In games, reality can seem beside the point. Carved boards, decorated cards, dotted cubes and colored pebbles become instruments of war. The fate of a bouncing spheroid determines one’s fortunes. The more artificial an object is, the more arbitrary the restrictions are on its movements, the simpler the rules governing the play, the more powerful a game seems to become. A game establishes its own world.
Yet over the last two decades, the evolution of video games has involved a quest for the opposite. One of the major goals of video game systems has been to simulate the real, to create images so lifelike, and movements so natural that there is no sense of artifice. There really is a haunted house being explored, a football team arrayed on a field, a car racing at 150 miles an hour through a city street. In the early years of arcade games, invaders from space were squiggly white doodles arranged in rows, threatening a player with oblivion. Now they can speak, gush green blood and wield advanced weaponry.
During the last year or so technological realism has claimed its greatest triumph yet, as three major game systems made their debuts. Lives there an 8 to 18-year-old or an adult guiltily aspiring to that state of mind who has not yet heard about the technological accomplishments of Sony’s PlayStation 2, Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s GameCube? Elaborate textures and sounds make earlier games seem like playthings. The humble controller that once maneuvered a diminutive and plump plumber named Mario across a television screen, allowing him to jump, bop and run, has now been pumped up like Lara Croft’s bodice; the bloated Xbox controller has eight buttons, two triggers, three toggling switches and untapped possibilities. And the promise and threat of these systems caused sales of video game systems and games to jump 42 percent last year to $9.4 billion.
Now, as if sensing the power boost, the Rochester Institute of Technology has started the first master’s program in computer game design. Carnegie Mellon University has an Entertainment Technology Center teaching game development techniques. Histories of the video game have also been accumulating, mixing serious analysis with fans’ passions.
Yet something odd has taken place along with technological progress. Technology is not altogether welcomed by the games themselves. One of the new games for Xbox, “Dead or Alive 3” is a martial arts game in which processors give sheen to muscles and flesh and simulate icicles or marble, but the world itself is premodern and the combat hand to hand. In “Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee,” also for Xbox, an endangered species is being rescued and medieval machines abound; power is won through communal chant.
One of Nintendo’s major offerings, “Pikmin,” actually discards technology from the start: a spaceship crashes. It can be rebuilt only with the help of pixyish creatures known as Pikmin; the crucial technology in “Luigi’s Mansion” is a vacuum cleaner strapped to Luigi’s back that can suck up ghosts in a haunted house. The ante- and anti-technological content of these games provides a peculiar counterpoint to the boasts of technological advancement made by the game systems.
There are, of course, games in which technology is required and complexity is part of the point. The daunting model is still Microsoft’s “Flight Simulator 2002” for the PC, in which the challenge of learning to fly a plane may be matched by the challenge of learning to control a plane using a computer keyboard. But in many video games, the technology is put in service to creating a world that could do very well without it and doesn’t exactly welcome technology to begin with.
This sentiment is often accompanied by nostalgia and affection for more “primitive,” earlier-generation games. “The Ultimate History of Video Games,” by Steven L. Kent (Prima Publishing, 2001) lovingly chronicles the pioneers and corporate battles behind the classics. And last year M.I.T. Press published a lavishly illustrated coffee-table tribute to arcade video, “Supercade,” by Van Burnham and Ralph H. Baer. One of Nintendo’s latest games, “Super Smash Brothers Melee,” even gathers Nintendo’s classic game characters, ranging from Mario and Pikachu to Zelda and Donkey Kong, for a reunion; in a meta-Nintendo joke, they all slug it out for the championship.
There may be, in fact, a tension in the video game universe: technological powers are courted for their possibilities and resisted for their fetishistic demands. Technology’s greatest achievement may be in the improvements in racing games, shooting games and fighting games. There, the simulation of realism is most important because the very point of the games is to create a physical sensation, an anxiety, punctuated by shocks and cries. An advertisement for a game called “Mike Tyson Heavyweight Boxing” boasted about the game’s sophisticated “facial damage engine,” calling it “brutal beyond belief.”
This is what arcade culture was about. The dark booth-stuffed arcade was, by tradition, a forbidding, seductive place. It was a world in which carnival-barker voices might boom from cubicles, while from others, surrounded by teenage voyeurs, would come screeching tires or grunts. Quick death at the console, fast quarters in the slots, territorial claims on booths the arcade was a dream world of preadult fantasy.
Originally, home video systems couldn’t satisfy the technological demands of these games, let alone simulate an arcade atmosphere. Now their increasing muscular power may make the atmosphere unnecessary. But the real foundation of the home video game came from another sort of arcade game whose images spurred less angst and spurted less blood, games like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong, with their pleasing blurps, amusing images and teasing difficulties.
Indeed, the great achievement of Nintendo’s game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, was to create an entirely new genre based on his “Mario” games in which the thrill of the arcade was domesticated. The ambition of realism was put aside; instead the intention was to create an elaborate world with its own regulations and peculiarities that the player would probe, gradually discovering its secrets. These fantastical worlds of labyrinths, puzzles and confrontations tapped into the classic strength of games as abstract worlds of arbitrary rules.
These are the two poles of the video game, still evident in the latest systems. But however different in character, the games share important preoccupations. The classic board game or card game begins with the rules; then comes the play. In video games the play begins and only gradually do the rules emerge. Finding the rules is part of the game.
What powers do they provide and what do they forbid? Can those rules be violated at all? And is everything revealed or can something be found by testing those limits? The spirit of violation is built into the video game; so is a demand for submission.
In this struggle, technology is an emblem of both the game’s limits and its promises; it helps determine what can and cannot be done. And game designers like game players keep exploring those boundaries. But through every gaming generation, no matter what the technology, the player is still the classic adolescent: at once uncertain and arrogant, proud and disgusted, resenting the demands being made and, finally, cherishing the ability to master them.
So what do you think? Is the reality in video games threatning the fun level? Post your opinions below