Games, as an interactive medium, are still playing catchup. By which I mean they’re still trying to fill out the qouta of what exactly ‘interactive’ entails. And so far, for the most part, ‘interactive’ has been a pretty limited thing, albeit a pretty miraculous one. In my mind, there’s this big, mostly blank space, with one tiny little point of light in the middle of it, that’s slowly starting to seep out, spreading to the surrounding areas and filling them in. A conversation system there, more convincing AI here, cover mechanics splattered about. It’s all about creating an ever more convincing world that’s less something to interact with and more something to immerse yourself in.
And, in the past couple of years, I think we’ve made a pair of really large steps towards creating a game world that’s that much more impressive. The first is with Battlefield Bad Company 2. I know there are dozens of impressive advancements in gaming in the past decade, but the Frostbite technology employed by Bad Company 2 is astonishing, not because it allows the world to be damaged by explosives and buildings to collapse, but because, suddenly, we’re not just virtual avatars running around a virtual space. And that’s because that virtual space can be scarred, pockmarked and blown to hell and back. It remembers. For a game space, that’s pretty fucking huge. Sure, it all gets reset when the next level starts, but for the duration of that match, actions have consequences that last beyond the respawning of you or your enemy.
Red Faction Guerilla did a similar thing with its destruction technology, but the problem there wasn’t in the destruction itself, but in the world’s inability to properly remember the damage you did to it. Buildings collapsed in these incredible ways, but as soon as you were out of view they just went from rubble to neutered stumps, no more testament to your actions than the absence of a dead enemy. The power of the Frostbite engine or something similar, translated into a persistent single player space is going to be something truly amazing, when it finally happens. Because you’re going to be able to leave your mark in a more meaningful way than was previously able. And, more importantly, it’s going to be one of those final little pieces in the violent end of things. And, thank god, hopefully we’ll be able to move onto the more interesting sides of humanity, rather than the endlessly violent.
The other big thing I’m thinking of is the application of the Euphoria engine in GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption. For those unfamiliar, it’s a procedural animations engine that forgoes canned animations for something far more natural and fluid, giving each character model a skeleton and a rudimentary muscle structure, so that they have to walk up stairs, distributing weight and the like. The character going downhill will adjust to each little pitfall and mound. Of course, the really interesting stuff happens when you shoot a guy in the leg, or clip him in the shoulder while he’s running. Rather than just turning on a ragdoll, the engine accurately approximates how they’d react to such a force, and they go spirally out of control in hilarious slapstick. Yeah, it’s funny. Yeah, I’m a little sick like that.
But, much like Frostbite, it’s filling in a blank. It’s making the journey from what’s happening on screen to our suspension of disbelief that much shorter. We don’t need to ignore the little judders as the game switches animations, it just happens naturally. Not only that, but Euphoria in particular makes the animators job that much less intensive, as you don’t need to make every little animation yourself.
They’re both landmark pieces of technology, adding a level of tactile feedback that was just not there any more. The other thing they do is raise your assumptions, so when you come across an FPS after Bad Company 2, you expect explosives to tear chunks out of the walls. When you get on a horse after Red Dead Redemption, you expect it to be running on the ground, not just pretending with a canned animation. And we’re right to assume those things; the technology is out there, and now that it is, they’re setting a new watermark, and that’s what developers need to be aspiring to. This is how we progress, as a medium, and the faster we take these steps, the quicker we’ll fill in the blanks.