Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Virtual Reality: Too Much Is Not Enough

Microsoft releases its new X-Box 360 today. I, for one, could not be more underwhelmed. But then, I'm not the target demographic. I'm too old, too impatient, and a foul-weather gamer at best - if there's even so much as a book to be dusted or a half-decent TV commercial to be watched, I'll choose that over the gaming experience.

Nevertheless, I am a gamer. And when all the elements are in place I have terrific fun at it, too. But that is an astonishing rarity, for a very simple reason: game developers show so little imagination. This surprises me, given the sort of hardware that's been developed in the last 15 years. The average game pad has a minimum of eight buttons within immediate reach of your thumbs and fingers. Most games respond not just to a singular button being pressed, but to combinations being pressed in sequence. I'll let someone else figure out the mathematics (is that eight squared? Eight cubed?! More?!?). The long and short of it is we're dealing with an incredible variable that should conceivably result in a fertile breadth of interactive entertainment.

Alas, what we typically have is "Run + Jump + Kick + FIRE!" or "Accelerate + Turn + Brake + Turn" etc. The evolution from Pong to Castle Wolfenstein was indeed a remarkable one, chronicled in a pre-Cambrian bit-torrent sludge of quarter-plugging video games, but everything we've seen since shows no development whatsoever. The challenge, as currently framed by programmers, is how to make the familiar more interesting. To my mind, that's a bloody boring challenge.

The only people who can respond to this challenge are the CGI folks. The tack usually taken is to provide ever more "realistic" graphics. A lot of what we see as a result is very impressive, but this too seems to me to be a limiting and stagnant approach to gaming entertainment. Invariably, the graphics will look stiff and disappointing when compared to what you see outside your window (or, to use a more pertinent example that makes me shudder, outside your car's windshield. I can't help wondering if today's 16-year-old (exceptions allowed for) isn't a touch more prone to recklessness after playing a game like Need For Speed: Most Wanted).

If "realistic" is the predominant school of CGI rendering, the secondary school is "arcade". The former strives for exactly that; the latter bends the rules. Both work with laws of physics that relate to the ones we experience in life, but arcade CGI people will fudge and flex what we know - though very rarely, if ever, actually breaking our physical expectations on screen. Thus, Need For Speed will give you a Porsche physically responding to its surroundings - a rain-slick street, a brick restraining wall - the way you'd expect a Porsche to respond, while The Simpsons Hit & Run gives you a pink sedan that takes an incredible beating before bursting into flames and ejecting Bart Simpson, the driver, unscathed.

I tend to favor the latter, for several reasons. Playing with expectations is fun, and The Simpsons Hit & Run plays with a host of them. Kids drive cars, run over pedestrians who say things like "Spines don't bend that way!" or "This is a bad day for generic characters everywhere!" They jump incredible heights, fall off multi-storied buildings and land on their toes - all in aid of the sort of narrative hijinx you expect from Matt Groening's stable of writers. The action still takes place in a framework of limited expectations, but it exceeds those modest expectations and gets full marks from me.

It also looks unreal - it's 3-D rendering, but of the sort that is post-Toy Story, pre-The Incredibles. That is, it looks "animated", not "real".

"Animated" is another preference of mine. If something looks stiff, well - the viewer just assumes it's supposed to. Conversely, when "reality" is brought into play, it immediately distances the viewer with its discordant references: a game like LEGO Star Wars can be quite charming, where the other Star Wars offerings leave me cold.

Similarly, I'm curious to give the latest James Bond game (From Russia With Love) a spin. I'll admit I'm not expecting great things, even though the premise - Sean Connery! 1963!!! - is so very promising. The screen-shots alone are a disappointment. That looks like a boat, alright; that looks a lot like Connery; she almost looks like Tatiana; but that doesn't look anything like water.

The usual resort for Reality CGI programmers is "cover of darkness". So Wolfenstein looked absurd with its pastel blue flooring and bright red walls? Put it all in shadows and nightfall, and call it "Doom". As Walt Kelly's character Pogo self-consciously noted, "These silouhettes sure save a mess of drawin'." I'm sure most of From Russia With Love takes place at night. But I look at the terrific cover art for the game (borrowed from the movie posters of the time) and wonder why they didn't go the animated route, instead? Something like, say, XIII is the perfect example of how entrancing that technique can be. Drawing within the lines can provide surprisingly smart drama for the viewer/player - why not give it a shot?

But these are the minor kvetchings of a nearly-indifferent consumer. I won't pay the full $60 for a half-baked First-Person Shooter, or even a thrillingly engineered Race-and-Chase. I'll bide my time for the next year or two and get them used - if I'm still curious. In the meantime, I might just peruse some of the Open Source games available. My brother tells me the recent Castle Wolfenstein engine has been released to the public, to some amusing results. Allied Troops could be fighting the Nazis in North Africa, only to see the Millennium Falcon fly off overhead. One minute you might be fighting monsters, the next you might be firing a salvo at an angry George Jetson. It's still a First-Person Shooter, but at least you're a shooter in a world that's more akin to something imagined by Philip Jose Farmer - or stranger. And that's a step in the right direction.

1 comment:

Trent Reimer said...

Wish I had seen this when it was posted!

I have studied the process of building video games with an eye toward joining the madness and can assure readers it is an immense challenge. The long and short if it is that more games fail to recover their expenses than make it in what appears to be a lucrative market.

The big houses, especially Electronic Arts, have the budget to develop at a different production level than pretty much everyone else.

Which is one of the reasons I am surprised that XIII's comic book look isn't more popular. The technique is known as cell shading and it allows for professional graphics yet allows a faster development cycle. It also works naturally with the fact that we are still presenting games on 2 dimensional screens.

The problem I have with "realistic" graphics is that for most game styles they are still obviously well below photographic quality. That means the bar will continue to be raised and any given title will only be "playable" until the next generation of realistic graphics emerges. Contrast that with cell shading which remains enjoyable beyond technological advances precisely because it *doesn't* seek to be realistic.

Doubt it? Which of the following two do you still play: Tetris or Need For Speed 2? Which of those two will they still be playing 20 years from now?

But after all the analysis, it would appear that the consumer is less enamoured with cell shading than many developers!