A strange thing happened to me today.
I was walking down the high street, minding my own business when I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye, people seemed to be gathering. And more worrying they seemed to be gathering around me, first just a trickle of people, but before long I was almost surrounded.
I tried to get away from the throng but it was too late, one particularly violent man with a shaved head and a scar across his nose had me pinned against the wall. And that was when he spoke.
“What do you think is the main problem with modern computer games?”
Well needless to say, dear readers, I was stunned. The question of there being one main problem never really occurred to me, but the crowd was adamant. All I could do was to promise them that I would put some serious consideration to the question.
Turning to the crowd, who all gave a collective but begrudging series of nods, the man released me and allowed my escape.
So, here I am. And though I cannot think of what I would call the greatest reason, I can at least give what I think to be a reason I have not seen raised elsewhere.
I’m sure that most of you are aware of the uncanny valley.
No? Then allow me to explain.
Whilst designing robots to appeal more to humans it was theorised that people felt more comfortable with robots as they were given more “human” features, up until a point. But once the robot reaches a level of seeming almost human they were suddenly much less favourably received. Essentially it seemed that the closer robots became to looking human, the more the inhuman aspects showed.
Even Pixar fell into it’s pull
So, what does this have to do with modern games? I’m not implying anything about graphics, I’m simply referring to the immersion factor.
Can I explain? Well this is me, so yes I can, but not very well. Nevertheless allow me to try.
Let’s take a look back at the golden days, to one of my (and I’m sure, everyone else’s) personal favourites, Super Mario Brothers.
Sometimes you pick up a flower, then things get complicated.
The game itself was simple, you tried to jump on some things and not run into others. But it was still fun, it never tried to be more than it was, a game. You could describe these games as being in the first third of the graph above. They’re a bit bare on features but they still provide people with amusement, mainly because you can supplement them with your own imagination.
Then we had the dawn of 3D.
Polygons, polygons everywhere.
This is where games began to adapt and become more immersive. The third dimension added not just a whole new aspect to games, but also unique problems. Suddenly the players could not be restricted to merely moving backwards and forwards, although this new degree of freedom was enjoyable a way had to be found to contain them. It was the dawn of a computer game staple, the invisible wall.
I remember the first time I encountered one of these formidable barriers to freedom, I was playing Super Mario 64 in the bob-bomb battlefield. I was running up a hill when it suddenly stopped, the hill dropped away into nothingness and Mario had his nose spread even wider across his face by the unexpected impact. But it was fine, because I knew that I was playing a game.
The problems arose when game designers tried to hide the invisible barriers, instead of the totally inexplicable physics of the landscape vanishing from view we have the justifiably worse logic of police barriers stopping even the most determined superhero from walking down an alley, but it wasn’t too bad because back then the graphics were simply not good enough to be taken so seriously. Nevertheless this is where we begin to approach the edge of the uncanny valley.
Lastly, let’s see some of the more recent games; for example, army of two. Which I would call one of the more typical examples of modern gaming that I have actually played.
It’s not as exciting as it looks.
And what does this game promise? “Unique co-op tactics – sniping, riot shield, vehicles designed for two man operations and more.” By this the game essentially means that at certain point in the game you can give your partner a leg-up, or that you can both kick down a door together.
Nothing wrong with that right? Right, scripted events have been in games for years now. But what matters is that while you can give your partner a leg-up, you can only do it where the game allows you to. In fact this game has such a bad distinction between what walls you can and cannot climb over, or the doors that you can and cannot kick down that it even has a feature in the game that tells you where you need to go. The logic behind the actions the game allows you to perform are overshadowed by the fact that you can only perform them in the areas where the game allows you to.
And now we’ve gone over the edge and are taking hikes through the centre of the uncanny valley.
You may think that now I’m being picky, and in a way you’d be right. Games have always had their limitations in that you can only do what the game has been programmed to allow you to do. But the more that a game tries to pretend it doesn’t have barriers, the more these barriers stand out and the less immersed you can feel in the game, like a robot that isn’t quite human.
And it isn’t as though there aren’t other ways around it, Super Mario Galaxy is probably the best example, by allowing the player to run around a sphere there are no hidden barriers. Other games like Half Life 2 hid their barriers very well in order to prevent any accidental damage to the fourth wall and yet still remain immersive. It may contain the occasional locked door or barrier of rubble, but you never really pick up on them because you’re always pushed forwards by the narrative and the levels are designed in such a way that they still allow for exploration.
I’m not saying that games should not be complex, a lot of the older games, mainly rpgs, are very complicated. Nor am I saying that developers should stop trying to be realistic, but it seems to me that essentially games now are developing a disturbing habit of trying to hide the fact that they are games.
And that, is what I believe to be one of the major problems with games today.
I realise that this may sound like me just being a miserable old man. Maybe that’s because I am, but essentially this is a post to try and practise discussing a point. If you agree or disagree please let me know in the comments, I’m eager to get some opinions on this.