Skyrim: A Digital Arcadia?

99% of Game Worlds are cookie cutter. Built quickly and cheaply like Sitcom sets, window dressing to surround rehashed character models. It simply serves to fill the screen and provide a backdrop for fake up-rezzed screenshots. Gaming icons are always characters. Mario, Lara, Sonic, all of whom are entirely one-dimensional. It used to be the case that Rockstar were the only ones who could create truly engaging Game Worlds shot through with personality. L.A Noire however, felt wooden and the real star of that game was the facial animation, the irony that the setting was a city of fake locations is not lost on me. Even when the setting is close to being deceptive (namely: engaging enough to draw the location into the narrative as much as the characters) it will never be perfect. Draw distances, environmental effects and texture loading will always shatter the fourth wall.

So the question is: What can push a game world to be compelling AND convincing?

The addition of the populace often serves to further shatter the illusion. There are never enough NPCs to make a street feel truly crowded, their behaviour isn’t natural and their presence underlines the deceit of the scene. Assassin’s Creed is beautiful, atmospheric and well populated but still obviously shallow. A forgery of reality.  As a player there will always be a willing suspension of disbelief, but when you turn off the host, the game dies. In Assassin’s Creed there is a sense the scene simply pauses, the Animus narrative provides a believable context. The Player can switch the scene off as easily as Desmond can.

Skyrim is wholly different. It breathes. It lives. It haunts when you are away. It has a Game World driven by ambition, a bravery illustrated by a dev team with no fear of depth and scope. Memories of Skyrim are augmented by the brain ‘filling in’, Skyrim acts like an optical illusion, where the failings and missing details are sketched in by the brain, leaving recollections of time in Skyrim closer to memories of actual events than engagement with a virtual world. Skyrim is both compulsive and deceptive. Rachmandram & Rachmandram noted in 2005:

Filling in is probably a manifestation of what we call surface interpolation, an ability that has evolved to compute representations of continuous surfaces and contours that occur in the natural world–even ones that are sometimes partly occluded (for example, a cat seen behind a picket fence looks like one whole cat, not like a cat sliced up).

Skyrim continuously plays tricks on us, where clipped character models, collapsing textures and falling mammoths, are all obliterated from the memory on recollection. The ‘filling in’ continues long after Skyrim has been left. Skyrim stimulates a continual suspension of disbelief, that prompts feelings of loss when away from the game. In game it fuels a wanderlust like no other.

The setting frames the adversaries of the dragons perfectly, and places them in a believable context that underlines their presence and menace. Skyrim evokes sensations first, a feeling of cold at the Throat of the World or a feeling of weariness when travelling from town to town. It evokes physical sensations, that as a player is almost impossible to reconcile. The one-two punch is complete as it delivers Emotion second, a moment of fearful terror at a Dragons arrival that elicits a response to  flee. These are ‘moments’, not gameplay experience.

Skyrim creates a landscape filled with danger, challenge and malevolence. Never before has isolation felt so comforting.

First the cold, then the fear ...

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Why Games don’t fool us whilst Hollywood has crossed the Uncanny Valley

The movies vs games argument is hackneyed and tired. The problem is there are some things that games simply cannot do.

Games aren’t funny. They try but it always comes across as a sixth form joke that was funny for about 30 seconds in a room when people we trying to impress each other. Once the code has been written, the voices recorded and subtitles typed that’s evaporated. Games are also never hip, they often aim for cool and on very few occasions they get there. In 99% of instances its tragic or simply not valid. FIFA 11 will never be hip, but then again it’s not even trying.

A couple of fundamental problems exist. The  gene pool of ideas that games plunder is so shallow and linear that the sample culture found in music and films is almost non existent. Cross references outside of games is rare, and when its done it’s so heavy-handed as to pollute the reference. Games are level based, a legacy reaching right back to the arcades,  they inhabit a realm that culturally isolates them. Technology limited the ability to convey narrative. Pac Man has no story (apart from being chased by ghosts in a maze) because the tech at the time was trying to create a world, not stimulate a world like a book where the reader creates the vision in their mind. The best games portray a believable synthetic universe like Fable but they fail to live one once the silicon cools. Game memories are shallow, music and film plug into collective recollection. In hindsight they look and sound like life so are easier to assimilate

Films based in the current day can reference what is happening now, and can tap into the collective past of history. Games aren’t a believable representation of real life (namely they don’t look real), the failings of non photo realism mean that as humans we aren’t fooled. We know it’s a game, a synthetic representation of a game world, not the real world.

Hollywood has blurred computer reality and real life to a point where a synthetic representation is completely believable. At this point Hollywood can fool us, games cannot. This leads to the problem of evocation of emotion. We cry at films because we  not tricked into thinking a real person is suffering or in joy. They call it acting.

Games can’t act. they imitate, duplicate and deceive.

Fail-ble 3: The Demise of Albion

I finally finished Fable 3. It’s not that the game is long but other things got in the way. I am at a loss. What am I supposed to think?.

All of the flair, depth and engagement of Fable 2 was pushed aside for a clumsy broken two-piece game mechanic. The Road to Rule was a clumsy way to guide the player through the world, the primary joy of Fable 2 was accidentally traversing the game world, stumbling on encounters that usually ended in spell casting and sword swinging. A game built upon decisions that effected, not only the world but the way you looked. My joy of finishing Fable 2 as a bloated scarred monster with twisted horns cannot be underestimated. I felt as though I’d shaped the character and left my mark on the world. I owned things, i’d met people. I got married. In Fable 3, I’d compared hand holds, chicken kicks and melee kills. Fable 3 took the secret sauce out of the burger bun.

The drive towards asynchronous engagement divorced me from the game world. This suspension of disbelief was further compounded by the disastrous implementation of other online characters in the game world. The floating orb mechanic, populated with random gamerpics, that were intrusive and shattered the illusion worsened by fragments of audio from jabbering trash talking strangers. Uninvited and unwanted.

At the midway point the problems start to far outweigh the good. Its only when you finish the game that you realise how hideously imbalanced the game is. This is a cut and shut video game. The pacing is disparate and the prescriptive game mechanic and box checking of the latter half (or should that be third?)  is ill-considered. The cast of engaging characters feels miserly and the decisions presented  feel lightweight and inconsequential. The Hero sits dispassionately on the throne … my mood exactly.  Fable 3 razed Fable 2 to the ground.

My expectations of Lionhead are bordering on the unreasonable, but my patience for their craft is almost limitless. I’ll let you off on this one, but I expect better next time.

Must try harder.