Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Taking the Game Out Of Games

Chess is pure game. Players maneuver pieces around a simple grid to entrap the other’s king. There is no story. There is no narrative beyond the names of the pieces, and even then, they’re little more than abstractions. A knight isn’t a man on horseback – it’s a piece with an L-shaped attack, difficult to master but priceless once you do.

No one ever felt the need to depict chess as an epic battle between two kingdoms bitterly locked in eternal war. The game was an end in itself.

Yet videogames are brimming with such overwrought, dire conflict. For a medium in which “game” is an operative word, there seems to be less and less sport flickering across the screens these days. Gameplay mechanics are becoming rote and samey, little more than ways to push forward narrative.

At what point does a videogame cease being a game, becoming instead an interactive choose-your-own adventure, a cinematic stroll that invites participation only on a surface level? In this writer’s opinion, wherever that point is, it’s miles behind us on the continuum. Games are becoming more like films, much to their detriment, overlooking the singular novelty of their medium in favor of cinematic grandiosity.

Let’s place Spacewar! at one end of the continuum. Created in 1962, Spacewar! ran on a computer the size of a convection oven and gave you a simple directive: kill the other guy. Your two spacecraft duked it out around a star, curving your bullets around the gravity well while avoiding solar immolation. I have fond memories of playing a DOS version with my little brother, the two of us sharing a keyboard.

Spacewar! had no story beyond the miracle of its existence – this was 1962, bear in mind, and the idea of manipulating vectors on a cathode-ray display was a Thing of the Future, only less amazing than a time-travelling DeLorean crashing into your barn.

Fast-forward to the late-90s, where games start requiring special chipsets to render their graphics. Most major genres have been established; Lucasarts cultured the point-and-click adventure genre to its arguable conclusion with Grim Fandango; Blizzard and Westwood Studios established the Real Time Strategy genre with their Warcraft and Command and Conquer franchises; ID made history with Doom, then again with Quake, and Valve was about to reinvent the genre yet again with Half Life.

By this point, games have come a long way since Spacewar!. Layers of narrative and graphical art insulate players from the fact that they’re still just pressing buttons and manipulating abstractions. They’re not playing Spacewar!, a game featuring two lines dueling on a tiny screen; they’re playing Wing Commander, a game about mankind’s operatic, intergalactic struggle with a vicious cat people called the Kilrathi, complete with strobing lasers and planet-ending bombs.

Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger, released in 1994, represents a moment when games made a conscious effort to become more like films. Starring Mark Hamill as the protagonist, Malcolm McDowell and John Rhys-Davies, Wing Commander III featured full-motion video cut scenes that paused at pivotal points to let players put words in Hamill’s mouth. The game’s dire plot and A New Hope-esque ending earned the game high praise for being the most “cinematic” of games to date.

I’m sensing a pejorative whiff around “cinematic,” even as I write it. To be clear, drama, tension and good storytelling are always welcome. I always try to forge an emotional connection with a given game; the end of Half Life 2 left me in a funk for days. But eventually, designers figured out that cinematic upholstery really resonated with gamers – and more importantly, I’ll venture, buyers. I hate to sound crotchety, but the more games strained for drama and emotional significance, the more out of touch they became with the gears, lathes and springs that make them games to begin with.

The unfortunate paradigm of this backslide is Mass Effect – a game which, paradoxically, I love. The story is compelling, and gives the players dilemmas of legitimate moral consequence. The dialogue system is brilliant; the writing is sharp and seldom wince-worthy; the voice-acting, for the sheer girth of the script, is excellent. Yet the game is curiously lacking. You shuttle from planet to planet in the service of the story arc, engaging in serviceable though predictable gun battles, and moving through narrative with the inevitability of a spinning reel of film. Like a favorite dish, Mass Effect is satisfying to the last, but offers no surprises. It’s an interactive pulp novel – a good one, but diminished by its unremarkable mechanics.

Eufloria, née Dyson, is a game we talk about a lot on Charge Shot!!!, and with good reason – it, like Spacewar!, is pure game. A minimalist aesthetic doesn’t distract with flashy visuals, nor does the soundtrack intrude with bombast and fanfare. Instead, Eufloria presents you with a streamlined version of the old RTS toolbox and directs you to set about colonizing asteroids with your…plant spores. It’s a simple product, but elegant in its simplicity – the easy-to-learn, hard-to-master adage applies here.

Eufloria should remind designers how simple, and how crucial, it is to put mechanics first. It serves as a reminder of what makes this medium singular – an ability to tell the story, rather than have it told to you.