If you read computer gaming magazines* you’ll occasionally hear tell of the golden age of computer games, back when the earth was new, colours were simple and you could spend six hours trying to get a small yellow green blob to jump onto the large brown rectangles without the long green rectangles killing you**.
There’s a fair amount of rosy-eyed revisionism going on here, largely caused by the fact that (a) most current games reviewers were under ten when the first Galaxian invasion was repelled and (b) computer games being new, this was a strange, fantastical experience that was unlike anything ever seen before.
However, beyond all of that is something to be said for those early games – for the sheer simplicity and joyfulness implicit in them. It’s that simplicity which was lost as games took advantage of more powerful machines, and I think that we are approaching a new kind of simplicity today that will herald a new surge in the market.
With very early computer games there was a simple elegance – they may have been very abstract, but each item did something simple in an easily understandable way. The processing power necessary to simulate the real world simply wasn’t available, so what we got instead was a very abstract representation of the world, governed by a few simple rules. The learning curve was near-zero, because once you understood that the small blob at the bottom could move left and right as well as firing it’s gun at the massed blobs above it, there wasn’t really much more to the game. The high level of abstraction put many people off – they couldn’t feel involved with a bunch of blobs, after all - but for those who were more abstractly minded, it was very easy to get into the rhythm of the game and lose hours and days of time, trapped in an unending struggle.
Since those early days, games have become more and more complex. Additional processing power and capacity has allowed for more rules to be lumped in, new approaches to the abstract representations. Abstract top-down views (Robotron), isometric-3D views (Sabre Wulf), 2D side-on views (Mario), multiple layers of parallax scrolling backgrounds(Altered Beast), 2D sprites on 3D backgrounds(Doom) and simple images on streamed video(Star Wars: Rebel Assault) all bloomed and died before real 3D came along, and even then the 3D was kludgy and complex, a nice approximation but still obviously faked.
At the same time as the graphics were getting more complex, the rules guiding behaviour in the world were becoming equally-so, while some games strived for simplicity, it was impossibly to portray a world that was interesting to the player without adding in new things they hadn’t seen before. This meant new rules for each new experience the player was going to go through, each written specifically for that effect, each one with rules and consequences specific to it.
Those people who have played games on a regular basis have developed an understanding of the ‘grammar’ of games, the symbols that they use to impart information and the ways we tell them what to do. Those who haven’t tend to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of knowledge that is necessary to play anything but the simplest game, unable to tell what the morass of information on a screen means, to discern important information from background or tell what kind of response is necessary.
This is hampered even further by the fact that the vast majority of games have ‘intermittent’ designs where things react differently depending only on the whim of the designers – for instance, identical doors, most of which are painted on, some of which are vital – objects which look like you should be able to interact with them but steadfastly reject your interaction. This happens for the perfectly understandable reason that the games designers do not have the time to create something to go behind every single door, or to write code to deal with every possible interaction you can deal with.
There’s still nothing more annoying than to be playing a trained SAS member who is apparently incapable of climbing over waist-high walls, or to be able to see an object on the ground that you’d like to use, but know that you have no chance as the designers never envisaged you doing so. It is possible to design around this to a certain extent, to create a world with boundaries that don’t jar, but this usually means using settings that aren’t ‘real-world’ as the real world doesn’t tend to have these edges.
This has, in fact, become worse in recent times. The ability to create images that are very close to reality has created an even greater distance between what our minds tell us we should be able to do and the game actually allows us to do. It’s all very well ignoring the fact that your cartoon plumber can’t climb the cartoon tree – cartoons, after all, have different rules to real life – but when your photo-realistic soldier can’t open a very normal looking door, then it feels much more wrong. We’re stuck in the Uncanny Valley
at this point, mind rebelling because things are so close to reality that small reminders that we aren’t are a constant distraction. The world consists of hundreds (or thousands) or rules, each one of which is a tiny kludge to nudge the world back towards something we can recognise, each one either having to be learned if it’s not going to nibble at our suspension of disbelief.
Luckily, the next step up out of the valley is here – realtime physics modelling. This seems, at first glance, to be nothing more than a nice trick – and indeed, in its earliest incarnation that’s all it was. Ragdoll physics, which meant that when characters died they fell over in a realistic way, appeared in a variety of games last year. It was a nice ‘wow’ factor, but nothing more – prettiness that didn’t really add anything to a game. However, when the first Half-Life 2 demo hit, it suddenly became obvious that you could add so much more into a game with it – you could drop weights on people, roll things down hills, drop things into water and watch them float, throw them about, etc. Suddenly everything in the game-world was a unique object that moved realistically.
Which still, admittedly sounds like it’s just another bag of gameplay tricks - more fun ways to do things, but not a solution to the problem of gameplay complexity. However, by plugging in a universal physics model, the underlying movement of the game instantly becomes recognisable. There aren’t dozens of rules governing different areas of the movement of objects – there’s one simple rule set that’s easily graspable because it’s an approximation of the way the real world works. This means that anyone can look at the way the game world is working (or at least that aspect of it) and instantly understand it. This requires a lot more processing power than implementing a series of kludges – every object has to be independently monitored, trajectories plotted, interactions calculated – but the payoff is a much simpler system to understand.
By building in ‘simple’ systems like this, games can reduce the complexity and make themselves more accessible to people that would otherwise be put off. By replacing a series of kludges and carefully scripted events with more free-form reactions that naturally flow from the actions of the player, they reduce narrative dissonance, allowing the player to feel like they understand the world and are an integral part of it.
*Yes, I just lost half my readership.
**Ten points if you just recognised Frogger.