Saturday, May 06, 2006

Story Is The Most Important Thing

I remember reading, back in the early 90’s, an article in a PC magazine.

The writer was predicting an upcoming and, by his reasoning, inevitable crash in the video games industry. His reasoning was simple (in fact a little too simple). Essentially, what he said was this:

The only thing that’s really improving with new video games is the graphics. He used the Fifa Soccer games as an example. One day, he said, video card hardware will advance far enough to the point where we’ll have photo realism (that is, games that are indistinguishable from reality, so you would be able to tell the difference between playing a soccer video game and watching an actual soccer game on TV).

His idea was that once the graphics can’t be improved any more, people will stop buying games, because the new one won’t be any better than the ones you already own.

Now, this was incredibly short sighted, but it is true to a point. His idea was that the actual mechanics of  video games were fixed, and the only difference between one shooter and another was the way it looks.

Yes, I’ll admit, better visuals is a huge motive force in video games, but it’s not all there is.

For example, let’s look at first person shooters.

Back when this article was written, the most advanced shooter available was the original Doom. Back then, all first person shooters where almost the same, at least from a gameplay point of view. Cursor keys to move, hold shift to run, alt to strafe and ctrl to shoot. (It may amuse younger gamers that back then you didn’t even have to aim up or down, and couldn’t actually look up or down…or jump. This was true with Doom, Rise of the Triad, Duke Nukem 3D and all the major shooters available at the time. A lot of today’s screen savers have more advanced engines than those old shooters had.

The writer of this article obviously thought that things would stay like that forever. So, in order to make my point, I’m going to list the major advances that have nothing to do with graphics.

The first one was mouse control. The new control system had you using your left hand to move with the keys, but you used the mouse to look around and shoot. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but for the first time, you had to take careful aim. Before, your fire would automatically be aimed up or down. This made things more realistic, and a good deal more challenging

The next two advances appeared almost side by side. Advanced artificial intelligence, and scripted in-game sequences.

AI was a huge leap forward. Before this enemies had two basic ‘tactics’. Stand still and shoot at you, or move around randomly and shoot at you.

With the new improved AI, your enemies use their environments intelligently, work together as a team and use actual tactics.

For example, while playing fear, I walked down a corridor, and my shadow was cast on the wall ahead of me. A nearby enemy spotted my shadow, and knew I was there. He then alerted his fellow squad mates, and they headed after me. I took cover in an office.

Now, while this is an example of good AI (Seeing my shadow and alerting his squadmates), what happened next was a great example of advanced AI:

The leader of the group saw I went into the office. He also ‘knew’ that there where only two ways out. The door I ran in through or the window right next to it. If they’d just charged, I’d have had the advantage. They knew I was in the room, but not exactly where in the room I was. I could have easily stuck to the front wall, my gun aimed at head height in the doorway, and just opened up as they came in.

Instead, the squad leader called for suppressing fire. Despite the fact they couldn’t see me, and knew I’d be behind cover, they all opened up on the windows and doors, pinning me down. Then, one of them threw a grenade through the window. I had a choice. Stay where I was and get blown up, or run into a hail of gunfire. I chose the latter, and didn’t survive.

In other words, the artificial intelligence analyzed the situation, and came up with the best and safest way to take me out, while using the in game characters as a team. In Doom, they would have lost sight of me and just milled about until I re-appeared.

However, not only did this make games more challenging, it also made it a lot more fun, and gave the player more options in how to play.

For example, in a similar situation, I heard about three enemies chatting over their radios. This time, I burst around the corner as though I didn’t know where they where, fired a burst in their general direction, and turned tail and ran. As soon as I turned the corner, I stuck a proximity mine to the wall. I fired a burst at the wall, as if to hold them at bay, then legged it.

They gave chase, and my mine took the first two out.

Doom wouldn’t allow you to do this. Doom’s AI was limited to two basic rules: If you can see the player, shoot at him. If you can’t wander around a bit.

The other major advance at this time was the in-game scripted sequences. This turned the non-player character into actors rather than mindless shooting machines. In previous games, the story (if one was present at all) was progressed by pre-rendered cut-scenes, or (god forbid) clips of full motion video with really, really, really bad acting.

By having this acted out by characters in the game, not only did it make the game world seem more real and immersive it allowed for things we just hadn’t seen before. You’d round a corner, just in time to see someone’s legs, covered in blood, get pulled into an air-vent. A friendly character would scream at you to stay still, just as the motion sensing monster grabbed him.

In other words, games used to feel like watching a movie, where you where given control of the shooting in between the story sections. With in-game scripting, it felt like you where in the movie.

Moving on, the latest non-graphical advance in video games has to be physics.

Physics add an awful lot to the in-game experience. Objects have actual weight and behave like they would in the real world, and because of that, they give the player a lot more options in gameplay, as well as overall realism.

For example, in Half-Life 2, you can shoot an explosive barrel to set it on fire, then roll it down a hill towards your enemies. This may sound like a very simple thing, but it just wasn’t possible before. Without a good physics model, the barrel doesn’t ‘know’ that it should roll. You can also pick up objects and throw them at enemies, which again, without a physics model, the object wouldn’t know how far it should fly, the way it should react when it lands, or that it’s heavy enough to hurt the enemy it hits.

It also allows other ‘real world’ things that would be common sense in real life, that weren’t possible in earlier games. For example, if you where being shot at, and took cover behind a barrel, or a piece of corrugated iron that could stop the bullets, you’d pick up the barrel and keep it in front of you as you advanced.

In other words, objects act as they would in the real world, they can be picked up, thrown, moved or can break. In the past, if a chair was in the middle of a floor, it would just be part of the scenery, and in effect ‘glued’ to the floor. Now, when you run out of ammo, you can pick it up and sling it at the bad guys, or use it to barricade the door.

It also just looks really cool. For example in Oblivion, during the ‘training’ part at the start of the game, you practice archery by shooting arrows at a bucket hanging over a well. The bucket swings from the impact, and the bucket hangs on its rope differently as it leans towards the weight of the arrow.

If you’re a completely new gamer, you probably won’t notice or be impressed by the physics as you play a game, but that, paradoxically, shows just how important physics are. The fact that you don’t notice them means you’re not noticing the old restrictions that physics have allowed to be taken away.

In other words it’s like air. You don’t notice it as long as it’s there and does its job. You do, however, notice it when it’s not there. If you cut your gaming teeth on Half-Life 2, you’ll take it for granted that you can push a bloody great big bolder off a cliff onto your enemies, and you should. In older games, however, you could be on that same cliff, have the same boulder next to you, and the same enemies beneath you. However, you couldn’t drop the rock on them, because the rock doesn’t know it can move, or that it can fall, or that doing so would injure anyone unfortunate enough to be standing underneath.

If we compare this to real life, if a burglar broke into your house, you’d have all sorts of options to defend yourself. You could barricade yourself into a room, you could pick up the nearest heavy object and hit them with it. If real life was like pre-physics games, everything in your house would be fixed in place. You couldn’t pick that lamp up off your night stand to use as a weapon, because it would be part of the nightstand, in turn the nightstand would be part of the floor, and so on and so on.

However, all this taken into account, we’re eventually going to get to a point where either visually or mechanically games just can’t get any better. We’ll be wearing ultra-light virtual reality helmets, wearing suits that give full force feedback and playing a game will be absolutely indistinguishable from reality. (Think the Holodeck from Star Trek).

So what will make us buy new games then? If you’re playing a football game that looks, smells and feels like you’re actually at the superbowl, playing football with your footballing heros, would you shell out your hard earned cash just to play exactly the same game, but with the latest line-up on the teams? If the game plays exactly the same, are you going to shell out all that cash to give the players different faces?

Well, probably, but you wouldn’t be all that happy about it, it’d feel like you where being ripped off..

So what will be the thing that keeps us coming back for more?

Story. That’s what.

Any kind of media, be they games, movies or books are all designed to tell us a story. Stories are the backbone of all entertainment.

When it comes to games, the track record hasn’t been great, story wise. The ‘story’ usually consisted of a short paragraph to explain why you’re having to shoot a lot of people. Doom’s story, for example was, in essence:

There’s a colony on Mars, they tried to build a transporter thingie and accidentally opened a gateway to Hell. You and your team got sent to investigate, they all got killed, and now you’re trapped, and have to kill all the demons.

When you compare that story to the story from a game like ‘Indigo Prophecy’, that quite frankly, had a much better storyline than most movies I’ve seen, we see the true direction that video games are traveling in. Better graphics, physics etc all allow the games designers to do one thing: Tell better stories, and tell them better.

In short, the massive advances we’ve made (From ‘Pong’ to ‘Oblivion’ in less than 30 years), don’t mean games will end once we’ve perfected them. It’s like saying that books should have died out when standard language, writing and grammar rules where perfected, or that movies should have stopped selling when we mastered special effects that are indistinguishable from reality.

It simply means that the game developers will stop having to focus so much on perfecting the control system or making a game look as realistic as possible, and can get into the business of telling stories.

If I was forced to make a prediction on what video games will be like once we can go no further in ‘realism’, I’d say they’d be a lot more like movies, only movies in which we play the main character (or in the case of multiplayer, the main characters). Virtual reality will make a comeback (I still think that that technology failed simply because it was way ahead of its time), and we’ll have a completely and totally immersive experience.

We’ll go from using out monitors as a window into the game world, to putting on a headset and being part of the game world. If you’re playing a murder mystery game, you’ll actually walk the streets, talk to people, have gunfights, and it will all feel like it’s really happening.

In short, we’ll actually have something that is as real as Star Trek’s Holodeck is meant to be…only I highly doubt that it’ll be a room filled with holograms.

Of course, we have a long way to go before we get there. While I’ve heard people say that games like Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 look ‘real’, they actually… well… don’t. The truth is I heard people say the same thing about ‘Jedi Knight: Dark Forces 2’ when that came out, and the graphics on that game look absolutely laughable today.

Even the latest games on the next-gen consoles like the Xbox 360 are still a long way from photo-real. They’re close, but that’s the problem with getting true photo-realistic graphics. If one minor detail is off, the whole illusion is ruined.

It’s happened with every video game generation. I’ve heard people say “How can the graphics actually get any better?” about the Sega Genesis, the Amiga, the Playstation…even the original Doom on my old 386.

It’s the same with the change from normal TV, the DVD quality and now to HDTV. We think what we have is the pinnacle of what’s possible, because we’ve never seen anything better.

Trust me, in 15 years, we’ll look back at the games of today, and laugh at how we ever thought they looked ‘real’.

I just hope I’m around to see it.


OzzyC said...

Let's take this a step further...

I see the possibility of a day when the game industry and Hollywood merge, allowing you to be a character in a virtual movie. I see this going on to a small extent now, but there's huge growth potential. This type of scenario is in the "pong" stage.

Paulius said...

Isn't that pretty much what I said?

Hmm, I need to learnt to articulate my thoughts better.

Kato said...

I think the writer of that article was naive in even thinking he could make a statement one way or the other. When it comes to anything related to technology, I don't think anyone can make a definitive statement as to how it will be used or whether or not it has a future.

All the improvements you mentioned (along with the general concept that computing power continues to increase) allowed for more options in game-making which have given birth to games no one could predict. Take the rise of real-time strategy games in the late 90's, or the massively multiplayer online game boom of the 00's. Those are both genres that didn't come about until technology allowed it. Plus there is innovation in gaming like Katamari Damacy or the upcoming Spore which are sort of genre-defying.