Worlds & Time

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Innovation In Video Games

So I've been playing Wii's Mario Galaxy thanks to the generosity of Carlos. We've been taking turns between controlling Mario and his little Starbit collecting disembodied assistant, and so far I've been really, really impressed by the game play.

Oddly though, I realized that there isn't that much of a difference in game play between Mario Galaxy and Mario 64. You control Mario mostly through a joystick and you can jump, stomp, and bounce around the 3-D virtual world in both games.

The brilliance in Mario Galaxy is that the game designers seem to have had an epiphany that since the world is constructed in a computer they can play with gravity, space and even time, all of the things that you can't play with in the real world (yet). Thus, having subjective gravity surrounding a curved object throws an entirely new spin on a previously established 3-D world by subverting one of the most accepted premises in video games (and in real life); that when gravity exists, it goes down.

While being bored on the computer just now I stumbled across this article at GayGamer.net which talks about the innovation of gameplay in the extremely simple Flash game Cursor*10.

Cursor*10 is a lot of fun (my high score, incidentally is 181) and the game mechanism is extremely innovative. The premise of working with successive iterations of yourself over 16 levels is interesting and allows you to build extremely complicated patterns out of small point and click movements of a single mouse.

Davey, the writer of the GayGamer.net article, compares this to the static streets of Rabanastre in FFXII, which is one of my favorite games. You simply don't see the sort of complexity of movement in the great city of Dalmasca that you do in a very small flash game. Davey would like future games to transcend linear gameplay and evolve into a much more complex world that combines the best properties of FF's story telling and Cursor's intelligent complexity.

That would be nice, but having checked out the mind numbing complexity of the "simple" non-linear character generator involved with the Storytron engine (I believe I've mentioned this before on this blog, as Laura Mixon at Viable Paradise was involved in the project) I think that for the immediate future we'll have to deal with both linear stories such as Square-Enix's masterful Final Fantasy games and much less complex non-linear games developed on Storytron-like engines. Right now, the complexity involved in having just a few computer controlled characters that can interact with players and their environments is beyond what a skilled writer (or even a team of writers) can handle, much less base a compelling storyline on.

Personally, I'm looking forward more to gameplay innovation than story innovation, such as the Mario upgrade mentioned at the beginning of this article and and games such as Portal that twist existing methods of gameplay to create entirely new experiences. Still, I expect that we'll see a lot of non-goal oriented non-linear game play in the future such as Spore (and The Sims, and SimCity, and Alpha Centauri . . . The Sid Meier Effect, I suppose I should call it).

Update: I'm coming back to this post because I realized that I never really explained what StoryTron is.

Although you'll have to talk with the creators to get the specs, etc, the basic idea has to do with interactive stories in which the characters follow a set of internal guidelines and preferences to act in character, and react to you as well. Thus, there doesn't necessarily have to be a pre-written script. Any virtual character can take one of the possible actions, and they do so depending on their own inclination, interacting with you or the other virtual characters.

Okay, take a virtual world, such as Rabanastre in Final Fantasy XII. Instead of most of the characters on the screen being just part of the background or responding to specific triggers, they move around and talk with each other. They buy things from merchants. They go to the bar and drink. They get into fights at the Chocobo races.

This is all by themselves, without any necessary input from the character. Of course, the character can choose to interact as well. He or she can talk with the characters and try convince them to do things for the character, or buy things from them, but in the background they will be able to do the same things that you do to each other. And they have a mood that changes. If you cut in front of them in line, they'll dislike you. If they just drank a glass of water, they won't want more. If they like tall handsome guys wearing armor, they'll act all lovey dovey toward tall handsome guys in armor.

That's what Storytron does. It creates a simplistic internal world that can create a basic ego system for virtual characters. By tweaking the numbers Storytron can create pacifists, murders, lazy shopkeepers, and fiercely overprotective mothers that will react to outside stimulus as though they were pacifists, murders, lazy shopkeepers or overprotective mothers.

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