A little love for baby steps


Humans tend to perceive progression mostly in terms of notable milestones. As we age, we don't register the minute changes in our skin, our muscles, or our metabolism even though we see ourselves in great detail on a constant basis. However, when that first laugh line, or grey hair, or hangover that takes way too long to recover from (cough-personalexperience-cough) appears in our lives, you can bet we stand up and take notice.

The gaming world is no different. Ask long-time gamers about the evolution of the medium, and they might discuss the leap from 2D to 3D, the advent of online multiplayer gaming, the move from 8 to 16-bit graphics, or the structural changes in controllers from one console generation to the next. At times, it seems that we only take notice of progress when it is large or clearly labelled for us.

Biological evolution is a fabulous parallel for the way we should look at advancement in just about any system. The changes that videogames undergo over time are the process of thousands of experiments, with a legion of failures or break-even changes measured against a much smaller pool of successful "mutations" which become part of the blueprint for the next iterations. Without this multiplicity of tiny shifts, true progress is never made. Why don't we praise and recognize small improvements? Where's the love for baby steps?

We are comforted by having clear divisions to measure progress with, especially in videogames. We don't see the embryonic forms of The Alphabet in the Civilization IV tech tree. There are no Cuneiform or Pictograms advancements; one minute, we're inarticulate foragers. The next, we're reading the New Yorker with a cup of tea and scones while outside the village wise men try to figure out how to sharpen an arrowhead with a petrified turd.

I'm not saying that we need to add superfluous levels of granularity to games just for filler, or even for a more realistic representation of evolution. We need to have gaps in game systems so that advances feel more meaningful, even though it doesn't mirror actual progression at all. The sense of fulfillment a gamer feels is enhanced by the fact that a larger reward is doled out when we gain a level instead of smaller rewards after each combat encounter. This is also why I choose the cash option instead of the annual payments option when I buy a lottery ticket.

What I'm saying is that the small experiments or advancements in game design are just as worthy of scrutiny and admiration as the quantum leaps. They put the evolution of our pastime into perspective, and give us insight into where things may be heading next.

When Splinter Cell: Conviction released recently, the transition from the strategic-stealth roots of the series to a new, more fluid action-stealth orientation was the biggest story, and thus understandably stole the show. The fact that mission objectives can be projected onto the environment by the player was little more than a footnote in most people's eyes. If we look at it in the short term, then it makes sense why this detail fades into the background; if we look at it in the long view, it takes on an entirely different context.

Mission objectives appearing against the in-game environment is a small experiment, but it creates a more immersive experience for the player. I don't mean immersion in this sense as facilitating the player getting lost in the game world, but rather as one way to help keep the player connected to the action at all times. Having access to objective information without having to pause and navigate through menus is one small means of preserving the flow of the gameplay, and thus the fun.

In and of itself, this doesn't mean much, but think about the tiny changes that came before it. Fable 2 removed the need to go to a pause menu to access a map or to waste screen real-estate with a mini-map, due to the inclusion of the "bread-crumb" mechanic, which kept the player focused on the journey. Dead Space pulled health bars and other functions directly into the gameplay. SC: Conviction's objective projection feature is just a variation on a theme, one of a number of tiny mutations all adding the adaptive portions of their DNA to the aggregate of game design.

All of these tiny advancements and experiments may eventually lead to a great leap. Imagine a game where every single menu element, map, or piece of non-gameplay related information can be conveyed on the screen in-game effectively with no HUD, and without interrupting gameplay. Whatever that game is will go down in the books as a milestone advance in gaming, but the books probably won't mention any of the baby steps that built the foundation for that leap to take place.

Metro 2033 was an interesting exercise in observing small elements. It was chock-full of maladaptive genetic traits, but simultaneously embraced a number of mutations which might find a wonderful foothold in another environment. Even the games that don't greatly succeed as a whole can have nuggets of merit smuggled within that can be fertile breeding grounds for future baby steps.

So many titles to date have featured the ability for the player to sleep with a prostitute, that it's practically a given. Metro 2033 decided to blindside me by shaking that convention up. When early in the game I reached the first station outside of the starting area, I was heartily propositioned by a woman of the evening on the way to a more pressing objective. Now, being a student of the medium, I was more or less obligated to see how sex was handled in the game. It was for science, you see.

So, I paid the woman the fee in game currency of one bullet (handed it to her, not fired it at her), and she led me into a back room where she told me to close my eyes. As the player, a sudden realization came over me that something horrible was about to happen, but far too late to prevent it. She knocked me the hell out. When I came to, all of my currency was gone, and another NPC was there laughing at me, saying "Everybody knows not to go with HER!".

From an entertainment perspective, it was brilliantly funny; what an awesome troll on the part of the developers. I can only imagine how many people engaged in that interaction for titillation purposes only to get summarily jacked and mocked.

From a game design and story perspective, it is an even more effective element. It provides real consequences for an in-game choice, and teaches the player to respect the game world as a place where not acting with survival at the forefront of your mind can lose you everything. It gives both the story and environment more weight, and yet it was only one tiny decision in the game world.

I want to see more games take risks with choice and consequence like that and support mutations that subvert existing conventions in potentially interesting ways. I can only hope that others are watching and taking note of these sorts of baby steps; because it's not that I want Metro 2033 to procreate by any means, but I would be ecstatic if a few of its genetic quirks were to make their way into future titles.

Without developers and players who have an appreciation for the small advancements and their place in the larger scheme of game design, potentially amazing mutations like these might take years to resurface by chance. Let's work harder to find the creativity that developers are applying, and applaud it when we do; it then becomes more likely that the little things we love about today's games become part of the next blueprint, and that can only benefit us. Baby steps to better games.

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Sean Carey
Sean Carey   gamer profile

community Thanks to wanderingpixel for the above! I am a 34 year old cubicle monkey living in Austin, with my lovely wife of 2 more + disclosures



Filed under... #Destructoid Originals #Editorial



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