Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 24, 2015
I remember seeing a cool fairy demo for the Matrox 3D cards around 1998 or 1999. I think the demo was either this one, or an earlier version of this one released for the Matrox G400 chipset. Either way, it was cool. The graphics may look embarrassingly primitive today, but they were very competitive with the top 3D games of the era (like Unreal) at the time. Of course, when it’s only a tech demo, you can make lots of optimizations.
Anyway – it was cool. And I remember thinking – as I often did in those early days where they showed off what appeared to be a virtual 3D world – that I wanted to go into those worlds and explore. Just wander around, sit down by the fire and relax for a bit. The worlds seemed amazing.
Naturally, as a game developer, I knew better. I looked forward to playing games that were as beautiful and fully realized as this, and knowing all the while that once they were, just poking around the landscape wasn’t gonna do it for anybody. And that all came to pass very quickly. And we took it for granted, looking forward to even more beautiful, more realistic worlds, ignoring the incredibly interesting details because there are bad guys in need of shooting!
But I think there’s more to it than that. It’s not just that we take these beautiful worlds for granted because we’re so used to them. I think we miss these painstakingly-textured details because they are meaningless to us. The pock-marks on the wall, the old posters, the burn-marks… in theory, they help tell the story of the landscape that we’re in. But in reality – it’s all just a soundstage. All that beautiful set dressing is simply to hide the fact that we’re on a linear obstacle course.
And so we’re used to these prettier worlds being of the “look, don’t touch” variety. In fact, we’re pretty accustomed to the idea that the prettier a 3D world is (relative to modern technology), the less interactive it is. All that incredible detail comes at a price, and that is that you can’t move things around and screw things up. There’s nothing behind those doors, and the forest in the background is just a picture.
There are some games that buck that trend, of course. Skyrim and the recent Fallout titles are excellent examples, where at the very least, if you see it, you can (generally) visit it. Likewise, many of the “sandbox” games, like the Saint’s Row and Grand Theft Auto series, follow this model in their own style. Still, the kinds of interactions possible in these games are only noteworthy because they make sense in comparison to the “real world,” and not many other (3D) games do anything like it.
But even in that case, it’s a set with a lot of props you can manipulate, or temporary, randomly generated creatures you can kill. But still, that’s awesome. And they are at least a worlds worthy of exploration. If that Matrox demo had a modern analog, something like Skyrim or Fallout: New Vegas would be it. Step in, walk around, go anywhere, and take lots of pretty screenshots.
But the idea that captured my imagination even back in the days of vector graphics arcade games and text adventures was of fully realized virtual worlds. It wasn’t even the graphics so much (although high-quality 3D – ever a moving target – always excited me). But it was a world that I could virtually touch. In fact, the text adventure games provided a better illusion of that than many games, including very modern ones. Annoying as the text parsers might be, they always provided the suggestion that your interactions with the world were incredibly open-ended. Nevermind the reality that most of your perfectly reasonable and well-written commands ended up not being recognized.
Really, the best 3D game in recent years that has really managed to fulfill this idea that fired my imagination in the old days has been the indie supergame Minecraft. Literally every square meter of the gigantic game-worlds, down to the bedrock at the bottom, is fully interactive. Mine it, build it, craft it, destroy it, change it, whatever. I think with all the things people attribute to the game’s success… the emphasis on building, cooperative play, the ease of modding or making YouTube videos, I think the simplest answer of all is simply that it is unbelievably interactive. The world is ready for you to visit it, play in it, and change it as you will.
The interesting thing about a fully interactive environment like this one is that there’s a giant “negative space” for interactions. Every tile you pass near is a choice – do you mine it or not? Do you create a new passage? Do you build something new in that empty space? In a game like this, those aren’t really trivial decisions. As the song by Rush goes, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” It’s the potential for meaningful interaction that makes it come alive, even if I don’t choose to act on most of it.
That’s what I want in these virtual worlds. When I’m in Minecraft, I’m experiencing a world like I imagined back in the 1990s (and earlier). It’s as virtually “real” as I had hoped. The interaction is a big deal – knowing that it all has meaning and isn’t just pretty pictures. Now I don’t really need or want the interactivity to the full extent of Minecraft, nor do I think it’s appropriate for all (or even most) types of games. But it’s a nice counterpoint to these pretty, untouchable backdrops we often play in.
Sadly, Minecraft is getting a little long in the tooth, and while there have been a lot of games that have sought to emulate the look and feel and gameplay of that title since its runaway success, I feel like games have been sidestepping this core lesson. It’s not about the mining, or the crafting, or even a gigantic world. It’s about high levels of interactivity. Yeah, high interactivity imposes limitations on graphics – huge limitations – but clearly that’s not an inhibitor of popularity or commercial success.
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