September 2nd, 2009
Mr M makes me mad
“Surely We’ve been making interactive games for twenty years haven’t we? Well thirty years. Well no, I don’t think we have!” Why did this phrase annoy me so much? In fact why did it make me want to find Mr Molyneux and punch him on his pompous nose? Well there are a number of things. It’s partly the conceit he demonstrates in assuming he can speak for everyone in the industry on such an important topic. I want to be clear about this, and don’t let old Moly fool you, games are about interaction. In fact I’d go as far as say they are interaction. That is what distinguishes them from other forms of entertainment. Without interaction a game is a movie or a book. To claim that there isn’t interaction in games prior to Microsoft’s Natal is to dismiss all the hard work that dedicated developers have put into to make their games as immerse and interactive as the current technology allows. Now I think you could make a good case for claiming that some of Mr Molyneux’s recent efforts are not interactive but to tar the whole industry with his brush is shameful and I think insulting to the people who have worked so hard to give us such brilliant and diverse genres as FPS, text adventures, platform games, RTS, match threes and games which defy any categorization like Lemmings, Flow and the literally hundreds of other wonderfully varied and distinctly interactive games we’ve enjoyed over the past 20 to 30 years (at least he got the time scale about right).
Another thing which annoys me is the assumption that games controller automatically provides a barrier to people’s sense of immersion in a game and the idea that removing that barrier will lead to a perfect sense of immersion. I am prepared to concede that the currently available input devices do sometimes get in the way of the game play experience to a certain extent. Clearly in some cases when badly designed they can have a very detrimental effect, but I think there is a lot more to producing an immersive experience than the interface. A case in point: The most immersive experience I’ve ever had in games came quite early in my gaming life.
I can still remember the scene from the game. I was walking down some steps into a cellar. The walls of the cellar where wet and covered in moss. I could hear water dripping on the stone floor which was wet and worn from hundreds of years of wear and tear. In the corner was a coffin on some old wooden trestles. The room was lit with two flickering torches. As I walked towards the coffin my heart was pounding and my palms sweaty. I’d been here before and last time the coffin had opened and a vampire had jumped out and killed me. This time I had a wooden stake so I was expecting to kill it.
The thing is this was a text adventure running on a black and white display with no color or sound. Yet my imagination filled in all those details and to all intense and purposes removed the input device (which was a keyboard) from the experience altogether allowing me to explore that space in my mind by just reading text on the screen. I played the adventure game twenty years ago but since then I’ve never experienced anything as immersive, Ico is probably the only game which came close. And yet interfaces, displays and the way scenes are rendered has improved many orders of magnitude. But with every improvement, now becoming increasingly incremental in my opinion, my sense of involvement with the game world has diminished. Why is that? And why is it that as I’ve played more games and technology has improved I’ve found myself more attracted to the simpler gaming experiences?
Another case in point… If interface is such a barrier for immersion then why do so many people still read novels for entertainment? Surely they’d be much better watching movies? And yet people continue to struggle through millions of words, put up with the chore of having to visualize what they are reading and the physical discomfort of having to hold a book, turn pages and move their eyes to read the letters. But you see it isn’t a chore. There is great pleasure and satisfaction in conjuring a world from the words on the pages of a book. Books really do open doors to other worlds.
I think the basic truth which Mr Molyneux is missing is that immersion does not come from fidelity. Experience is not automatically improved by better quality sound and visuals. And to a large extent it’s all relative anyway. My Dad spent many hours listening to music on his old valve hi-fi when I was young. Scratching and popping coming from the speakers as the needle moved across his old 78 records. But he was immersed in that music probably more than I am today listening to the same music, sans scratching and popping, on a MP3 player. Improving the level of fidelity of a scene does not mean that someone will feel they are in the scene or guarantee emotional involvement with the scene. Those things come from applying an understanding of what motivates people and the best game designers leverage that understanding to produce game worlds which players want to interact with regardless of how clunky the interface might be.
Thinking about Mr M and my reaction to his speech another thing which really annoys me is the sheep like way the games industry lets itself be patronized by Mr M. I mean can you imagine someone getting up at a film festival and saying that movies haven’t been cinematic up until now? They’d be booed off the stage and probably impaled on their cameras. But our industry stands meekly by and accepts these sort of pompous arrogant ridiculous assertions as if they are fact.
Finally it annoys me that people still give Mr Molyneux money to waste on these sort of projects. But that really is just sour grapes.
Entry Filed under: General