I am still not sure that I entirely understand the appeal of ‘sandbox’ games.
Sure, I understand the concept, a living breathing world which provides a digital playground. A digital domain that you can control. However it always seems to be the polar opposite. You are instructed to go here and do that, perhaps with a side mission thrown in, ‘ … if you want, don’t deliver the drugs, go see your prostitute girlfriend instead’. In most instances I am being presented with two choices, both of which I don’t actually want. I am being offered freedom, but it is limited, scripted and non specific. Each and every game takes no account of its audience.
When will we have to complete a questionnaire during the first level that identifies what actually interests me? The Myers Briggs of gaming. Would gamers want that. I’d suggest not. Imagine if GTA had asked you your interests and passions and then offered you an experience based on that data, or perhaps more interestingly if it had created a story line that tapped into your real fears, emotions and passions. Then the game would truly engage as it wouldn’t be simply giving everyone the same experience. At this point in time games are simply ‘choose you own adventure books’ with better pictures, sound effects and a bit of rumble. Essentially nothing has changed. Parameters still exist, outcomes are all the same, and in those games where your actions shape the world, there is little to notice as a gamer.
Consider Bioshock. Did the moral choice make any impact on you as a gamer?. The plight of the little sisters, could have been more poignant by giving the game the ability to psycho metrically target the player. In my case I have a young daughter, who I treasure. If the game had managed to evoke the same emotions I have when I think about her, then my heart and soul would have been poured into the game to protect the little sisters, a passion and compassion would have been injected into the experience that would have had infinite more impact than an armful of ADAM. Perhaps that’s at odds with a creative art-form that uses continual slaughter as a primary game mechanic.
The limitation of sandbox games is that they can’t be twisted, not truly manipulated, not bent in the way that communities like those on TASVideos re-rub games. TAS centres around the video game dark art of Tool Assisted Speedrunning. John Teti can explain it more precisely than I can (his whole post is worth the read):
” While TAS authors use special techniques like software bots and memory-register searches to help them attack a game, all tool-assisted speedruns are made in the same basic way. The speedrunner loads a game into an emulator — a program that mimics a console like the NES — and then plays extremely slowly, advancing the action frame by frame. The emulator keeps a recording of the button presses, and whenever a mistake is made, the speedrunner just backs up the tape and tries again. That’s called a re-record, and making a TAS can easily require 50,000 or more re-records. The end product of the process — which can take years, from initial planning to execution — is a button-press file. That file, when played back at full speed, produces astounding gameplay that’s literally inhuman.” John Teti: As Fast as Impossible
Think about that. Think about the process of playing a game frame by frame, distilling the game to a super granular level of precision where glitches become wormholes through code, and for what? TAS advocates produce the video game equivalent of sampling or re-edit culture that has long existed in music. Is it the same as Machinima? No. Machinima is driven by narrative and a desire to create beauty. They have genres like action, comedy and drama. In comparison they are mainstream. The kind of content that would sit happily on Xbox LIVE.
Tool Assited Speedrunning is like death metal: dark, destructive and in-penetrable as a desire for most, but the more I see the more I understand. The reason why they do it? Simple: a search for perfection
“We attempt to perfect the games to a godly level of precision, which involves handling the game as if it were The Matrix ― observing every slightest detail to gain control over it in ways that the makers never imagined. We search for perfection. To reach that goal, using the features provided by an emulator is irrelevant, as long as the “world” – the game – is unmodified.” Taken from the TAS videos: Why and How
The point here is key: these games, whilst emulated, remain unmodified. They are not broken, they are remixed. But the language is telling, it’s a desire for perfection based on a need for control to god like levels, and there is the dilemma for game designers and players alike. With unlimited capability, how do you create a game mechanic. If it can be broken, how can it be played?. Sandbox games are nascent, the promise of the next gen under-delivered on the capacity to create a fully breathing world. Perhaps David Jones has it right again:
“The point (David) Jones really wanted to make about APB, though, is that the depth and detail of the game world is only possible due to the fact that it lives on a remote server. He talked about how games like GTA only fake a ‘living, breathing’ city – once the computer-controlled pedestrian or car turns a corner, they effectively disappear from your universe. But on the APB servers, they’re always there. The artifice is being stripped away.” Keith Stuart: Some amazing things I didn’t know about APB
Cloud computing therefore may be able to deliver on the emergent game promise in real time in a persistent world. So although capability can be enhanced by server based computing power this will never address the shortcomings of developers imagination or the outer limits of gamer desires.
As the adage goes: ‘you have to see it to believe it’.
- Tool-assisted speedrun shows Super Mario 64 beaten in five minutes (joystiq.com)
- Speedrunner Conquers Myst in Under Two Minutes (escapistmagazine.com)