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Designer's Notebook: Gulliver and Game Design

May 22, 1998
 

When I was a kid my parents took me to a place in the Netherlands called Madurodam. It's a miniature city, built in 1:25 scale - an amazing place, covering about an acre. It has an airport, a harbor, canals and locks, highways, a carnival, and on and on. Much of it is motorized and actually works. Planes taxi around, and you can hear the PA system in the airport announcing flights. An oil tanker in the harbor catches fire, and a fireboat arrives, squirting from tiny hoses to put it out. The organ plays in the cathedral. From the floor of the stock exchange comes the hubbub of trading.

It retains its fascination for an adult - almost all of the buildings are exact duplicates of famous landmarks in Holland, and it's fun to recognize them, and to wonder where the ones that you don't recognize really are. But the true beauty of the place is revealed every evening, when the shops and houses, the streets and cars are lit up, thousands and thousands of tiny lights twinkling in the dusk.

There's something wonderful about the sense of being a giant, overlooking a miniature world. I get a similar sensation in an airplane. There's a magic moment during takeoff, when the large and uncompromising world I cannot control is replaced by a dollhouse view of that same world, and I can watch the Matchbox cars moving along the ground. Then the buildings shrink to pinhead size and the illusion fades, as the scale of the landscape widens to an incomprehensible size.

Some of the magic is related to power, I'm sure - think how many children's toys are miniatures of adult-sized machines and houses and people. Children escape into a fantasy world where they are no longer powerless and subjected to the whims of thoughtless adults, but masters of all they survey.

And some of it is the voyeuristic thrill of looking in other peoples' windows, peering into their lives. It isn't necessarily a sexual thrill, but rather the mere knowledge that I can see you and all that you do, and there isn't anything you can do about it.

I think this is part of the appeal of board games. When you play a board game, you have a whole little universe spread out before you, one that you can reach into and change. Some games play this aspect up more than others, of course. Checkers or Go are quite abstract, and don't preserve that feel; their attraction is purely intellectual. But then we have games like Monopoly, with its miniature houses, and hotels. And -- at the far edge of the scale - The Game of Life. How I wanted a copy of Life as a kid! A whole world, from the Poor Farm to Millionaire Acres. Little bridges, and a church, and more buildings that I can't even remember all stood up out of the board as you drove past them in your little car.

(My parents hated Life, and in retrospect I can see why. What a weird stereotype it presents! "Life," it calls itself, but the only kind of life you are allowed to have is as a business person. Being a teacher or a minister or a firefighter are not options. College is shown as a device which slows you down but is a means to more money; being an educated person has no intrinsic value. Marriage and children are obligatory; you are not permitted to be single, or homosexual, or childless. The goal of Life, apparently, is to amass as much money as you can, taking it from others whenever possible. The game may as well have been designed by Ronald Reagan.)

A few years ago I looked around at E3 and it seemed that the whole game community had gone to 3D point-of-view games. Doom, of course, was responsible for a lot of that - id's raycasting technology amazed everyone, and everyone copied it. For quite some time it seemed that if you weren't doing a 3D game, you were simply too unhip to compete.

And yet here we are a few years later, and the hottest-selling game right now is Starcraft, a tile-based, sprite-based game. And of course Maxis continues to run happily along with its tile-based games. Why? I think it is because they have captured the magic of the board games, the magic of being a giant. A few cute little animations and we are fascinated, peering and tinkering and fiddling with other people's lives. It is because of that magic that there is still room in the market for Sim [whatever], and Civilization, and Starcraft.

Last week I was chatting at the Computer Game Developers' Conference with a Game Developer Who Shall Remain Nameless, who had been present at some talks with a Filmmaker Who Shall Also Remain Nameless about a video game to tie in with the forthcoming remake of Godzilla. They were discussing the design of this putative game. The Filmmaker insisted that the player's role in the game should be that of the commander of all the tanks that were trying to stop Godzilla. The Game Developer was horrified. "But I want to play Godzilla," he protested. "Everybody's going to want to play Godzilla. That's where the fun is." The Filmmaker was adamant. Nobody controls Godzilla. You must control the tanks. The Game Developer said, "Well, OK, that's fine for the first level… what's the rest of the game?" The Filmmaker said, "That is the game. That's the whole game. Godzilla versus tanks, with you in control of the tanks. That's what it's about." The Game Developer was dismayed.

I don't know the outcome of this discussion - my source was too discreet to say - but I have to say I'm with the Game Developer on this one. Who wants to be a tiny insect crushed underfoot, when you can be an earth-shaking monster of godlike proportions, looming over downtown Tokyo? Yes, there have been stories and games about worlds where everything is very large and you're very small - The Borrowers, for example. And us-little-humans versus the-outsized-monsters (or machines) is a common adventure situation, appearing in The War of the Worlds, King Kong, Independence Day and many other books and movies. But in my opinion, being small is not as fundamentally appealing a game design idea as being large. This is one more way in which games are not stories; in which game design is not like filmmaking. One can tell stories of the tiny, heroic humans beating the giant, vicious monsters… but when you ask a person to participate, to become a character in a game, most would rather be giant than tiny.

Few people read Gulliver's Travels nowadays; let's face it, 18th-century political satire isn't really hot stuff any more. But it's often summarized, very broadly, in children's books. In my experience, the tale of Gulliver in Lilliput is told far more often than the tale of Gulliver in Brobdingnag. And whether adults or children, I think it's a place we still like to go.


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