In one of Giant Bomb’s infamous live E3 podcasts, David Jaffe (the foul-mouthed director of Twisted Metal and God of War) described the plight of videogame narrative in an interesting way. It goes like this: The easiest movie to make is about people sitting in a room talking, while the hardest might involve spaceships and a bunch of explosions, right? When it comes to games, though, the easiest thing to make includes spaceships and explosions whereas simulating a bunch of people sitting in a room talking turns out to be incredibly hard. As such, many game designers (including Jaffe himself on God of War) choose not to simulate these conversations at all, instead writing and recording them as cutscenes to be inserted between explosive spaceship battles. Jaffe, in recent years, has become tired of that, and has done a few interviews (as well as one notable DICE talk) encouraging designers to explore the more procedural experiences at which games specifically tend to excel.
So, let’s unpack this a little bit. Why is it that games are so bad at simulating conversations between humans? Well, mostly it’s because of the dirty little secret living between the walls of the information revolution: Computers suck at almost everything. Unless your problem involves ‘doing arithmetic very fast’, it’s going to be rather difficult to convince your microprocessor to help you out with it. (Indeed, the entire field of computer science is essentially concerned with transforming various complicated problems into the smallest possible amount of arithmetic.) Computers are not naturally good at reading or writing in our languages, at emulating our behaviours, mannerisms and decision-making processes, or even at rendering images of us that don’t look like horrifying robot marionettes. They do not think, speak or act like us. They don’t even know what we are or that we exist by most definitions of the verb ‘to know’. We programmers do not speak to computers on our own terms, like people do in Apple commercials or on the Holodeck in so many episodes of Star Trek. Instead we do so strictly on the computers’ terms, primarily by reading/writing numerical values and doing simple math. The languages with which we instruct them grow increasingly elaborate as we climb the ladder from assembly to C to Java and onward, but they haven’t actually become more ‘human’. Object-oriented programming, for instance, is a useful design strategy, but it bears no real resemblance to English or Mandarin or Latin and, in fact, something like 80% of our population can’t seem to understand or apply the principles of OOP very successfully (or, for that matter, almost any other programming principle) .
When futurists talk about how there is going to be a ‘technological singularity’ in which computers develop self-awareness and in several seconds team up to calculate the meaning of everything and enslave/destroy us all, I find myself skeptical. Human consciousness, far from being the default way of existing, is actually this weird thing that resulted from an obscure evolutionary process on a large rock within a universe of matter, energy, light, gravity, magnetism, weird sub-molecular nonsense and so forth. At some point there became organisms with genetic structures and, through natural selection, they eventually managed to evolve into these funny looking bipedal critters with these weird ropy actuators that wrap around a hard endoskeleton and are operated via electrical impulses from this gray lumpy thing. For fairly arbitrary reasons, we happen to obsess over survival and, curiously enough, reproduction. Software, by contrast, is not anything like us. It exists in a universe of numbers, patterns and instantaneous transformation, all of it having been designed from scratch by humans for a specific purpose (this is why it’s always way worse at its critical functions than practically any biological organism you could name). If we did manage to build an AI capable of making twenty million increasingly-powerful copies of itself in an instant, what makes us think it would choose to? Reproduction is a biological thing. If our AI could get online to check Wikipedia and thereby absorb the sum of all human knowledge in 2.3 seconds, why would it want to? We humans are naturally curious, but I assure you my installation of Microsoft Excel is not. An AI may not mind dying; it may not consider the constructs ‘life’ and ‘death’ applicable to itself. It may not even recognize the concept of having a ‘self’ or of there being ‘other people’. It may regard our solar system as very similar to a brain, and the nuanced little movements of our planets and space junk as essentially the same thing as the complete works of Shakespeare. There’s a good chance it won’t find any of this stuff particularly ‘interesting’ in the way we understand the word. (Now, that pixel noise pattern in the top half of that webcam feed? Y’know, the one with all those weird face-looking blobs moving around in the bottom of the frame? There is something worth studying!) Our universe sometimes yields humans, but that’s because our universe is weird. Digital environments, being cleanlier and featuring less quantum entanglement, are poorly suited to our kind.
The question, then, is how to use these computer things to produce works of art that are relevant to the human experience in all its diversity. Now, perhaps one day computer scientists will squeeze enough human cognition into some set of O(n log n) algorithms that we can indeed all become addicted to the adult-themed Holodeck programs we so desperately crave. Yet I personally shall not hold my breath. Should you be a medium-to-large scale game developer you might try hiring some writers, artists and animators to hand-craft everything that your video game humans will look like and do, which can yield some interesting results. But what if, like Jaffe and many others, you simply don’t want to make a game full of cutscenes, dialog trees and other such forms of inelegance (or you happen to be dirt poor)?
I believe that simulating a real human being, including her language, appearance and/or behaviour, is a naive and rather uninspired approach to the problem. Movies, after all, do not seek to replicate reality by showing you one character’s first-person perspective over the course of one continuous, real-time shot. Nor do novels divide the places they portray into volumes of one cubic foot each and describe them to the reader sequentially so that she might fully grasp the characters’ surroundings (insert your favourite Tolkien joke here). Rather, these media use their own respective bags of tricks to convey information in a biologically and culturally encoded way, permitting it to collaborate with the audience’s imagination in the construction of things like time, place, narrative and meaning. Well, games have tricks too, and one of the most compelling tricks games make available is to forego simulating a universe such as the one we inhabit and instead invite the player into something more abstract.
Jonathan Blow designed and developed a game called Braid. Blow, alongside another game designer called Mark Ten Bosch, once gave a talk at an indie game conference called Designing to Reveal the Nature of the Universe. The idea is that games offer us many different universes to explore, each with its own unique mechanics and dynamics. In Braid, the player can rewind time at will by holding down a button on her controller. This is a property of the universe, and the game designer’s job is to let the player discover this property through the actions of her in-game avatar. It works like a conversation: Every move the player makes is an inquiry, and the game responds through visual and other feedback. First the player encounters a pit. (Here is a pit.) The player, having nowhere else to go, must leap down into the pit if she hopes to advance. (What if I leap down into here?) At the bottom is a bed of spikes that were not visible prior to the leap, and so the player dies. (You will die!) But then a button prompt appears urging the player to press the rewind button. (You will die, but holy shit! You can rewind time to save yourself!) The player soon notices that there is in fact a way forward at the bottom of the pit, but it requires a few very specific movements during the jump downwards; the player is free to ‘converse’ back and forth with the universe until she discovers the means of this jump and subsequently gains the way forward, at which time the game reveals further properties of the universe through further conversation.
The universe of Braid is much better understood and easier to compute than, say, the inner workings of the cerebral cortex, and for these reasons it’s a whole lot easier to implement than a virtual human being. You don’t need a AAA budget or a massive production team; in fact, it turns out you only need one guy and a few hard years. Yet this does not mean the game is alien to us, lacking any human context in which to ground ourselves. One wonderful property of our species is the ability to draw parallels between our lives and pretty much any damn thing that happens anywhere. Here is an example. Another property of the Braid universe is that there is a magical ring that creates a time dilation field around itself, slowing down everything that comes near it. The player may ask: What does this mean? Is that a wedding band, perhaps? Was Tim, the protagonist, married once? Is he still? Why does time dilate around it? Is this perhaps about how being in a long-term relationship affected the way I chose to interact with other people?
Blow throws in some flavour text to facilitate further associations, though the game and its creator are famously cryptic and therefore somewhat polarizing. You may decide for yourself whether the game’s openendedness is an artistically valid choice (and whether you care about that stuff). Yet it is obvious, in any case, that Blow’s game is very personal to him, and even a cursory glance at it reveals strong reflections of his persona. My own impression is that the game’s pristine, minimalist mechanics and level design are set at odds with a tangled mess of emotional conflict roiling underneath its smooth surface. These emotions are hinted at just slightly, muted as if they were a storm felt from a great distance. I think the game portrays a rather detached person wracking his memory in an unsuccessful attempt to decide whether he has done wrong, though he wonders all the while whether he could have done otherwise to begin with. It is, in other words, a game about regret. Of course, this says more about me than it does about Blow or his game. And of course, that is the whole point. I had a conversation with Braid; I explored its universe in search of understanding, and through this collaborative process the game became a meaningful and decidedly human artifact.
Here is another good example, this one a bit more concrete. This is Jason Rohrer’s Passage. You should go download and play it yourself rather than allow me to spoil it for you, but in case you don’t want to do this you can watch a sample playthrough here in this YouTube video:
Passage is something of a classic in the world of indie games, at once highly respected for its inventiveness and gently maligned for its celebrity (and, sometimes, its perceived art-house snootiness). There are no words in it, nor do there need to be. You are a person, and you meet another person who becomes your partner. You navigate the world together, seeking paths through which the two of you can travel together. You encounter several treasures along the way; their nature is left unspecific. You grow old together; you become grayer, slower. Progress becomes difficult. Eventually, your partner dies. Then a little bit after that, having become a lonesome and dawdling old man barely capable of moving anywhere at all, so do you. You may feel loss; yet you may, at the same time, feel a profound sense of release. Like Blow, albeit through a very different voice, Rohrer defines an abstract computerized universe featuring many (easy to implement) parallels to our own. The game does not seek to simulate real humans; it instead uses abstraction to let the player project her life experiences onto the dynamics of the universe, collaborating with the designer and the software to construct some meaning from the things that happen. The computer runs the simulation singlemindedly, translating input into output, rifling through its control loop, maintaining the rigid maze of mechanics defined by the programmer. The player, finding herself inside the maze, asks “Where am I, and why am I here?”
Thus we see that while Jaffe’s truism about movies, games and spaceships does perhaps hold true, it also poses the wrong question. An interactive experience need not portray conversations between its characters; the process of interaction is itself a conversation in which the player is automatically included. As we exist and act within the universe a game maintains we come to question its nature and meaning. We seek to discover its rules and their outer limits, mapping its shape and texture as we progress. We may, after some investigation, discover the truths of this universe, if not the truths of our own, and at length come to understand something of the designer’s motives and intentions (or at least something interesting about ourselves that we had not perhaps considered). I submit to you, based on these observations, that to play a video game is to conduct a conversation with god. Let’s see a movie do that.