Simulation and gameplay

As the graphics of computer games continue to improve, my desire to explore their strange new worlds increases. Sadly, however, contemporary gameplay design often does not allow us to actually enjoy the simulations that the developers so painstakingly build.

Games have become ever more realistic, ever better at simulating living breathing worlds. They look and feel and sound convincing. The only aspect that is lagging behind is interaction. Game interactions feel rigid and artificial compared to the environments they happen in. Which is a pity since it seems like it would be an easy problem to fix. It can be as simple as not demanding too much effort or skill from a player, as Endless Ocean shows. Or just allowing players to walk around without doing any missions and making that interesting, as happens in Grand Theft Auto.

In many contemporary computer games, however, game structures are starting to clash with the graphics and the sounds and even the A.I. and other simulation aspects. Soon gameplay itself will be the cause of the dreaded uncanny valley: the thing that makes you stop suspending your disbelief, the thing that makes you stop playing.

9 thoughts on “Simulation and gameplay”

  1. This is one thing that bugs me about games like God of War. The visuals are top-notch, but the game is ultra-linear. You’re on-rails, and are even told what buttons to press and when viagiant HUD overlays…

    But the “sandbox” style of gameplay has also been the buzzword of the moment for the last few years, and perhaps significant strides will be made in that direction. I know Will Wright is trying to head that way with Spore, and certainly there are efforts in the indie community to explore that type of gameplay.

  2. God of War felt like watching movie with elaborate pause and play buttons to me. The developers had great narrative ambitions but didn’t realize that linearity is just not the medium’s strong point.

    The mistake that many people make about sandbox game design is that they think it means that “you can do anything where and when you want to”. Developing such an ambitious concept is of course bound to fail. But, as Grand Theft Auto shows, the trick is to carefully choose a limited set of activities that all contribute to the story that you want to tell, the atmosphere you want to create.

  3. It’s interesting that graphics and gameplay are always polarised in debates. Over the last few years the industry has been slammed by indie gamers and critics alike for a techno-fetish approach to graphics – more textures, more realism, more pixels onto game mechanics that remain stagnant (EA sports anyone?). So it’s strange that this post goes the other way in some respects, wanting to explore these multi year, multi million dollar worlds without goals, level-ups, and poor narratives attached. Of course the two are linked intrinsically, open ended stories require graphics and content to ‘cover all the bases’. Wrights breakthrough was getting demoscene kids to code content, replacing hundreds of 3d models (and dozens of artists) with algorithms that will spit them out on the fly. Really I think the genre has a long way to go with both aesthetics and narrative. Game graphics are generally realistic, impressive, technically superb. Compelling? Emotive? No (with exceptions such as Ico). Game stories are sprawling, epic, heroic. But drawing real empathy or emotion is still a far cry (no pun intended). :-)

  4. Luke, I’m not sure that Will’s made a breakthrough with the on-the-fly content Spore has.
    It’s a breakthrough in one direction, but on-the-fly content can’t be truly artistic, in the way that a painting by Monet or whoever can be.

    However, it works with a game like Spore- where the player creates their own meaning according to the tools/rules within the game. But it wouldn’t work well in Ico. Or even in a Zelda game, where the enviroment is designed in a certain way.

  5. I can imagine that there’s artistic ways to generate content “on-the-fly”, though. In fact, it happens all the time in media art (check out the community surrounding Processing, e.g.). Most of this tends be more decorative than meaningful. But it’s undeniably artistic.

    Will Wright couldn’t care less, of course..

  6. Yeah I guess terms like ‘artistic’, ‘meaning’ and ‘creative’ are all pretty relative.

    To me a creature in Spore is artistic in the same way that a light-filled piece of architecture, a simple ladder, a paperclip is artistic – they work. From my perspective, over the last 50 years there’s actually been a disowning of the ‘artist’ – standing at arms length while an assistant (Warhol), a system of rules (Sol LeWitt) or hardware (Corey Archangel) creates the art for you.

    I guess your valid critique about Spore (and Michael’s on Processing) is that if badly done, these can feel simply spat out, mere decoration, the product of some random code, or simply a programmer with no art director. :-)

  7. Art is another battle of ours that I hope we will soon start to pay more attention to on this blog. We are very unhappy with what contemporary art has become. In fact, as artists, we have turned away from the “art world” and towards games precisely because we want to create a different kind of art. But more about that later.

  8. I’ve been noticing this in a lot of Flash games as well. What surprises me is that the players don’t demand anything more! It seems that they are content to sit within the limited path outlined by the game developer and don’t seem to notice that they could be having a much fuller experience of the world presented in the game, if only the developer had spent a little longer building it in.

    I know it can be hard, but I don’t think it would be that much harder to redesign a game to emphasize interactions involved in “being” in the world.

    And I like procedural art. It’s cool. Of course on-the-fly content created procedurally with completely random parameters wouldn’t have artistic intent behind it, but the parameters don’t have to be completely random. They can be structured by the author, or even given meaning by players when put into the context of a larger game. It’s just not comparable to something like a single painting, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be art. It’s a different way of looking at art.

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