Probably not one for purists

After my recent rant about what epic poetry isn’t, I feel I ought to share the fact that Dante’s Inferno is being made into… a computer game.

Can you hear that distant buzzing sound? That’s Dante spinning in his grave.

I admit to being intrigued, though; since the poem is distinctly short of sword-wielding action, being more of a walking tour of hell than anything else, I am curious to know how they’ve turned it into a game. And it does look sort of cool.

Dispatches from the Uncanny Valley

I’ve just bought Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 for the Wii, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it, but it does take you into a weird parallel world. Not just because of the licensing restrictions that mean the English league is full of clubs called things like ‘Man Red’ and ‘Lancashire Athletic’, and Germany has players called ‘Fnich’ and ‘Harmey’, or the fact that you can play matches like England vs. Barcelona*, or even the robotic, repetitive commentary from Jon Champion and Mark Lawrenson. No, it’s the strange, shiny looking, dead-eyed players with faces that look like they’ve been painted onto blocks of wood from memory. Here’s Christiano Ronaldo, congratulating Rooney on scoring a goal for Man Red.

And yet for all the little bits of clunkiness, it feels enough like football that there’s a real joy to be had from scoring a good goal. It doesn’t feel like playing football, but it does feel like watching-football-on-telly-but-I-can-control-the-players. And even if they look a bit peculiar, I still want to use my favourite players in the game.

If Coleridge came back from the grave and encountered computer games, I wonder how it would affect his concept of the willing suspension of disbelief. He only had theatre as a subject; I wonder what he would have made of a game where you control a little Italian plumber as he jumps up scaffolding, avoiding flaming barrels thrown at him by a gorilla, in order to rescue a princess? Because at some level I think you do have to ‘believe’ in computer games, even the most primitive ones.

 *I lost 7-1: Ronaldinho had Gary Neville on toast.

All geeked out

One reason this blog has been quiet over the past week or so is that I’ve been engrossed in Puzzle Quest, perhaps the geekiest computer game of all time.

It’s an RPG with all the standard trappings thereof: orcs, trolls, giant rats, lots of character statistics, magic weapons, spells and so on. Except that when you meet a troll or a dragon or whatever, instead of hitting it with your sword, you challenge it to a game of Connect 4. Or what Connect 4 would be like if you had seven different kinds of counters dropped randomly into the top of the grid and you had to make lines to gain the magical energy to cast spells.

So it’s really a puzzle game with added orcs. The plotting, characterisation and so on are extremely flimsy, but it doesn’t really matter because the puzzling is really quite absorbing and the game eats up hours at a time quite easily.

I was struck again by how far the internet has come so quickly when I got stuck on a particular bit, googled ‘capture wolfrider’, and was pointed directly to a video someone had uploaded showing how to do it. Truly we are living in a brave new world.

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the coming of 3D video games

Technological change is extraordinarily rapid, yet somehow it seems to creep up on us. The internet went from being an obscure curiosity for the geeky to part of people’s everyday lives without most of us ever having a eureka moment when the change was brought home to us.

I have had a few such moments, though. I still remember the moment I saw my first proper 3D game, Virtua Fighter — in a Vegas casino, of all places — as incredibly exciting. I would quite seriously compare it to what it must have been like for the audiences when they first saw The Jazz Singer. It was jaw-dropping to see these graphics which were simply unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

It helped that it was completely unexpected. I didn’t read the gaming press, videogames barely made the mainstream media unless there was a moral panic going on, and the internet barely existed – I’d certainly never used it. So I had no prior knowledge; I just stumbled on the cabinet among all the other games and was blown away by it. What struck me most wasn’t the greater realism of the characters, exactly: even in the moment of first seeing it, the blockiness of the characters looked pretty primitive. But the way the characters moved in three dimensions really did make it feel more like you were controlling a ‘person’ rather than just an animation. And more than anything, it was the swooping camera, that moved around the action and zoomed in and out as you played, which brought home this shift from a flat game world to one with depth.

I’ve already compared it the shift from silent movies to talkies; a more exact comparison would be the invention of perspective in Renaissance painting. I don’t want to use hindsight to claim that I saw Virtua Fighter and immediately had a sense of all the ways 3D would have an impact on gaming, but it didn’t take any particular brilliance to see it and know that you were present at the start of something. Perhaps in C15th Italy there were people feeling the same way.

I still like the look of the original Virtua Fighter. I know that the minimalist environment — a bit of texture on the ground and a few clouds — is because of technical limitations rather than aesthetic choice, but I find it appealing. If you see the later versions of the game (they’re currently up to Virtua Fighter 4, with VF5 due out this year), the backgrounds are ever more lushly-detailed graphical marvels, mainly for the sake of eye-candy but also as part of a pointless attempt to build a narrative context. The places they fight are related to the characters’ elaborate back-stories. But really, what’s the point? It’s a beat-em-up; I don’t need to know my character’s motivation. And while I was excited as anyone else by the advances in computer graphics at the time, that lush, hyper-realistic aesthetic gets cloying after a while. It’s about time for a bit of less-is-more.

Comparisons with early cinema and Renaissance painting inevitably bring up the question of games as art. That’s not what I had in mind when I made them, and I certainly wouldn’t pick Virtua Fighter as a case study, since apart from the graphics it was the simplest and most formulaic game imaginable. But even discussing a game this simple, the kinds of things I find myself mentioning — the overall visual styling, the way the 3D characters made it more immersive, the characterisation, set design, lighting, camerawork — make comparisons with various artforms almost inevitable. That’s why it seems certain that descendants of today’s games will be treated as artworks with all the importance of films, novels or paintings. Someone will find a way of bringing it all together and making it into something more.

Gaming and art

With Shigeru getting his French knighthood and the British Academy of Film and Television Art giving awards for computer games, I was mulling over the old computer-games-as-art question. The comparison is inviting, not least because games are full of things which were historically the domain of other art forms – visuals, music, dialogue, narrative and so on. And I have no doubt that, as the industry develops, there will be games that demand to be regarded as important artworks. I just wonder what they’ll look like.

The normal game dynamic is that the player is continually attempting to complete tasks in order to progress to the next part of the game. The task could be almost anything – to kill enough zombies, get around a track quickly enough, solve a puzzle, make enough money – but the usual experience is of being stuck much of the time, of repeatedly attempting the same thing, or of wandering around aimlessly trying to work out what you should be doing. Much of good game design is trying to keep the player just the right amount frustrated.

And however much your character interacts with other characters, the central experience is of playing against the game. The storyline and characterisation are fundamentally a sideshow. They add flavour and help keep you engaged when you might get too frustrated and stop playing, but despite endless claims over the years of more intelligent interactivity, the narrative isn’t what drives the game forward, it’s just the backdrop to the action.

It’s hard to see that task-completion dynamic as a basis for a work of great art – something rich, nuanced, emotionally and intellectually engaging – and one possibility would be to make things that don’t even pretend to be ‘games’. One trope that’s been doing the rounds for years now is the idea that, as games get more sophisticated, they’ll become more like interactive movies. Well, an interactive art movie would presumably not play like a game, in that there would be no pre-defined objectives; it would be more like a fluidly evolving scenario you could take part in. The technical difficulties in trying to create genuinely open-ended situations with complex, believable characters would be staggering, of course, but if it could be done it would be interesting.

Even more interesting, perhaps, would be a game which harnessed the task-completion dynamic in some way, and used it in the service of something more sophisticated. I can’t see what that would be; but that’s probably just a failure of imagination on my part.

Sir Shigeru

Shigeru Miyamoto has been made Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. Damn straight. If the man who invented Mario and Zelda doesn’t deserve a knighthood, who does?

That doesn’t make it any less annoying that the release date of The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess has now been pushed back by a year since its original projected release last November, but I don’t begrudge Miyamoto-san a bit of non-industry recognition.

via wmmna

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