Xavier Belanche. May 7, 2014. Barcelona
At the recent Game Developers Conference (GDC), Jim Crawford, author of the popular and addictive game Frog Fractions, expressed his concern about a reality which, in spite of being obvious or maybe precisely because it is obvious, seems to go unnoticed by most game developers today: how to preserve the sense of discovery in the spoilers era?1. At a time when the conversation industry is as present as the show industry (I would even dare to say that the first precedes the second and, therefore, this last one is regarded as a reflection of its appearance and image), the added value of mystery or discovery becomes irrelevant. The conversation reveals, acts as a snitch and displays the show in its complete rawness, slit open from head to tail, just like Rembrandt’s ox. In the late eighties, as Jim Crawford recalls, the conversation did not exist and so the promise of mystery provided by the action to discover the content of the game was real. The conversation existed in terms of advertising, and, therefore, it was completely controlled or limited to few people.
This lack of conversation allowed, at the same time, situations like the one recently discovered in a part of the New Mexico desert: drums full of copies of the game that is nowadays declared as the worst game ever: E.T., created by the company Atari. When buyers returned the game to the manufacturer due to its poor quality, the conversation was based on the previous film, the advertising and the game’s cartridge cover. The mystery vanished at the second the game graphics appeared on screen. It is hardly conceivable that a similar situation could happen again nowadays, among other reasons, and perhaps the most significant, because of the ubiquitous and constant conversation, which alerts, talks, displays and tears the game to pieces even before it has reached the hands of the players. Since nowadays the conversation precedes the individual experience of the game because the player has read all your preview coverage, as often happens in other areas of show business, Jim Crawford suggests possible strategies in order to regain the mystery while experiencing the game, even within the conversation, from which I'd like to highlight the visual abstraction against hyperrealism or the aesthetic use of glitches as evidence of the imperfection in the foreseeable development of the game. But I would like to add a third one: the landscape’s emancipation in relation to the player, even in relation to the story of the game, or, which is the same, when the background, the setting where the action of the game takes place, ceases to be so and assumes a new and different role, which, until then, was limited to decorative functions or as a passive container of the game’s action.
The landscape autonomy in the video game transfigures the player’s experience. Rainer Sigl talks2 about a change in the player’s attitude against proposals such as Proteus, Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable or Miasmata, among others, where the game’s physical space imposes itself and displaces the pursuit of a goal, a Game Over, to a secondary relevance: from the FPS (First Person Shooter) to the FPW (First Person Walker). The player becomes a walker, a kind of a hiker, a wandering man or an adventurous pioneer. He needs to explore, to go across a new geography that is not prefabricated, and which considers him as an intruder, as it happens in Minecraft or Proteus. This nomadism will take him to discover inhospitable geography never known before. He will share his findings in the conversation, and this will attract new players to join a collective monologue where the spoiler will be limited to the player’s sphere of activity, rather than to undermine the foundations of the game.
This new Nature, emancipated from its use as an inert and passive scenario, responds to different circumstances: on the one hand, the landscape procedural generation3 that escapes all expectations, even for the creator, and therefore the impossibility of any imposition of a story over its genesis. But the algorithmic creation of nature is not enough. Games like Dwarf Fortress or Adom, found in the subgenre known as RogueLike, reveal to the player an infinite area of the game’s territory without a map, from which there is no other notion of geography that the one gained by the player’s experience in the exploration as he goes across. This flat and cartographic representation of the procedural Nature needs a Horizon in which the awareness of the unknown, of the inaccessible, concurs. It is essential that the game’s window works as a split frame4, between the procedural Nature and the player, who feels like a wandering castaway in the vastness of the artificial infinite. The degrees of visual abstraction in its representation barely matter here. The voxelization5 in Minecraft, the geometrization in Shelter, Proteus, Eidolon or Into This Wylde Abyss, the hyperrealism of Everybody's Gone To The Rapture or Miasmata, they all have in common the contradictory view that the horizon creates in the player, just like the inert back figures that disrupt the contour of Caspar David Friedrich landscapes. On the one hand, we find the attraction to go into it, the plunge into the mystery, not revealed, the promise of perhaps a meaning that will return us the condition of a player. On the other hand, we find the awareness of an unattainable persecution, the defeat before starting a journey to a destination that is none other than our own extinction by the vastness of the landscape.
The setting metamorphosis in a horizon that never shows its limits in a painted vertical plane, the insurmountable trompe l'oeil that prevents the player from falling into the void surrounding the scene, anticipates again another alteration, perhaps even deeper and more unpredictable for its future consequences: the player’s annulment in mere contemplation. The purpose of our presence in these artificial natures is not the intervention but the drift of our steps, with our sight in the proximity of the shape details that, at the limit of abstraction, represent the vegetation, the variety of trees, insects or small animals acting freely, oblivious to the story of the game, indifferent to the constructive or destructive actions of the player. But it is also in the remoteness, in that, which, by its distance, appears unrecognizable and exerts an inescapable attraction on our eyes. It is the light suspended over the top of the mountain in Journey, the flashing red light in Dear Esther or the circles of light in Proteus. In the words of Richard Whitelock, creator of Into This Wylde Abyss, "The Influence of a silhouette on the horizon to a curious player can be magnetic - just as a distant light also is”6: Vanishing points that show and open our sight to a mysterious entry pathway, which, according to the romantic landscape program, would correspond to our inner self-knowledge.
"Wie viel Gameplay braucht ein Spiel?". Rainer Sigl. April 19, 2014. Web. http://www.golem.de/news/first-person-walker-wie-viel-gameplay-braucht-ein-spiel-1404-105520.html ↩
"Procedural generation". Wikipedia. Web. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Procedural_generation ↩
Argullol, Rafael. "La atracción del abismo", Barcelona, Acantilado, 2006, p.57-61. Print. ↩
Common uses of voxels include volumetric imaging in medicine and representation of terrain in games and simulations. Voxel terrain is used instead of a heightmap because of its ability to represent overhangs, caves, arches, and other 3D terrain features. "Voxel". Wikipedia. Web. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voxel ↩
"Exploring The Dangerous Sublime – Into This Wylde Abyss". Lachlan Williams. April 17, 2014. Web. http://www.onlysp.com/exploring-the-dangerous-sublime-into-this-wylde-abyss-exclusive-interview/ ↩