Thursday, 14 February 2008

The Gates of Lucidium

One thing that videogames will always be able to do better than any other medium is exploration, giving the player full control in a world built for their interactivity. It’s one of the things I enjoy most in games, the feeling of walking into the unknown, anticipating what’s waiting for you around the next corner. However I think it’s a rare occurrence, and I often get the impression that designers don’t think the act of exploration in itself is enough to base a game around. Hence it becomes a single, smaller element to a game, with the likes of combat and puzzle solving interrupting to mix things up and give the player some more purpose. I often believe the game could be improved if it did away with these extra elements. Take Ico for example. Exploring and guiding Yorda through the game’s beautiful castle is considered one of the mediums most memorable and touching experiences. However I felt a growing annoyance every time the shadow monsters emerged from the ground to take Yorda away from me, not least because it occasionally became frustratingly hard to fend the shadows off, but for me it ruined the peaceful and isolated atmosphere of the castle and led to repetition. I think the castle itself would have provided enough on its own to make the game great. Take away the comfort of combat and designers will have to carve a more compelling game world to keep the player engrossed. I struggle to find examples of games that have taken this approach, but I really want there to be one.

Perhaps one solid reason why designers don’t seem to think this approach would be a good idea is down to how unoriginal game worlds are these days. Imagination always seems to be constrained, and in the end every game environment tends to be not too dissimilar from the real world. This just isn’t making the most of videogames potential and its freedom of design. Take some of the most loved environments in recent years, Half-Life 2’s City 17, BioShock’s Rapture, Ico’s castle, and notice how all of them choose to follow similar rules that apply to reality. I’ve never understood why designers can’t break away and do something truly unique. Take a look at Stage 5 in Rez. It’s a visually stunning experience, with gameplay incomparable with anything else, and almost nothing in its world sharing any resemberlance to our own. There’s no gravity, environments shift from one opposite to the next, pulsing around you before morphing and collapsing in on themselves, enemies who are incomparable to any of Earth’s creatures, and a continually shifting pace. Designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi put no limits on his imagination, and came up with something that nobody else would have thought of before. In contrast, there’s almost nothing in The Elder Scrolls IV that I couldn’t have predicted from the box art.

A source of inspiration I’ve always thought overlooked is that of lucid dreams. For those who don’t know, I suggest you take a quick peak at the wiki page, which proberbly explains it a lot better than I could, but essentially they’re dreams where you’re aware of them being so, and have total control over what happens within them. It’s virtually impossible to build a game that gives the player total control over what the game is about, but I think the kind of individual environments and unique situations found in dreams provides great source material for building an original world intended to be explored. Psychonauts was marginally inspired by this concept, and it shows in how each level shared no environmental similarities to the previous and adopted a completely different set of gameplay rules each time. If this unpredictability can be expanded and shaped into a large, possibly open world game, things can start to get interesting. The unreleased indie MMO Lila Dreams is set inside the head of an eleven year old girl. From that one fact I’m already ten times interested in its world than I would be in the locations of a World of Warcraft sequel. It’s new, it’s completely unpredictable as to what it might contain, and it makes for a damn intriguing setting that I’m already dying to explore.

Of course it isn’t necessary that every game be conceived in a world unlike anything we’ve dreamed of before, as exciting as that would be. Sometimes a world just needs a little twist to make it worthy of a player’s time. I recently commented on the world of Paradise City in the latest Burnout game, concluding that the setting just doesn’t make for an interesting automotive playground because it’s too hooked on realism. The Burnout ideology is anything but realistic, and it would have helped if the world had been inspired by this attitude, of which I provided some ideas at the end of the original comment. But instead of making something unique and outrageous, the designers played it safe and built a lifeless clone of a typical American city. I cannot understand why they’d choose this when it’s such a juxtaposition to everything their franchise stands for. In the end, this is a post asking for a little more imagination. Unlike building a film set, a game set has virtually no limits in what shape it can take, so why settle for something so standard and familiar when near infinite possibilities and ideas remain virtually untapped inside our own minds.

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