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Monthly Archives: June 2015

I don’t often write about video gaming, first because I haven’t had much time for games since I was a teen, and second because even then I only liked certain kinds of games. Even so, I’ve always been fascinated by the possibilities that gaming has for producing what I’ll call “open-worlds”, and some of what I saw from this year’s E3 conference started me thinking about how these open-worlds might be better accomplished.

I should probably start with some context.  The vast majority of games bore me, always have.  Sports games are the worst, and first-person shooters are close behind, but almost all games feel to me like little more than combinations of complex hand-eye co-ordination endlessly repeated. I hear all the time how video games are the medium that will tell this generation’s stories, but if so, this generation’s stories are largely pretty sad (A revenge story? Has it been done?).  At best, their used as a veneer to justify massive and brutal violence.  Often they don’t even manage that.

I hear also how video games create immersive worlds for players to explore and fuel their imagination, but again, these imaginative worlds are usually little more than pretty settings for whatever carnage that forms the game’s central focus.  Newer and better generations of technology improve the textures, the lighting, the AI, almost everything but the world in which the game takes place, which remains largely neglected.

That isn’t to say that I hated all games as a kid.  I enjoyed playing games like Mario Kart with my brothers, and there were two games that made me realize what games might actually achieve if they were made by people who wanted the same things as I did.  The ability to accomplish tasks in a non-linear way in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time showed me a first glimpse of what an open-world might be (even if its dungeons and its story were still basically linear), and Myst showed me the kind of story and mystery and originality that might make an open-world truly worth exploring.  I played both those games and their sequels to death, though always feeling like I wanted to combine them, to play in a truly open-world, with all the elements of story and wonder that this phrase means for me.

Then, in 2002, Morrowind was released.  Now, to be clear, first-person choppers don’t rank much higher in my estimation than first-person shooters, but when I saw the world of Morrowind I knew I had to play it.  The sheer freedom of the game play and the complexity of the intermingling storylines and the novelty of the world (which the Elder Scrolls series has yet to replicate), came the closest of any game to the kind of open-world that I had imagined.  In fact, for the first few days I owned the game, I turned on god-mode and just wandered around the world looking at things, before I went back and played it through.  It’s still one of the few games (despite its awkward combat and its many bugs) that produced genuine moments of wonder in me.

Just as important, Bethesda Softworks, the creator of the Morrowind, included a constructor set with the game that allowed gamers to mod the entire world, adding something as simple as a new pair of shoes or as complex as a whole new island, complete with stories and dungeons and monsters.  In one case, a group of modders used the tool to try and recreate a whole different world distinct from the game, essentially taking on the task of a game studio as an amateur community.  This constructor set pushed my conception of open-worlds to include the possibility of changing those worlds, to be involved in their creation, a possibility that has proven its attraction through recent titles like Minecraft. I realized that I didn’t just want to explore beautiful worlds and complex stories, I wanted tools to change and recreate them.

In this respect, many recent games, even ones that are otherwise open (the other Elder Scrolls titles, Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto, Witcher, and so forth), or that have attempted more sophisticated story (The Last of Us gave me chills with the giraffe scene), or that have focused on experiential worlds (Journey is a personal favourite, and Elegy for a Dead World is an interesting experiment with users contributing to story), have done little to further the capacity of gamers to participate in the making of their own worlds.

Which brings us at last to this year’s E3 conference and, in particular, to Bethesda’s presentations.  Among Bethesda’s various titles they gave a lengthy introduction to DOOM (formerly Doom 4), which is the prototypical mindless shooter (Wow, look how realistic the chainsaw animations are!), so much so that I almost didn’t finish watching the presentation.  However, Bethesda then went on to announce the inclusion of Doom SnapMap, which offers gamers the tools to make incredibly complex game levels.  The levels being created still interest me hardly at all, but the tool itself is amazing.  I would pay for it on its own if it were expanded to include other elements beyond those from the game.  The ability to create interior spaces quickly and easily, to furnish them, and to create scripted interactions between NPCs offers gamers massive opportunities to create, not just more game levels, but also complex machinima, custom multiplayer story, and who knows what else.

Imagine being able to construct a story in a game world and then inviting your friends to join you in it, to watch it play out around you, to participate in it, even to experiment with how your interaction changes it. Imagine this tool being available for your favourite game, or your favourite movie, or your favourite book for that matter. What could you do with it?  What would your open-world become?

Another of Bethesda’s E3 games, Fallout 4, provided yet another possibility for building open-worlds.  Fallout 3, the first of the series to be published by Bethesda, was already pretty open in its story and its structure, a prototypical sandbox game that essentially transported the experience of the Elder Scrolls series into the post-apocalyptic future with a genre-saving dash of 50’s retro humour. It was easily good enough to amuse me (though the New Vegas follow up content seemed sub-standard), but it didn’t offer much in the way of allowing the user to recreate the world beyond limited customization of your home.

Fallout 4, however, more than just a re-hash of its predecessor on a new generation of console, includes two remarkable features.  First, some structures in the game can be torn apart and reutilized to make new structures, including houses, electrical systems, defensive positions and so forth.  Second, all of the items in the world (and Bethesda is famous for letting players interact with all of the  ridiculous numbers of mostly useless items that it scatters throughout its worlds), can be used for their component parts in order to create new weapons and other items. These two modes of engaging with the game allow users to customize it in interesting ways, making it more truly an open-world.

Both of these functions have appeared in other games, of course.  Bethesda is not breaking entirely new ground here, but in the context of the SnapMap presentation, it struck me how this form of game interaction has so many possibilities beyond just building houses and customizing weapons.  What if the expanded SnapMap open-worlds we were imagining also integrated the capacity to alter elements in-world, to take what the designer had created and recreate it? What if the open-worlds that we imagined were always susceptible to other players or even NPC’s using them in ways we didn’t expect? What if the materials of our open-worlds became available to us in ways that mimic real worlds?

Again, what could you create with tools like that? Given the opportunity to become the creator of an open and interactable world, what stories would you tell?  As I first glimpsed in the Morrowind Constructor Set, it’s this kind of freedom that I really want in a game.  I want to do more than just wander through a designer’s imagination (which is usually limited by catering to certain kinds of gamers). I want to change, recreate, and experiment with the game.  In the end, I want a game that is simply the tools for its own creation.

 

 

The Gordon Bridge Incident

“I’ll text you,” she called, as he withdrew
down the bike lane, left her to stand,
phone in hand, on the bridge,
watching him,
and she spun, one-footed,
almost a pirouette,
hands thrown skyward
in careless jubilation,
and the phone slipped loose,
a glittering trajectory
tumbling parabolic
to the river, and the pirouette
crumbled as she said, soft,
so only I could hear,
a stranger passing by,
“Oh my God, my life is over.”

I just finished reading Nickel Mountain by John Gardner. I’m restricting myself to one Gardner novel a year, just to make them last longer, and this one was (as almost all of them are) well worth the wait. It has all his capacity for creating a sense of the uncanny in the everyday, for revealing the profound in the common, for creating human-impossibly-human characters. It’s a beautiful book.

All of which brought me to wonder, however, why Gardner has largely been forgotten by literary posterity. After all, he was famous during his lifetime, not only as a novelist, but also as a critic and as a creative writing instructor. He also wrote children’s stories (strange and beautiful), translations, poetry, and biography. One of his books on writing, On Moral Fiction, is among my favourites in the genre. Of the novels I have read — Mickelsson’s Ghosts, The Sunlight Dialogues, Nickel Mountain, October Light, and Grendel — I would rank all but October Light (because it seems a failed experiment to me) and Grendel (because it is great in a far different way) as the best novels in the Faulknerian tradition between when Faulkner himself died and Cormac McCarthy published Suttree (though I concede that there might be more than a few who would dispute this evaluation). Still, his work was influential enough while he was alive and is of a caliber even still that it deserves far better recognition than the occasional inclusion of Grendel on some university syllabus to serve as a modern comparison to Beowulf.

The reason for this neglect, I think (and I do absolutely mean to cast some shade here), is that readers, even those who read so-called literary books, are too often unwilling to read books that take work. I have been told over and over again, by otherwise “good readers”, that certain writers — like Faulkner and Lowry and Bolano and Pynchon and Llossa and McCarthy (his Suttree and The Orchard Keeper especially) and yes, Gardner — are too difficult. They move slowly. Their sentences are unwieldy. Their formal experimentation is off-putting. Their description is excessive. Their plots are ambiguous. And so on.

What most readers want, even in their literary books, is something easy on the palette. They want to be able to say, “It was a real page-turner. I couldn’t put it down. Stayed up half the night to finish it.” They want obvious motivation and character. They want easily recognizable plot structures. They want minimal description and reflection, maximum action and snappy dialogue. In other words, they want the print version of a Hollywood film.

All of which is fine, I guess, but it means that most readers are missing out on some of literature’s great books. A little patience, a little effort, would open up some truly wonderful literary experiences. You might be okay with that, but you shouldn’t be. You should read Gardner, at least once a year, and savor each one until there are no more.