-English instructions and the game would respond with an appropriate result.

This was called a "text parser." Most early adventure games utilized one, a command-line concept imported from older text-adventures that used broadly applicable language instructions to make things happen. Verbs like LOOK, USE, GET, OPEN, WALK, CLIMB were among the most common. But the lexicons of old text parsers were quite small and this posed a unique challenge to people unfamiliar with their limitations. A player’s options were usually restricted to rudimentary verb-noun groupings the developers had already established.

This caused headaches for even the most dedicated players. For one, typing out a solution to a riddle and watching it fail did not necessarily mean that your solution was wrong. It might only mean you failed to find the right trigger words. If you spotted a light switch, for instance, and typed "Flip Lightswitch" to no effect. A few more frustrated attempts might finally bring you around to a more effective "Use switch", but it was just as likely that you had already rage quit and booted up Oregon Trail instead.

As all players of the original King's Quest discovered, its predetermined lexicon was far smaller than your average three-year-old's and you constantly found yourself faced with questions that impeded your enjoyment of the experience. What words does this game understand? Which items on-screen are interactive and which are decoration? How many exits does this room have? How do I get rid of this Yeti when all I have in my inventory is a pie?

A limited lexicon also meant that there was no room for player-generated creativity, a hallmark of games with actual systems like chess and Super Mario Brothers. Type in something esoteric – “DANCE IN THE SUNSHINE” or “BITE MY LIP PENSIVELY” – and the game would plead ignorance. “I dont understand what you mean” was a typical response. This was no fault of the game’s. It meant only that the designers hadn’t anticipated these peculiarly peculiar inputs.

My father learned this lesson early. Ten minutes into his wanderings, he navigated Roger into a dead end and his frustration heated to a boil. Unable to discover a path forward, Dad tapped out a command that seemed plausible: “Open Door.” When the game politely suggested that there were no doors within range, my dad squinted at the solid black stripe barricading his character from his intended destination. Frustrated he tried to barter: “Tell me where the door is please,” he typed kindly. Again the computer’s narrator was confused: “I dont understand what you mean.”

Thinking for a moment, my father typed out his final order: “Blast open this fucking wall with my rocket launcher.” He hit enter. I don't understand what you mean.”

My dad stood up. “Time for bed,” he said, and marched off to his room. His gaming days had begun and ended in a span of ten minutes. But his impatience with the limits of Space Quests text parser taught me a lesson: when aspects of a game imply more interactivity than they can deliver, a player's intuition and imagination can quickly lead him to disappointment.

With his swarthy talk, my Dad had exceeded the limits of the Space Quests design space. He had encountered a game system that on the surface appeared to be systemic, but was in fact a static series of predefined puzzles. And he had assumed that since the game understood some words, it might be able to understand the ones he had in mind. What he found instead was a game system modeled on an aspect of reality – natural language – that did not function like any natural language he knew.

Looking back, I now realize adventure games were not the pristine gems of immersion I imagined them to be. They were a chaotic mess of content and it was often difficult to tell which parts of the game were deliberately interactive and which were arbitrary set-dressing. Unlike Pac-Man, where every on-screen element had a specific game function – walls blocked you, ghosts ate you, pellets sated you, etc. – adventure games had a surplus of visual and textural information, most of which belonged to the game’s static “narrative layer" and played no part in the actual gameplay.

My father's frustration with Space Quest brought me down to earth for a time. At thirteen, I had convinced myself that adventure games were the first clear step towards true virtual reality. I was enthralled by the worlds they conjured and the escapism they allowed, and I spent so many solitary nights exploring these digital environments that I must have gained residency in half a dozen, clicking my way through vivid landscapes, solving mind-bending riddles, and watching their stories unfold.

"Soon, they'll be indistinguishable from films," I remember thinking after playing Grim Fandango in 1998.

It took a decade or more to ask myself if this was a good idea.

 

2.

In June 2011 a dozen of my Ubisoft Montreal colleagues and I hopped down to E3 in Los Angeles to show off the first gameplay footage of Assassins Creed: Revelations, the fourth console game in our immersive history-hopping franchise. We were thrilled with the progress we’d made in the six months we’d been working and were delighted with how one of the game’s most important features was coming together – the glorious city of Constantinople.

Although our dynamic seven-minute demo showed just a fraction of what would become the franchise’s second biggest location (at the time), we were already pleased with the sumptuous detail we had managed to squeeze into  such a confined space. The stone and wood siding, the filigrees and tile-work, the drifting smoke and dry grit, the crowded markets and bustling ports, the tickling vitality of it all.

It was a grand place to visit, if virtually, and we relished the opportunity to show it off. Over the course of the Expo's first two days most everyone who saw it left satisfied or impressed. But there was one journalist whose brief vacation to the Ottoman Empire ended only in confusion and frustration. And it was Kama Dunsmore, our animation director, who shared his story with me.

Late on our second day after an exhausting seven hours of interviews and demos, Kama was tidying up her station, untangling chords and rearranging seats, when a gentleman in his early 40s wearing a suit two sizes too large approached and asked to see the game. She hesitated and peeked back at the press queue. Giving solo demos ate up precious time and space. But the line was empty and the showroom floor beyond was thinning. Kama waved the man forward.

She seated him, handed off a pair of headphones before donning her own, then launched into her introduction. Lacking a recording device, the journalist scribbled furiously with a pen on a small pad of paper. Everything Kama said was good news.

Kama concluded her spiel and pressed start. The screen flashed and faded. Within seconds they were deep in the streets of sixteenth-century Constantinople, pushing slowly through a nattering crowd, all faces and buildings bathed in a dusky marmalade light. The journalist’s eyes widened. It seemed to Kama that he was not familiar with open world games of this sort, and could hardly believe such simulacrums were possible. He took down a few more notes as virtual Ottoman citizens argued in Turkish about their wares and the weather.

Our protagonist Ezio Auditore appeared next. He scanned his surroundings  and settled into his idle pose. Taking control, Kama navigated him into the heart of a spice market. The journalist, overwhelmed by the busy details, could hardly contain his awe.

"So beautiful!"

Kama agreed.

“But wait...” the man shouted, his hand waving.

Kama halted, bringing Ezio to a stop. “Yes?”

“Is that a fish?” he said, now squinting and tapping the television, pointing at something on the margins of the screen.

Kama swung the game camera around to gain a better view. Sure enough there was a fish – a few of them actually – stacked in a minuscule basket on display in a vendor's stall.

"Yes," Kama said. "This is the spice market district. Lots of merchants."

The man squinted at the virtual vendor’s wares. “Can you eat the fish?”

Kama smiled. “No, unfortunately."

The man was perplexed, maybe even saddened. “You can’t eat the fish?” he asked again.

Kama probably chewed her lip, biting back laugh.

“No,” she said, “It's just for show.”

The man sighed and swept his eyes over the market.

“What about the spices there? Can we taste those?”

He was pointing at another vendor's stall – a man peddling colorful dunes of ground spices packed high in adjacent tubs – a display typical of vendors in and around Istanbul's bazaars.

“Nope,” Kama shook her head. “Just decoration.”

The man seemed hurt by this news, and fell into a short silence as Kama resumed her tour. She turned a corner, walking Ezio past a group of Romanies singing and dancing on one of the Golden Horn's sunbaked quays. Here the journalist came to life again.

"Many beautiful houses," he said. "Can we go inside?"

"No, nothing inside," Kama said. "But we can climb them."

The man pursed his lips and breathed in, beginning to understand.

“Nobody lives in these houses?” he asked.

Kama nodded.

"No. They're just decoration," she said. "It's all decoration..."

 

3.

Open door. Look sky. Take breath. Walk to market. Ruminate on a personal tragedy. Smell spices. Eat fish. Look fountain. Drink water. Smile at stranger. Admire view. Talk to civilian. Buy book. Read book. Pick teeth. Spit on ground. Sleep on bench. Throw pie at Yeti.

Maybe it's a symptom of my age and restless imagination but as a life-long fan I have come to feel that modern videogame worlds, with their picture-perfect verisimilitude and exuberant attention to detail, have proven themselves too good to be true. I have succumbed to more "can I eat the fish?" moments in GTA and Assassins Creed than I dare admit. The surface realism, the narrative scope, and the pasable physics of these virtual places draw me in, teasing me with the possibility of a truly novel and immersive experience – something akin to life in a real city. Company, camaraderie, illumination, mystery, misery, anger, energy....

This never happens. But it's my fault for being fooled, for believing otherwise. Videogame “open-worlds” are undead places. Lively from a distance, mottled and gashed up close, they teach us through a gradual succession of disappointments that they are simply jungle gyms upon which a handful of thrilling pantomimes are played.

Yet they compel us, and not without good reason. Ask any fan what core features make up the quintessential Assassin's Creed game and more often than not you'll hear "the cities": Florence, Venice, Istanbul, Havana, Damascus, Jerusalem, Boston... the assassins creed series has revived them all, rebuilt them brick by brick and plank by plank to give players a taste of historical tourism and a slice of adventure.

These cities are not simulations of real cities, however. They are not functional homes to complex artificial lives or ecosystems, nor are they engines of economic prosperity. In Assassin's Creed's the cities have been built for a singularly action-oriented  purpose – climbing and free-running. Every building shape, every street width, every stacked crate and upturned wagon, every hay-cart and leaf pile – all of it has been designed with parkour routes in mind. We're urban planners of a luddic bent. Jane Jacobs is not our patron saint and we don't much care if this or that street is efficiently mixed-use for families and businesses. If you want that sort of thing, SimCity is a better bet. But in Assassins Creed you may see the sun set in a thunder storm from the steeple of an ancient church. Take your pick. Everything in its right place.

This specialization true of all open worlds. Developers construct their cities and landscapes to suit the game's mechanics, eschewing or downplaying any bits of reality that interfere with the capital-F Fun. This means that GTAV's Los Santos, modeled after earth's Los Angeles, has dispensed with the latter's legendary traffic jams in favor of open and accommodating streets, perfect for racing and chasing. Two cities built specifically to accommodate automobiles, only one of which now regrets it.

Fifteen years after Shenmue, we have grown accustomed to vast and minutely detailed virtual worlds that are merely backdrops for a limited palette of of actions. Ninety-nine percent of the buildings I drive past in GTAV are facades, erected there for visual variety or cover in the event I am shot at. Personal investment or interest in each one is far outside the game's scope.

In Assassin's Creed meanwhile the buildings are for climbing, the haystacks are for hiding, and the guards are for avoiding. These rules constitute the reality of the world. They are in essence the high-level physics of the game's universe, without which there would be no game.

And for the most part these rules are immutable. You cannot step outside or around them. If you could, you wouldn't have a game. This means you will not trip while parkouring across a flat roof, you will not dive into a haystack and find it occasionally full or bricks, and you will not have one first-degree murder charge filed against you for each of the 500 guards you chop down in pursuit of a dubious goal. In videogames reality can encumber the experience terribly, even when the narrative pleads for it.

Yet there is something in me that wants these things to happen, these lively surprises completely anathema to the purpose of a game. The sheer amount of functional content implied by our open-worlds – the pedestrians, the buildings, the animals, the apparent vitality of it all – begs the same questions asked by my father and the E3 journalists: "What can I do here?"

"Can I eat that fish?"

"Can I enter this ancient building?"

"Can I blast down this fucking wall with my rocket launcher?"

With obsession over graphical and narrative realism at an all-time high, it’s nearly impossible to make a game that isn’t guilty of some form of representational excess. That’s just how it’s done. Rich and scintillating visuals, crackling sounds, and character-driven narratives are par for the course. Our desire to live in and experience these worlds as fully and completely as possible is peaking, but the worlds themselves remain remarkably resistant. We cannot build enough interlocking systems to satisfy every players' whim. Yet each year hundreds of millions of dollars are spent building cities that look impressivly real at first glance before slowly reavealing their impotence over time.

But I keep coming back for more. Again and again to those desolate and thrilling places. Why?

 

4.

I’ve come to Genoa – the real one – for an Assassin's Creed press event. Right now I’m exploring the city, stomping up via Palestro towards a wall that looks like a giant slice of spumoni, an edifice three-stories high with wide horizontal stripes of vanilla and strawberry. And I’m thinking, I want to climb that. I want to climb everything here.

There's a dry fountain at the base of this beautiful wall, a concave with a cement grotesque smacking its stony lips. On either side of the edifice, apartments with neo-baroque facades bunch up like a poorly-played game of Tetris, sitting at odd angles to one another. The buildings lining my approach press hard against the narrow sidewalk, almost leaning into the street. Their rough walls, exquisitely carved balconies, and rugged shutters add a texture to my view that keeps my eyes constantly roving. If this were a location in one of our games, I would scramble up the nearest wall and examine these details individually, at my own pace. But reality has an ordinary way of frustrating my imagination.

Yet here I can knock on doors and the people inside will answer. We might talk or argue. It's a trade off.

At street level compact cars and vespa scooters fill quiet corners and traffic is non-existent. The cobbled road beneath me is rough and old and every few steps I stumble like a practiced drunk. In ten minutes I have seen just a handful of locals, standing in a doorways or leaning from windows, and the neighborhood feels uncommonly empty. I wonder where everyone is hiding. In a few moments a church bell will ring and I'll remember that it's Sunday.

This is not a city from an Assassins Creed game, of course, where Sundays are indistinguishable from Wednesdays, where very few people have jobs, and where nobody really goes to church. In our games, cities are playpens. Walls are obstacles and people are a resource. We cannot enter the majority of our buildings nore can we talk to the people in the street at our leisure. We do not befriend them. We do not buy fish or spices from their stalls. And yet, if we pause for a moment and squint and listen, our cities do sound and feel like the real deal. The illusion is always maintained just long enough to stir the heart for something more. Just long enough for the the awe to secude you, before the loneliness sets in. Keep moving.

Reaching the base of that pink and cream wall I take out my phone, flip to its camera function, and sweep the lens from left to right. The displayed picture feels tiny on my screen, confined and robbed of its power. The grandeur is gone. I wonder for a moment if my girlfriend – a far better photographer that me – would have better luck at finding a beautiful angle. But I think not. I realize that I don't want a photograph. I want a record of the space itself – I want to preserve the inscrutable feeling of being right there, in that place, with buildings towering unseen behind and beside me, with sounds bouncing off high walls into my ears, with shadows and sunbeams competing for my attention. No photograph – not even a panorama – can record what it feels like to move through a place and be swallowed by a city or devoured by a forest. But a videogame might do the job just fine.

Reality does this well too, of course. But 16th century Constantinople has come and gone, so a well made open-world is a tantalizing substitute. The cities of Assassin's Creed and GTA and the landscapes of Red Dead Redemption and Skyrim give us access to environments in ways never before possible. No longer bound by conventional physics or biology, we climb higher, range wider, gallop faster, and soar further than ever before. We form a new relationship with the layouts of these digital landscapes. Their scale is skewed in favor of our whims and our curiosity. Fancy a photo from the top of mount Chilliad? You'll be there in five minutes. Interested in the back-alley chatter of 13th century Jerusalem? Have a look and a listen. Go where you like, when you like, how you like. They have been scaled down to a level that gives us a temporary yet significant shift in scale. Use this power wisely.

Disappointed with my present street-bound view, I snap a picture for posterity and pocket my phone. I'd like to be at the top of that towering slice of spumoni where the view of Genoa must be better and the sunlight should be just a little warmer. The stairs before me are moderately daunting. If I were one of our Assassins, I'd skip the long flights and scuttle straight up the wall in record time without breaking a sweat.

Almost a minute later I'm three steps from the summit. I reach for my phone again as I scan the new horizon. The view across the city is nice but not breathtaking. Now I'm at the top. I look over the rooftops and see nothing a photograph would improve. Pinheads of perspiration gather at my temples.

There is nothing for me here. Not today. Reality is not what I crave. I want perspective.

 

5.

When journalists and developers alike lament the immature subject matter of  modern videogames, they often cap their tirade with a plea for bravery. We need daring developers, they say, to make games that address real themes, mature themes. Racism and homosexuality. Violence and misogyny. Love and war. I think this plea, which must sound like something of a battle cry to its speakers, is a foregone conclusion. Of course we need these things. There is no technical limitation to what a game can be about, and so no reason to believe we will not get there in time, if we haven't already.

The more pertinent and difficult question is not "what subjects should we tackle?" but rather "how do we best tackle our chosen subjects?" This is an aesthetic problem, not a qualitative one. And it requires hard look at what games do well and what they do poorly to properly solve it. Are characters and classic three-act narratives the best use of our time and resources? Or do games allow us the freedom to approach difficult subjects in a wholly new way?

I once heard this challenge described for me through a simple example: Have you ever read a thrilling car chase? I confess now that in a lifetime of reading I have not. Car chases abound in cinema but on page they are undoubtedly rare, supplanted by a common parade of lover's quarrels, police interrogations, and criminal trials. It's easy to see why. Words are a novel's domain while cinema is rooted in visual and aural montage.

Many of the structural differences between novels and films are obvious to anyone. Both have their strengths, both have weaknesses, and we often see their collision when a celebreated novel is transformed into a film. The qualities that elevate great books to such soaring heights – their fertile language, their verbal mappings of interior and emotional landscapes – are difficult to translate to film without an immediate shift in priorities. Watch any cinematic re-telling of Moby Dick and you'll be left wanting for this reason. Every version to date has reduced this masterpiece of prose to a procession of wispy plot points lacking the spiritual and encyclopedic qualities of the original.

Naturally the same is also true of films. There is a dreamlike power to cinema, something sensory and alive, that books cannot imitate. Films enchant us through their rhythms and visual splendor (or ugliness). They excel at looking, hearing, observing. They make voyeurs of their audiences, asking us judge from a passive remove. They scan exteriors – the look of a lie on a person's face, the shape of grief on a bereaved spouse, the swift shock of a violent ambush. On screen the sudden sight of a murderer brandishing an axe has the power to propel us from our seats. Has anyone ever been knocked to the floor by the appearance of the word "suddenly..."?

Think about it this way: our greatest novels and our most celebrated films are cherished in part for the way they embrace their exclusive strengths. So if words are the domain of novels, and moving images are the domain of film, what aesthetic features set videogames apart? What sort of experiences do these asthetic features allow? What strengths do they have that make them necessary, engrossing, and unique?

What are games good at?

Many things, certainly. I have one suggestion....

Last August I sat on a Sony-sponsored panel of video game writers and designers. We had been asked to discuss the state of storytelling in games – where it had been, where it was, where it might go. With me on the panel were David Cage of Quantic Dream, Dan Pinchbeck from The Chinese Room, Russell Harding from Sony’s WWS London Studio, and SCE's Shuhei Yoshida – a solid group whose individual accomplishments were a perfect example of the great scope and flexibility of our craft.

The discussion that ensued was pleasant if a tad soporiphic, so after sixty minutes of no controversy the moderator finally gave us a chance to say something bold or idiotic.

“What are your personal hopes for the future of gaming narrative... in the next five years?”

Being directly to his right, I attemped the first response.

"I'm really taken with a game's ability to mess with a person's sense of scale..." I tried to explain. "In 2005, I thought about leaving the industry to pursue other writing projects, and then I played Shadow of the Colossus and it convinced me to stay in the industry, specifically because of the scale of the story, and my level of involvement in that story ... games like Grand Theft Auto and Assassin's Creed create these worlds that – because of the game technology – you're able to explore a world in a way that no medium has ever allowed. So I'm into scale ... whatever that means."

Somewhere in that morass of syllables is the loose conclusion of this meditation here – my hope that game developers will experiment more with one attribute I feel games are terrifically good at: offering experiences that let us interact with familiar objects, ideas, and systems at a radically different scale than we are used to.

I named Shadow of the Colossus as a primary inspiration for this idea though in many ways it is the simplest – an easy example of how geographic scale can be toyed with to incredible effect. This doubly true of the open-world games discussed above, world’s whose scope and size are simultanously breathtaking and managable. We are seduced by these sprawling worlds that arouse our curiosity and make explorers of us all, without demanding that we dedicate a year to the journey.

But this is only a narrow view of what scale can mean. Consider the strategic scale of modern strategy games, which condense weeks and months of military conflict into a few hours, laying bare the interconnections of supply chains, resources, military formations, and tactical strategies.

Consider strategy games like Pandemic and Plague that demonstrate by example the evolution and propagation of virulent pathogens around the globe. Why read about such a process when you can participate directly, giving you a more intimate understanding of the process?

Consider racing games that give us a front seat view of the physics of high speed driving, the experience of racing multiple tracks, and the labor of keeping our vehicle in tip-top shape.

Consider sports games that cast us in the role of players, coaches, and managers all at once. Has a book or a magazine ever given such direct experience with rosters, play-books, and salaries?

Consider role-playing games that abstract the concepts of personal growth and achievement and distill them into a series of challenges.

Consider SimCity for its traffic jams and power grids.

Consider the Sims and Creatures 3 for spanning generations.

Consider EVE Online for its dark vastness and shadowy economy.

Consider Minecraft for its creative infinitude.

Consider Just Cause 2 for its creative chaos.

Consider Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons for stretching it sympathies.

Consider Gone Home for its discovered narrative.

Consider Katamari Damacy.

But I should be careful here. I don't mean to imply that RTS aficionados will actually learn coherent real-world military strategies while playing Starcraft 2 or Total War. But in learning how to manage the various systems at play players will gain a deeper appreciation for problem solving and complex systems on a macrocosmic scale. By offering condensed versions of complex geographies, ideas, and ecosystems, games offer their players the chance to participate in a new sort of narrative – stories with multiple moving parts that may be rewritten many times over.

Games, quite obviously, do not mirror of life and its endless intricacies and even the most authentic simulation game must cut corners and allow you time to eat and sleep. As my father learned almost three decades ago, and as Kama's journalist more recently discovered, we must not confuse credibility with authenticity. When realism and immersion are the goal -- whether through the games systems or via the narrative -- we place an immeasurably difficult task on our shoulders. We tease players with expectations that cannot be honored. But we do have some leeway.

Over lunch a few months ago a colleague described her experience with a board game designed around a Cold War theme. She had come away impressed by how the games's mechanics had given her a clearer understanding of the machinations underlying the exhausting diplomatic conflict between the USA and Soviet Union over the second half of the 20th century. Most impressive, she told me, was the way the game let her experience and participate directly in this deadly escalation, something a book or film could never have provided. In this game, she was the actor in a high stakes drama, pitted against an equal and no less determined foe. Both players believed in the righteousness of their cause and for the first time in her life she understood how difficult must have been for both sides to shake their respective mistrust of the other.

All that being said, I must confess to a certain confusion about our medium at this point -- and even my role in it over the past few years. At the beginning of the Sony panel discussion, the moderator opened by revealing the winner of an online poll conducted just hours before. "What was the most emotional gaming moment of 2013" was the question. The winner was unveiled on monitors behind us: a 4 minute cinematic sequence from the wonderful "The Last of Us". A great game, and a telling choice. "Gameplay", it seems, is still incapable of providing us with the emotional kicks we crave. "Cinema" still rules.

Powerful though it is, this particular moment derives all of its power from well-established narrative conventions that have nothing to do with games and gameplay. And while this piece of the story definitely served the larger whole quite well, its triumph over a game like Journey -- a game that builds most of its emotional moments through the experience of playing -- begs a small question: is gameplay capable of providing the aesthetic esperience we demand of them? Or are we misdiagnosing the problem?

Certainly the experience my colleague felt while "participating" in the Cold War was an affecting and emotional one ... just not in the way we are taught to expect. It didn't make her cry, or feel pangs of remorse, or love. But it affected her in a way we don't typically applaud in casual discussions of games. It gave her persepective and insight into a complicated problem. Perhaps it made her pensive, or anxious, or just a little wiser.

But we are not accustomed to demanding these qualities of games We don't call these "emotional moments" yet. Year in, year out I hear variations of the same question: "Can a game make you cry?" Certainly they can ... usually as a complete package, using cinematics and a tight narrative. I have been fortunate enough, as a writer, to hear from fans who have been moved deeply by some of my work. But 99 times out of 100, the moments they praise are pure cinema. This is well trod territory. I am eager to see what we can do off the unbeaten path. New systems, new expectations, new paradigms.

Keeping all this in mind, I can accept the apparent excesses of modern videogames with their empty open worlds, their tiny lexicons, and their inedible fish. So long as I keep an eye fixed on the horizon, or raised to the pinnacle of a  nearby tower, I'll not misunderstand my purpose as I venure now and then so far, far from reality.

-Darby McDevitt is a writer and game developer. He lives in Montreal. Follow him on twitter @DarbyMcDevitt


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Comments


Matt Jahns
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I think the concept of realism isn't correctly understood in most games. In many important ways, a game like Minecraft is far more realistic than a game like GTA 5. To see what I mean, think about what realism entails: a game is realistic if it fully and exclusively simulates the world it claims to exist in.

In other words, a game is realistic if it cannot be distinguished from the world it claims to represent. It's the second half of that definition that everyone seems to forget. A game does not have to be indistinguishable from the real world to be realistic. The proper comparison is with its own world, not ours.

Sure, the world Minecraft exists in is nothing like our own. It is a low-res world where everything is malleable. But when I play it, I can do everything I expect is possible in such a world. The physics work exactly like I think they would. When I imagine what a block world would be like, what comes to mind can't be distinguished from Minecraft.

Compare that to GTA 5. It exists on some urban island, where crime is rampant and I am a very skilled thief. But there are things missing. (Everyone is familiar with what is missing. You can't go in every building, you can't rob just any store, people often react to your crimes in very strange ways, etc.) I can very easily distinguish GTA 5 from the world it claims to exist in.

Just because a world is open doesn't make it more realistic. As soon as you open a world up, you create many more expectations than you would have otherwise. And if your open world is meant to be similar to the real world, then realism is probably impossible.

I think the next step forward will come when games can predict what players expect to do. Then an illusion of realism is possible. The game can be realistic in all the places players think to look.

Jacob Pederson
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"Have you ever read a thrilling car chase? I confess now that in a lifetime of reading I have not."

Two Words . . . "Snow Crash"

Christian Nutt
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Ha! I had the same thought.

Darby McDevitt
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Alas, I have never read it! (Though I didn't say it was impossible. :)

Christian Nutt
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It doesn't necessarily undermine the thrust of your argument, just maybe suggests the argument is a little overcooked (which I think is a general weakness of "medium X is good for Y and not Z, and medium A is good for B and not C" arguments. Yeah, they're good rules of thumb but talent and technique can bridge those gaps in specific instances. In other words, "don't try to do X in medium Y" is something you should hew to UNLESS you have a really good idea on how to do it!

Joshua Darlington
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The Climax of Three Musketeers is a chase scene with parallel action. It's very cinematic and it's situation in the narrative suggests that it was a seminal influence on Hollywood action structure.

Benjamin Quintero
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I feel like what is being described here is perhaps an insolvable problem. What makes a movie feel real is their control of the pacing and the story; their ability to focus on the details they can afford to make you believe in. In books, our imagination - or at least our inherent understanding of the real world - populates the images in our mind using the clues on the page. A game where literally anything is possible would require an effort beyond human comprehension or budget. Simulating reality and true freedom of choice is beyond the scope of sanity. Every medium has limitations, but video games have a harder time with that. The fact that you can take control of the camera in a game implies that you can do anything. If you are expecting reality, you can expect to be disappointed at some stage in the game. The moment you think to yourself, "I could probably jump that fence" or "climb in that window" or "eat that fish" and you can't then the illusion of choice is gone. Even "infinite" procedural worlds are limited and some behaviors must be defined by rules.

Darby McDevitt
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This is why I explicitly say we don't need to worry about simulating everything. The whole essay is an argument for picking a specific subject, such as the Cold War, and treating it properly via the game mechanics, in ways that only game mechanics can.

Daneel Filimonov
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The real challenge of choice is seeing how far you can go down the rabbit hole before the choices you start to make are unimportant or irrelevant to the choices the designer wants you to make.

Some people will keep digging deeper until they hit a dead end, no matter how meaningless the choices become. Some people will simply get bored of digging and move on. Which do you think is a better experience? It's a mixed bag, I'd say. You can't please everyone!

Luis Guimaraes
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I guess that depends on how interesting the "choices the designer wants you to make" actually are. If you have to force the customer to eat your food, that's because it doesn't taste good enough.

Titi Naburu
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I want an Inception simulator. Keep working, folks!

Luis Guimaraes
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Most of the "impossible" things have never been actually tried.

Bart Stewart
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This is one of the best things I have read at Gamasutra in a long time, and not just because I agree strongly with most of it. (Although that doesn't hurt.)

I think there are actually two ideas at play here.

One is what Matt Jahns pointed out: games need to be internally consistent. Everything in them should support the theme and the intended player experience, regardless of whether that's how it works in the real world or not. This is why I've taken to using the word "plausible" over "realistic" as a better way of describing the goal of world design. Plausible worlds, in which everything meets player expectations *of that invented world*, are more positively memorable than worlds that drop in realistic things just because someone knows how those are supposed to work.

The other key idea is dynamics. Interesting worlds react to the player's choices. Static worlds are about the developer; dynamic worlds are about what the player enjoys. The emphasis over the past decade of highly controlled games, producing "undead places," is exactly why I described some ideas for a Living World game a few years ago in a blog post here at Gamasutra. Dynamism in game worlds -- places that react richly to what players try to do -- is the one thing that most effectively distinguishes computer-mediated entertainment from books and movies.

If there's a future for computer games, I believe it lies in the creation of worlds that are plausible and dynamic. This article does a great job of dramatizing why that's the right goal now.

Darby McDevitt
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Thanks Bart! Good to hear from you again.

Jared Cowing
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I wonder how much the concept of permanence could tie into the idea of a place that is dynamic- I'm reminded of another recent Gamasutra article titled "What if you can't take it back?" about Risk Legacy.
I think a really rewarding emotional experience in a game can happen when you make a decision, not knowing the full consequences beforehand, and wondering from that point on what could have happened differently. It seems to me that we could have not only games that give you choices consistent with the world you're participating in, but also that give the sense that making those choices has lasting consequences. With current games, the narrative is usually laid out in a way that gamers will sometimes get the impression that they "chose wrong," and instead of letting that choice become part of the experience, they just restart the chapter- talk about implausibility!

Darby McDevitt
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Agreed. I have always believed an open world game could adopt some of the concepts of RTS games... resource management and persistent changes to the environment, economy, etc. This way you wouldn't need a pre-scripted story ... rather, the writer would anticipate the large scale changes that were bound to emerge from gameplay (say, massive deforestation in one area or a company going bankrupt) and write scenarios with NPCs reacting to these changes. This would bring video game narratives more in-line with the ideas of the Modernists and Post-Modernists ... fragmented, "floating" narratives. Not plot driven, but "incident" driven ... abandoning the idea of an "arc", etc.

JoseArias NikanoruS
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It was awesome and I agree with you in lots of ways about videogames and its strengths, thanks for the great read.

Also... when reading I just got the feeling that it would be such a waste if all the digital cities that Ubisoft has created remained just as AC games. Wouldn't it be possible to make virtual tours available. How about letting the people of the Internet populate (mod) the city with all those actions that you mentioned (buying the fish, eating it)? Let the people create all those houses and their inhabitants...

I see so many possibilities, so many ways in which all the hard work that the staff has already done can be used.

It would be great, don't you agree?

Darby McDevitt
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I have pitched ideas for the "Classroom History Editions" of our games... versions where you play an ordinary citizen in each city, and you wander around simply interacting with other NPCs and performing mundane tasks.

This never gets any traction here. Nor does my "Joyces's Ulysses" idea. I cannot fathom why...

JoseArias NikanoruS
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The time will come for visionaries like you, I know it ; D

I mean, right now I'm reading lots of "tops" and "best of the year" lists and you can see how much diversity is starting to pop out, so there's hope! And thanks for not giving up hope!!


But still... I also think that there is a BIG (monetary) opportunity being missed right there.

Jason Daniels
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I'm sure there is a Suda 51 version of Ulysses in the pipeline somewhere. Except, instead of being some lame adman you have a samurai sword. Or something.

Yulan Cardoso
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While I'd love to have access to those cities outside the AC experience, and have multiple times wondered about it too, in some way the idea seems to go against what this very essay proposes; How could a "fish eating simulator" work in a city that was built upon the parkour routes that are so important to assassins? Is there even a way to please both, and all the other possibilities that could happen to exist in that universe? If there is, what happens to the argument of building an universe (and accepting its limitations) out of the gameplay mechanics?

Titi Naburu
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Thanks for the article, it's beautiful. :)

I love racing games. Controlling a vehicle is a challenge of beating space and time. It's as old as galloping a horse. We may change vehicles and tracks, but basically it's the same thing. There's not much you can innovate there.

Kevin Fishburne
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With respect to realism there's a lot of room for innovation. Actually simulating the mechanics of the working parts would be a good start. Like what happens when the engine block cracks, a tire on an open-wheel vehicle tears from touching a wall, water gets into the air intake or a gear is partially stripped. How about the aerodynamics of a partially shattered windshield, a bent or broken axle, a fire inside the car, driver injury due to excessive lateral G's, track debris from a collision, etc. I'd like to see engine audio synthesized using an acoustic simulation of the engine and exhaust system, for example. Racing/driving games have a very long way to go.

Paul Furio
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Great article, and I think there are two questions being asked here:

1) Do we want a game that allows us infinite possibility, or a game that gives us perspective or emotion via actual interaction?
2) Do we want both in the same game?

We haven't seen the "Roguelike Relationship Simulator" yet. What if I divorce my wife and date that hot barista? What if I try polyamory? What if I never met my wife? What if I switch teams? Of course, this is difficult to create and account for all the variables, and I wonder how long this would remain interesting, or what the game aspect of it is. Even in a 1:1 scale perfect city interaction simulator, the question would be, how many houses would I enter? How many awkward situations would I try before I wanted to try another game? Would trying to be a successful business owner be any more or less difficult than the real world, and if less, why wouldn't NPCs outclass me at everything?

Alternately, I'd say games like "Papers, Please", with actual tradeoffs for decisions (let this woman through, or be too poor to feed my family) have that emotional impact, or can at least allow for experiencing a simulation of the experience that would lead people to understand why someone might do something that, on the surface, they disagree with. Where is the TSA simulator? Would I too be a harassing and power abusing jerk who laughed at people's privacy concerns? Or would I be fired for inefficiency and possibly letting a terrorist through?

I agree that there are new boundaries of realism to explore, but they're no longer in the real of visual fidelity. I don't need more pixels, but I do want more diverse experiences.

Darby McDevitt
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"Papers Please" is a perfect example of what I mean when I talk about scale -- rather than try to tell a linear three act story about a border agent, it reduces and rarefies the scope of the experience to incredible effect... allowing the drama to emerge from the frustrations of play rather than through pre-scripted narrative sequences.

Steven Vass
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This article reminded me in many ways of another article written by Terence Lee. He's a member of Hitbox Team, makers of the indie game Dustforce.
http://hitboxteam.com/designing-game-narrative

Both articles touch on the relationship that books and movies have to games, and specifically narrative in games. I think a lot of the points made in your article, Darby, are mirrored there. They come at the issue from slightly different perspectives, but ultimately contain complimentary arguments.

Also, in the comments from the article I linked, there's this gem, which I feel bolsters the argument you made about the same game:

"In the Last of Us, fatherhood is explored in miniature films between segments of game, which are exploring how well the player can shoot humanoids in the face while dealing with a frustratingly immortal AI companion."

Jason Daniels
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Excellent article on the relationship between games and realism, and some beautiful writing. Thanks.

What strikes me most about a player feeling frustrated by a lack of input is (as you put in the beginning) the rules of expectation. Without treading too long on well-trod ground, Half Life 2 manages expectations very well. You learn how to move, you learn about the world (through both scripted scenarios such as dr. breen and required actions as well as through optional, player driven discussions), you learn that you can click on a person for conversation, you learn how to manipulate the environment, but also the nature of the Combine soldiers. You learn that locked doors look one way and unlocked doors another, and by the time the tutorial is gone we know what we can and can't do and we stop trying to do what we can't. That, plus clever tricks where Valve makes you think that you're choosing the only possible path to go down works wonders.

Conversely, in something like Assassin's Creed, the game creates an expectation of fullness. You can do many odd jobs, you can sit next to people on a bench, but you cannot talk to them. You can skin an animal for its hide and sell it, but you cannot buy the spices in the market. Anything you can see you can climb, but only some doors will open. Why? While there is a fictional conceit (that works far better when limiting where you can go in the world), it's mostly because, well, budgets and time. Rather than there being a reinforcement of the type of world and the types of rules that pervade, as with something like HL2, the rule of the day is DO ANYTHING, well, unless you can't. Sorry.

Partly this is just a budget problem (ie: in GTA V, with it's seemingly endless budget, you can do nearly anything you can imagine, eat anything, touch anything, etc.), but partly it's because in delivering such amazing scope (the sweep introduced in AC3 was insane, for instance, from sea to land with ease) with so many things, it's difficult to think of a simple, easy way to tell players what the rules are an why. Partly this will be a problem for writers to deal with in thinking of the fictional constraints, partly it will be an art problem for always clearly signalling (because when we see the signals, we pick up on it pretty clearly), and partly it is a design problem, to figure out how to make it inclusive. Ideally, of course, as we move forward, it will be EVERYONE working together to think about what their game is about, what it is saying--not in a pedantic way, but in a thematic one--and how they can achieve that together.

Because once we get to that point, we can more understand that it isn't realism in the sense of recreating the world as it is exactly, but it is realism in the sense that it is creating "a" world that is consistent with itself and which uses its components to clearly signal and interact with the player, instead of blindly presenting avenues and roadblocks at seeming random. (You said a lot of this, but I sort of re-covered it because I got excited). Or at least, that's how I feel as a writer, and how I aspirationally read this.

Joshua Darlington
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Our view of a world is shaped by what we hold dominant in our consciousness. To a spy or detective, the fish may be a clue. To some one running, a fish could be an obstacle. To some one in combat the fish is a weapon, shield, etc. A reporter who hasn't had lunch may see the fish and get hungry. Someone else may not see the fish at all.

One of the important jobs of a game narrative designer is managing what is dominant in the players mind. Scale is one way of managing dominant themes in a gamestory.


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