Blogs of the Round Table: violence & the vacuous subject

Photorealism is a fanciful dream that always pales when compared to brave aesthetics. Although I look forward to the day that I can enjoy a virtual walk (or run, or ride) through a metropolis teeming with verisimilitude or a forest celebrating each and every leaf, I can content myself in the meantime with games that choose spectacular design over attempts at mere simulation. Advancements in graphics may expand upon current genres, but the still inchoate medium of video games is more likely to be freed by bursts of individual brilliance than an increase in draw distance. It’s a slow process, but it’s worth exploring where our priorities should lie when discussing and developing the next generation of games.

Fortunately, Critical Distance posted the following assignment:

2K’s Chris Hartmann recently said that achieving photorealism was the key to opening ‘new genres’ of games. Without discussing whether or not this is true (it isn’t), what genres or subjects have games left uncovered, and what should they be focusing on? Alternatively, if photorealism isn’t the limiting factor on the diversification and evolution of gaming experiences, what is? Were Belgian Eurodance group 2 Unlimited right with their assertion that, in fact, there are No Limits?

During my time spent engaging with video game worlds, characters, and stories, I’ve noticed two recurring elements that have greatly influenced–and limited–the type of experiences the average player is exposed to. One is technological, while the other indicates a widespread lack of imagination on behalf of developers both large and small. The two are unsurprisingly related, and together they form a stranglehold which threatens to prevent the dissemination of new and diverse ideas.

Our first element poses a problem so naturalized that, to the majority of players, it probably doesn’t scan as a problem at all: the gaming community’s continued reliance on combat-based progress. While I often choose to defend the violence so prevalent in video games (most recently Darksiders), the sheer amount of games whose mechanics rely wholly on derivatives of physical force makes a strong case for a break in tradition. Unfortunately, there exists a multitude of temptations that lead developers to center their mechanics either around or among violent acts. To put it simply, the options are well tread: easily identifiable feedback loops, effortless motives (there can always be another enemy), and the control of a virtual entity made to fight against others continue to generate satisfying, visceral experiences–to some. But if the average player’s life isn’t spent in the shadow of violence, why can’t the familiar themes and tensions of their existence be explored in the medium with which they spend their time?

And the problem isn’t isolated to the FPS and action genres. All but a handful of the games I own are based around combat, and most of those that forgo violence are racing games. Based on the ubiquity of combat based progression, it would seem that developers have trouble representing obstacles or hindrances that don’t require the player to “beat” another player or subject. In part it’s a difficulty in coding, in creating meaningful contact with the player without removing the control we so often use to define the medium (see: the classification of Dear Esther). Various genres, such as racing, rhythm, and puzzle games, attempt to absolve themselves by further limiting the structure of the game to basic mechanics. This approach can—and often does—lead to brilliant results, but I would argue that innovative experiences and narratives should be available to fans of all genres, maybe even more so for the FPS player who doesn’t have the patience to mine the nuances and variances of a novelesque role-playing game.

When I mentioned individual brilliance, I imagined those who will work (and those who are already working) towards engineering the equilibrium between each of the traditional genres and personal, impactful experiences in gaming. The solution is not an easy one; I am of the belief that part of the answer can be found in the development of an improved AI.

If players are currently limited by the interactions (most of them violent) with the world they inhabit, a large shift of the burden belongs to the subjects created to respond to such engagements. Bethesda’s recent output, for instance, boasts a Radiant AI system that allegedly adheres to the player’s actions and role in the game. In Oblivion and Skyrim, this largely amounts to level scaling and, recently, the implementation of a coded schedule in the lives of the various NPCs. Meant to instill a sense of movement and participation, the Radiant AI does little more than reinforce the notion that you are dealing with machinations instead of characters. In fact, the results seem little better than those of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, made in 2000. The slow evolution of AI and its technologies indicates a subjugation on behalf of the player—keeping in line with the traditional (read: violent) sense of NPCs and enemies, the virtual subjects are little more than obstacles to overcome. Even the experiences which promote peaceful interactions fail to overcome this prejudice, as the player’s assumed power is made explicit through the insidious gamification of relationships found in games such as Mass Effect and Grand Theft Auto IV. Until games consistently place the player on an even plane rather than tailoring “the world in response to the player,” it’s hard to imagine a sincere connection with a game’s subjects beyond their usefulness or direct opposition to the player. A living, breathing world requires more than deceitfully construed chaos and a formulation of dichotomies; it requires an empathy that today’s perception of artificial intelligence cannot allow.

At the end of the day, I have doubts about the longevity of the limitations known as tradition and AI; they are almost entirely self-imposed, and there are already murmurs of a movement towards more engaging experiences. I’m sure there’s plenty I missed–there always is–so I’m looking forward to reading everyone’s entries. I doubt I’ll be disappointed.

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