It was a dream come true; one of the most stimulating podcasts out there, Neil DeGrasse Tyson's startalk was going to discuss the science of video games. What's more, Will Wright was one of the guests!
I wasn't expecting to learn much from the show but I couldn't pass up an opportunity to hear the ideas that could emerge from a discussion between great minds such as Tyson and Wright.
I gleefully pushed the play button and noticed that they had a 'video game expert' on board to discuss the subject while Wright's interview was pre-recorded, served as audio excerpts sprinkled through the podcast's length.
When the podcast ended, I was swearing under my breath, angry at how video games discussion in mainstream media hasn't evolved at all since the early years of digital interaction.
Tyson is obviously not a big fan of videogames and I do not fault him for that as his questions are driven by an honest desire to understand and are a great display of his legendary infectious curiosity.
In my opinion, the answers he's received were devoid of depth and failed to elevate the conversation.
I have never heard of Jeff Ryan; I spend most of my waking hours following discussions about all aspect of video games, from industry news to essays on rarely discussed issues. Still, I had never heard of Jeff Ryan.
After Googling his name and credentials, I found that reviews for his book, "Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America" seemed to reflect my personal feelings : it feels as if his expertise comes from reading articles on wikipedia.
Tyson's questions were answered by Ryan with trivia; dates, baseless predictions and many ready-made sentences that lack any real meaning. While this entire article might be seen as nitpicking, it truly pains me to see that discussions about videogames are so easily trivialized and ultimately fail in their potential to push non-gamers to view games as something more than just a leisurely activity.
There are three items in the conversation which irritated me enough to write this blog post.
1 - In a few years, our games will look as good as Pixar movies
I have heard this prediction many, many times but the first time was in 1999. This statement is empty, it means nothing. What is really being discussed here? The graphical fidelity?
If that is the case, I would be forced to agree; Checking out the Samaritan demo makes me squeal in delight at the possibility of playing such a visually rich experience. I think, however, that the rendering quality is only one part of a much more complex equation; it will add new players to our ranks, it will sell HDTVs by the ton but it will never push the discussion of interactivity further, which is what I'm interested in.
A movie, as pretty as it is, is pre-rendered and linear, its shots are conceptually engineered to convey a certain emotion and to help the story move along. The animation of characters and the timing of the camera movements are all very precisely tweaked to produce a movie that is emotionally moving regardless of the fact that you are watching nothing but computer graphics. When the viewer is 100% engrossed in a movie, it doesn't matter what the graphics look like; the viewer's brain take over and pad the sensory experience with a shimmery layer of magic.
It's all about suspension of disbelief.
The problem is amplified by real-time applications as any unconvincing motion, special effect, animation or texture is enough to completely break the spell. As good as graphics can be, what ultimately matters is the underlying experience.
To me, argument #1 is thrown around to impress non-gamers; it doesn't say anything relevant about the medium.
2 - Red Dead Redemption is about choice and consequence
Mr. Ryan claimed that Red Dead Redemption was all about the player's choices and how the player learns about consequence through his actions. That might be what the marketing team at RockStar wants you to think but anyone who spent time with Red Dead Redemption knows that the story arc is incredibly linear and is by no means modified by the player's actions.
No matter what you do in RDR, the protagonist remains a polite, charitable gentleman. I can murder everyone in town and make their children watch while I do it but as soon as I choose to undertake a story-related mission, it's as if nothing happened.
I still enjoyed RDR a whole lot as it basically gives you a western-flavored playground to lose yourself in for a few hours. I found the story to be poignant regardless of its linearity and the lack of impact my choices made on the outcome.
My point is that most people who play this game don't do it for the moral choices it presents; they want to be a cowboy and this game enables them to do so.
The choices and their consequences are conveyed linearly through the story, making the player think about certain subjects and situations as he is told and shown how characters act towards each other.
A movie would have had the same impact on its viewer.
Arguably, Grand Theft Auto IV tried to tackle a choice vs. consequence mechanic. In several missions, you may choose to either execute a target or let them live. Choosing to kill a certain character ends his story, plain and simple.
How is one supposed to feel bad for executing a single character when the mission leading up to this moment had him slay a hundred police officers with fully automatic weapons?
Alternatively, choosing to let your potential victim live will pay off later on as this character will return later on to give you additional missions, allowing you to get more money, bonuses and so on.
While the effort in attempting to tackle these issues is definitely appreciated, the choice itself has no impact, it boils down to : Do you want more opportunities to make money later on? Yes or No.
This has nothing to do with morality and the consequences of difficult choices.
3 - On the physics of balls and mouse traps
The demo mentioned for bringing 'perfect' physics to games is from an original Xbox tech demo video back in 2001. A single room, no A.I, instanced meshes...nothing really spectacular or usable.
In real-life applications, we still face absurd physics issues; Car games, characters dropping through floors, clipping through walls, etc. The 'real' physics in today's games are approximations, tweaked and authored to provide a satisfying 'feel'.
Taking a quick look at the Cheese Wheels of Skyrim videos, I can't say that I am really impressed. Sure, it's a cool trick but it means diddly squat for games or gaming in general. Think of Portal; while it didn't push the boundaries of physics engines in terms of quantity of objects, it brought physics-based mechanics that were interesting to play with and which sparked the imagination of thousands (millions?) of gamers.
On Dust's mechanics and physics are another example of what modern physics implementation can do for video games.
With the help of PhysX processors on certain graphics cards, we are rapidly approaching the reality of 'real' physics, simulating smoke and fluid dynamics without burdening the CPU with the calculations. It means nothing if those simulations are merely aesthetic decorations.
Thus I will conclude that discussions about video games should try to present video games as more than just a list of technical achievements; the discussion should bring non-gamers to think about the possibilities of the medium.
We need more evangelists, more passionate people to talk on the behalf of our favorite activity with actual knowledge of its inner workings; we don't need videogame hipsters to cash in on nostalgia.
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