September 09, 2007

Computerized lack-of-control systems

Kieron Gillen has a fascinating article on sex in The Sims. I particularly like his point that the special thing about computer games is not the control, but the potential for lacking control: computer games offer a solitaire that you can't cheat at, a solitaire whose rules may change for no discernible reason.

The closest thing to this elsewhere is perhaps the tabletop RPG Paranoia, where the players face an incomprehensible bureaucracy and everyone's objectives are in conflict. Maybe Call of Cthulhu as well; the game master sits on most of the information, and only the most inteprid players will typically unearth even half of it.

The computer that's playing games acts as the ultimate poker-faced dungeon master, then, not letting anything on until it comes flying in your face. In much the same way as TV screens free the depiction of movement from the hands of puppeteers, the computer lets games become less of a human activity and more of a thing in itself.

I think the first game where I felt out of control and truly scared was the 1992 Alone in the Dark from Infogrames, perhaps not coincidentally also inspired by the mythos of HP Lovecraft. An early 3D horror game with polygons on painted backgrounds, it would sometimes play its haunting combat theme out of nowhere à la the Jaws soundtrack; but what really brought home the nail-biting was the fact that you didn't have on-screen crosshairs — you had to aim carefully, pull the trigger and hope you hit the nightmarish thing that was wobbling towards you.

Something similar, but on the exhilarating side of being scared, is the web-swinging in Spider-Man 2: when you let go of the line, flying forwards, you're unable to correct your trajectory like in oldskool platformers. This does not hurt the game: in fact, webslinging is its main attraction. The fact that you work with the city rather than on it helps make Spidey feel like he's part of New York, as he should be.

Hmm. You have to let go and trust that the city will provide you with a convenient ledge to swing off... it's a love affair with New York?



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