Thursday, December 18, 2008

Game-space: The Final FUNtier

Fun fact: Our universe is expanding, and has been for Quite Some Time. This limits our ability to perceive it in sum, since the outer regions are literally traveling too fact to allow light to ever reach us. If things continue in this vein, more and more stellar objects will disappear from the sky altogether, as entropy begins to render the universe unfit for life of any sort. Scientists, helpfully, have dubbed this "The Big Freeze", presumably because it sounded that much more terrifying than "The Big Chill."

But don't worry! You'll be long dead before then.

(Hmm. That's sort of heavy stuff for a Thursday, isn't it? I had just wanted to rhetorically consider the idea of breath in a finite space, before segueing into talking about video games. Let's give it a do-over. )

Fun fact: Our universe is awesome, and has been since I got over dinosaurs. Do you think there are aliens because if we went and visited them, we would be the aliens. So how about that. Soon everyone will be having adventures in the cosmos, flying through Saturn's rings and chasing comets and fighting the Borg, and it will be exactly like a video game. And speaking of video games...

(Okay, much better.)

In the design behind many original video games played in the arcade, play time was directly related to a player's skill, multiplied by their wallet. In these cases as a players skill increased, their individual play sessions would proportionately lengthen in relation, rewarding their play with the opportunity to play more. As players got better and better, play time could be prolonged indefinitely.. at least, until the machines themselves gave up.

Enter the Kill Screen, the result of 8-bit limitations on an otherwise endless play time. Using 8-bit memory, values from 0 to 255 can be recorded properly, but anything past that value causes an integer overflow, wherein the value 'spills over', causing all manner of computational hilarity. In arcade classics such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, the game comes to a screeching halt at level 256, rewarding you with a scrambled, unplayable screen.

"What the? I must've eaten some bad fruit."

What should be noted about these games is that though technology presents an ostensible limit on play time, the games themselves don't consist of unlimited content, but rather unlimited iterations of the same content. It's ultimately up to the player to decide how many iterations will be played. It's like a paddle ball or a yoyo: You get your fill, you move on with your life.

On the other hand we have games that present linear play narratives, in which the goal, expressly, is to get from point A to point B. This goal can be as simple as "save the princess", but it's enough to shift the onus from playing to survive to playing to complete. In these content-based "games with endings", play experience begins to resemble something closer to media such as film and literature, involving movement through a concrete work that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. (Or just a beginning and an end, if you used a warp pipe.)

But while these self-contained games can be played through and revisited up to a point of mastery, they are ultimately contained experiences. However, we've reached a point in which many game environments represent neither the iterable arcade experiences of the medium's inception, or the closed-model design inherent to earlier games. Largely, what has changed is how we approach and produce content.

First there is user-generated content, ranging from using internal tools or outright modding. Consider the history of Team Fortress, which originated as a mod of first-person shooter Quake and has now produced a sequel that can be a considered a game in its own right. And then there is Warcraft 3's Defense of the Ancients, a custom map strategy scenario which has become much more popular than the 'actual' game itself. Then there are games that deliberately capitalize on the groupthink of user-generated environments, such as Spore and Little Big Planet: Rather than simply open themselves up to community creativity, these games are designed to rely upon it.

Thank-you, game community, for this umpteenth penis man.

But even in these cases, while user input changes a game's permutations and dimensions, what is occurring is not so much growth, outright, as change. In some cases, games may be changed enough to represent separate iterations entirely, removed from earlier incarnations. The same can't be said for MMOs such as World of Warcraft, where through the process of frequent patches and expansions, changes to game design, and to content, occur right beneath a player's feet.

Entire continents may be plunked down, level caps lifted, entire new tiers of content coming to rest upon a strata of well-worn environment. In the case of Warcraft especially, where this continuous accretion has earned it a gaming-base in the millions, the two play drives - that is, the narrative navigation of linear games and the repetitive compulsion of open-style arcade games - balance each other like a delicate yin and yang.

A game like World of Warcraft cannot be 'mastered' in any meaningful way - the possibility of change, or further iterations, means the best a gamer can hope for is an understanding of its present state. In an environment where a game-world may expand faster than it is played, there exists a limit to one's experiences: An observable universe within a context of future, hypothetical incarnations.

In sum: We have killed the Kill Screen.

But no problem, right? We can always walk away. I mean, it's not like we'll just continue to whir in place like hamsters in a treadmill, until we finally game ourselves to death. Right?

(Hmm. There I go again, being a downer. I've got to end this on a more upbeat note. Think.. think..)


(Mission accomplished.)

- Rook

1 comment:

  1. I was wondering when our first picture of a dick would show up.