Magnavox Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution Trigger Happy Games User Manual

Magnavox Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution Trigger Happy Games User Manual
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Trigger Happy
Steven Poole
Published 2000; revised 2001, 2004.
This 2007 web download edition from
License: Creative Commmons BY-NC-ND 3.0.
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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS............................................ 8
1 RESISTANCE IS FUTILE ......................................10
Our virtual history....................................................10
Pixel generation .......................................................13
Meme machines .......................................................18
The shock of the new ...............................................28
2 THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES ....................................35
Beginnings ...............................................................35
Art types...................................................................45
Happiness is a warm gun .........................................46
In my mind and in my car ........................................51
Might as well jump ..................................................56
Sometimes you kick .................................................61
Heaven in here .........................................................66
Two tribes ................................................................69
Running up that hill .................................................72
It’s a kind of magic ..................................................75
We can work it out ...................................................79
Family fortunes ........................................................82
3 UNREAL CITIES ....................................................85
Let’s get physical .....................................................85
Let’s stick together...................................................95
Life in plastic .........................................................101
Out of control.........................................................109
4 ELECTRIC SHEEP ...............................................119
The gift of sound and vision ..................................122
CinÉ qua non? ........................................................130
Camera obscura......................................................142
You’ve been framed...............................................153
5 NEVER-ENDING STORIES.................................161
A tale of two cities .................................................161
Back to the future...................................................166
How many roads must a man walk down . . . ........172
Erase and rewind....................................................176
Cracked actors........................................................181
Talking it over........................................................187
The play’s the thing ...............................................192
Tie me up, tie me down..........................................195
6 SOLID GEOMETRY.............................................199
Vector class............................................................199
The art of the new ..................................................204
Pushing the boundaries ..........................................206
Points of view ........................................................213
Being there .............................................................217
The user illusion.....................................................226
The third way .........................................................233
Brave new worlds ..................................................236
7 FALSE IDOLS.......................................................240
Dress code..............................................................240
Virtual megalocephaly ...........................................244
Gender genres ........................................................250
Character building..................................................258
Some say life’s the thing . . ...................................267
8 THE PLAYER OF GAMES ..................................271
Tiny silver balls......................................................271
Power tools ............................................................276
Veni, vidi, lusi........................................................282
Get into the groove.................................................291
You win again ........................................................298
9 SIGNS OF LIFE.....................................................307
I am what I eat........................................................308
Deep in conversation..............................................317
Time, gentlemen, please.........................................322
Say something else.................................................330
Information overlord ..............................................339
Drawing you in ......................................................345
10 THE PROMETHEUS ENGINE...........................351
God’s gift ...............................................................351
Burn this.................................................................354
Bad company .........................................................356
The final frontier ....................................................367
In an ideal world ....................................................371
Virtual justice.........................................................378
The moral maze......................................................382
Ashes to ashes ........................................................388
BIBLIOGRAPHY .....................................................411
INDEX ......................................................................418
ABOUT THE AUTHOR...........................................430
Trigger Happy
Eat pixels, sucker: this book grew out of an orphaned
article to which Stuart Jeffries kindly gave a home. I
am grateful to everyone who agreed to be interviewed:
Paul Topping, Richard Darling, Jeremy Smith, Olivier
Masclef, Nolan Bushnell, Terry Pratchett and Sam
David Palfrey saved crucial passages of the
manuscript from themselves. Jason Thompson
phlegmatically suffered innumerable defeats at Tekken
3 and Gran Turismo, but turned the tables in Bushido
Blade. He and Kate Barker also made constructive
comments on the text.
Dr. Mark Griffiths and Maugan Lloyd generously
provided psychology material, Gavin Rees was a most
hospitable guide to Tokyo, and I enjoyed useful
conversations with Caspar Field, Mike Goldsmith,
AndrÉ Tabrizifar and Teresa Grant. My agent, Zoe
Waldie, has been an oasis of profound calm and
encouragement. Thanks also to Rev. Stuart Campbell
and Chris Arrowsmith for expertly homing in on
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factual errors, and to Cal Barksdale and Danielle A.
Durkin for their work on the U.S. edition.
Trigger Happy owes much to the incisive attentions
of its editor, Andy Miller: il miglior fabbro.
Any infelicities or errors that remain I acknowledge
mine. Readers are invited to email comments for future
editions to: [email protected]
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Our virtual history
In the beginning, the planet was dead.
Suddenly, millions of years ago, arcane
spontaneous chemical reactions in the primeval ooze
resulted, by a freak cosmic chance, in the first
appearance of what we now call “the code of life.”
Formed in knotty binary strings, each node
representing information by its state of “on” or “off”
and its place in the series, the code grew adept at
replicating in ever more complex structures.
Eventually, the organizations of code became so dense
that an overarching property emerged that could not be
explained by reference to any of the constituent parts.
This was “life” itself.
The first videogame formed in the sludge. It was a
simple organism, but a father to us all. Soon enough
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(in geological terms) videogames crawled out on to the
shore, developed rudimentary eyes and legs, and
gradually began to conquer Earth.
Biologically speaking, early videogames were, as
they are today, radically exogamous—that is to say,
they did not replicate by breeding with each other, but
with “humans,” a preexisting carbon-based life form
whose purpose was, and still is, unknown but seemingly
providential. If the videogame managed to impart
particularly intense pleasure to a parasitic human
during the reproductive act, the chances of its offspring
surviving were enhanced. Obviously, videogames were
programmed by Nature to be as promiscuous as
possible: the more humans impregnated with code, the
more likely that some of the next generation would
survive to breed in their turn. The work of such genetic
programming persists in the primeval substratum even
of modern, sophisticated videogame civilization.
Over this vast meander of time, the pressures
of adapting to varied conditions prompted the
formation of different genera and species of
organism with different habitats, social structures
and breeding strategies. The fittest survived.
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But nothing could be certain in the great
evolutionary game. Some seemingly successful species
found it impossible to adapt swiftly enough to
catastrophic changes in the environment, and died out.
They were the dinosaurs. (By copying their “code” and
letting it gestate under laboratory conditions, however,
we can actually bring these fossils to life again, and let
them roam happy, if confused, in virtual amusement
Nor was this evolution a gradual and inexorable
expansion of possibilities and types. There seems to be
no final goal to the random machinations of Nature.
Some species of game, for example, turned at certain
points down evolutionary blind alleys and failed to
develop, concentrating instead, like the peacock, on
attracting partners with ever more lurid visual displays.
Other species merged, pooling resources and erasing
previous distinctions to become the great games that we
know and love.
The narrative of these manifold splittings and
fusings, this world-historical struggle of the will
encoded in our deepest selves, is not a mere just-so
story for the young. For through the noble history of
videogame species, with due homage made to the great
examples that have paved the way for us, the heroic
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story unfolds of how we came to be the planet’s
masters. Remember, humans, it’s not how you play the
game that counts, it’s whether you win or lose.
>Player 1 Ready
Pixel generation
Like millions of people, I love videogames. I also love
books, music and chess. That’s not unusual. For most
of my generation, videogames are just part of the
cultural furniture. In particular, videogames, among
people all over the world, are a social pleasure. The
after-hours PlayStation session is one of the joys of
modern life.
Videogames are in one sense just another
entertainment choice—but compared to many, a much
more interesting one. And yet there seems to be a fear
that videogames are somehow nudging out other art
forms, and that we’re encouraging a generation of
screen-glazed androids with no social skills, poetical
sensitivity or entrepreneurial ambition. But new forms
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don’t replace the old. Film did not replace theater. The
Internet did not replace the book. Videogames have
been around for thirty years, and they’re not going
When I was ten years old, my parents bought me a
home computer. It was a ZX Spectrum, brainchild of
the celebrated British inventor Sir Clive Sinclair (this
was before he went on to create the savagely
unsuccessful electric tricycle called the C5). The entire
computer, which was a contemporary of the American
Commodore Vic-20, was about half the size of a
modern PC keyboard, and it plugged into a normal
television. It was black, with little gray squidgy keys
and a rainbow stripe over one corner. Tiny blocky
characters would move around blocky landscapes
lavishly painted in eight colors, while the black box
beeped and burped. It was pure witchcraft. But the
magic wasn’t simply done to me; it was a spell I could
dive into. I could swim happily in this world, at once
mysterious and utterly logical, of insubstantial light.
Doubtless my parents imagined the Spectrum
would be educational. In a way it was, for very soon I
was an expert at setting exactly the right recording
levels on hi-fi equipment to ensure a perfect copy of a
hot new game. (In those days, videogames came on
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cassette, and I would swap copies and hints with my
schoolfriends.) For many years, the myriad delights that
videogames offered were a reliable evening escape,
their names now a peculiarly evocative roll call of
sepia-tinged pleasures: Jet Pac, Ant Attack, Manic
Miner, Knight Lore, Way of the Exploding Fist, Dark
Star . . . Then I decided, at the age of sixteen, to put
away childish things. So I bought a guitar and formed a
skate-punk heavy-metal band.
While I was away practicing my ax heroics, home
computers—the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64, as
well as a later, more powerful generation comprising
the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga—were gradually
being supplanted by home videogame consoles. These
little plastic boxes could not be programmed by the
user, and the games came on cartridge rather than on
cassette tape. The big players in the late 1980s and
early 1990s were two Japanese giants: Nintendo, with
its Nintendo Entertainment System (or Famicom) and
the more powerful Super NES; and Sega, with its
Megadrive. Each company was represented by its own
digital mascot: Nintendo had Mario, the world-famous
mustachioed plumber, and Sega had Sonic, a cheeky
blue hedgehog.
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Already by this stage a great number of teenagers
were more interested in videogames than in pop music.
And Nintendo and Sega inspired fanatical loyalty. They
were the Beatles and Stones of the late 1980s and early
1990s. Nintendo was the Beatles: wholesome fun for all
the family, with superior artistry but a slightly “safe”
image; Sega, on the other hand, were the snarling,
street-smart gang, roughing it up for the hardcore
videogame fans.
As videogaming culture grew and the games
became ever more complex and adventurous (with ever
larger profits to be made), the hardware companies
realized that technology had to keep pace with the
designers’ ambitions. The seemingly unassailable
Nintendo, having seen enormous success with the 1989
launch of the handheld Game Boy, decided to soup up
the SNES by adding a CD-ROM drive. CD-ROMs hold
a lot more information than cartridges, so the games
could be even bigger in scope. But Nintendo had no
expertise in that area of hardware, so they hooked up
with the Japanese audio giant Sony, manufacturer of hifi and inventors of the Walkman. It seemed like a
marriage made in heaven.
But after various behind-the-scenes shenanigans,
Nintendo pulled out of the deal. It was to lose them
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their market preeminence, because Sony wasn’t happy
about being messed around with by the arrogant Mario
machine, and decided to go it alone and muscle in on
the videogames business themselves. Thus the Sony
PlayStation was born. On its launch in 1995 it blew
Sega’s new machine, the Saturn, out of the water.
Nintendo, meanwhile, didn’t have a competitive
console out until two years later: the Nintendo 64,
which had a handful of brilliant games but was
woefully under-supported by most software developers.
The landscape of power had irrevocably shifted while
my back was turned.
Apart from the odd blast in an arcade, I hadn’t
thought about videogames again. Then, one summer, I
was staying in a friend’s Edinburgh flat while watching
more or less disastrous pieces of fringe theater at the
rate of three or four a day. The odorous broom closet I
was sleeping in had only one particularly interesting
piece of furniture: a PlayStation. My friend introduced
me to something called WipEout 2097, a fast, futuristic
hover-racing game. My jaw dropped.
Over the previous decade, it seemed, videogames had
really grown up. This was an amazing, sensebattering,
physically thrilling trip. Artistically, it felt
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superior to anything I had seen on the Fringe. And so,
after sacrificing most of my sleep during that
Edinburgh stay to improving my lap times, I decided I
needed to buy a PlayStation of my own. Perhaps one
day, I thought, I might even write something about
So I bought the console. And then I had to buy a
few games. Soul Blade (fighting), WipEout 2097
(racing), Tomb Raider (Lara Croft)—that would do for
starters. On second thought, better add V-Rally (more
racing) and Crash Bandicoot (marsupial wrangling).
My research had to be dutifully wide-ranging, didn’t it?
Soon, I also bought the Nintendo 64, which slotted
neatly on to my shelves with Super Mario 64 and 1080
Snowboarding. Now they’re joined by a Sega
Dreamcast, Sony’s PlayStation2, a Nintendo
GameCube, and Microsofts’s Xbox.
It hasn’t been cheap. But my experience is one
that’s shared by millions of people all over the planet.
Indeed, this acceleration in videogame evolution would
not have been possible otherwise.
Meme machines
Videogames today are monstrously big business.
Their present status has largely to do with the shift in
demographics, of which I was a part. In the 1980s,
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videogames were indeed mainly a children’s
pursuit, but now games cost between twenty and
fifty dollars and are targeted at the disposable
income of adults. The average age of videogame
players is now estimated to be twenty-eight in the
United States; one 2000 survey reported that 61
percent of all U.S. videogamers are eighteen and
over, with a full 42 percent of computer
gameplayers and 21 percent of console
gameplayers thirty-six years of age or older. 1
More and more grownups choose to play
videogames rather than watch TV or go to the
movies. According to the European Leisure
Software Publishers’ Association, the British
videogame market already grosses 60 percent
more than total movie box-office receipts, and 80
percent more than video rentals. On the other side
of the Atlantic, Americans named videogames as
their favorite form of home entertainment for the
third year in a row in 1999. Twice as many people
nominated videogames as chose watching TV,
three times as many preferred videogames to
going out to the movies or reading books, and six
times as many preferred videogames to
1 According to figures published in the Interactive Digital Software
Association’s fifth annual Video and PC Game Industry Trends Survey,
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renting movies. Total videogame software and
hardware sales in the United States reached $8.9
billion, versus $7.3 billion for movie box-office
receipts;2 $6.6 billion of the videogame receipts were
from software sales, retail and online. How did this
strange invasion happen? How did this stealthy virus
insinuate itself into so many homes?
Well, one company has done more than any other
over the last six years to stake out videogames’ huge
place in adult popular culture: Sony, manufacturers of
the PlayStation, the unassuming gray box that
reinvigorated my own interest and that of so many
others. The last time they counted, Sony had sold five
million PlayStations in the UK alone. “The focus for
the brand,” explains Guy Pearce, Sony’s UK PR
manager, “is eighteen to twenty-five. That’s the age
group we aim at, and always have done.” One in every
four U.S. households owns a PlayStation.
Sony’s initial stroke of marketing brilliance was to
release an early game, 1995’s WipEout, with a
thumping techno soundtrack featuring well-known
electronic acts of the caliber of Orbital, Leftfield and
the Chemical Brothers. The success of this product had
2 Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2000.
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the Prodigy and Underworld clamoring to provide
tracks for the sequel. Sony had a PlayStation room built
in London superclub the Ministry of Sound, and got its
logo onto club flyers all over the country. Soon
PlayStation was happily associated with dance culture,
with enthusiastic support from early adopters such as
the band Massive Attack, who had bought theirs while
on tour in Japan. Control of the soundtrack to the third
game in the series, 1999’s Wip3out, was handed over to
superstar DJ Sasha, thus ensuring another soundtrack
cleverly poised between cutting-edge and mass-appeal
dance music.
Sony targeted the youth market with intelligent
aggression. During the 1995 Glastonbury Festival, they
distributed thousands of perforated cards adorned with
PlayStation logos, which could be torn up to make
convenient roaches for marijuana joints—or, as Sony
claimed, to dispose of chewing gum.
And then God created woman. Enter Lara
Croft, the pistol-toting, ponytailed, hotpantsand-shadeswearing
revolutionary 1996 game, Tomb Raider. Much
has been written about her. She has been on the
cover of The Face and the subject of countless
Sunday-supplement articles. The publisher of
Tomb Raider, Eidos, was named Britain’s most
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successful company in any industry in 1999. It has sold
more than sixteen million copies worldwide of the first
three games in the series. Add a conservative estimate
for sales of the fourth installment, Tomb Raider: The
Last Revelation, and Lara’s getting close to becoming a
billion-dollar babe.
Lara is such a recognizable icon that she now
advertises other products, appearing, for example, in
computer-generated television commercials for
Lucozade and Nike. Generation X author Douglas
Coupland contributed to the devotional tome Lara’s
Book; the Germans have a monthly magazine dedicated
to her. In the summer of 1999, Lara could be seen
hanging from the back of buses all over London, and
six months later a bus and billboard campaign giving
Lara the movie-star treatment was undertaken in
several cities in the United States. Jeremy Smith,
managing director of Lara’s birthplace, Core Design,
points out what a gift her exploding profile was to the
company: “Who knows how many millions and
millions of pounds’ worth of free marketing we got
from the press, by them putting it in front of people
who’d then think, ‘Well, wow, that looks like a great
game.’ We could never have spent that sort of money
on the marketing that we got from the media.” And of
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course, Lara’s contribution to the PlayStation brand
itself cannot be overestimated. An exclusivity deal with
Sony ensured that the next three games appeared only
on PlayStation, and a next-generation Tomb Raider
game will appear on PlayStation2 in 2002.
These days, videogames generate a large spin-off
industry of playing cards, posters, strategy guides,
clothes and plastic figurines. In the summer of 1999,
sales of Bandai’s Duke Nukem action figures soared,
with the majority of purchasers being women. (Duke is
the testosterone-dripping digital hero of humorous
shoot-the-aliens games. He sports a blond crop and
mirrored shades and uses arch catchphrases such as,
“It’s time to chew gum and kick ass!”) Bandai claimed
to have received an “anxious” call from a woman after
her local store ran out of Nukem figures. According to
their press release, she claimed that 1990s women were
turning away from Victoria’s Secret and Tupperware
parties in favor of Duke Nukem evenings. Even if this
is just a tease, it is illuminating that Bandai feels the
potential female audience is large enough for them to
make such a claim.
Game companies have also cultivated strong
commercial links with the UK’s biggest game, soccer.
Videogame companies pay stars like Michael Owen
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and Alan Shearer to endorse their soccer games. In the
United States, Sega has hired spokesmen of the likes of
Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez and
Philadelphia 76er Allen Iverson, and has sponsored the
San Francisco Giants in baseball and the Tennessee
Titans and Oakland Raiders in football. Meanwhile,
Sony sponsors the Vans Triple Crown series of sports
such as snowboarding and freestyle motocross.
And videogames have gradually become a
marketing medium in their own right. My first
experience of the PlayStation, WipEout 2097, featured
neon advertisements for Diesel jeans and Red Bull
caffeine drinks that flashed by as you sped around its
virtual racecourses. Stockholm company Addgames
released Mall Maniacs in 1999, a bizarre “virtual
supermarket” game whose entire development costs
were covered by retail companies paying to have
reconstructed presences in the digital world. Meanwhile
Sega’s Dreamcast game, Crazy Taxi, in which the
player drives passengers around an imaginary
American town center, sports a suspicious number of
people asking to go to the Pizza Hut or Kentucky Fried
Chicken, restaurant franchises given their own nearphotorealistic presences in the shopping area.
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The music industry, too, is slowly waking up to the
commercial possibilities of placing an artist’s song in a
videogame. British rock band Ash is rumored to have
earned nearly $1,000,000 in royalties by licensing just
one song to the hit driving game Gran Turismo.
Gremlin’s Actua Ice Hockey 2 has a soundtrack
entirely by cult post-rockers Mogwai, whose faces have
also been digitized and slapped onto the team members’
heads. Trent Reznor, the man behind industrial-techno
outfit Nine Inch Nails, composed the soundtrack for
Quake. CDs of specially written videogame music now
regularly enter the pop charts in Japan, and videogame
scores are now eligible for three categories of
soundtrack music in the annual Grammy Awards.
Videogames now have such a potent influence on
other forms of entertainment that they raise a clutch of
questions about what they really have in common with
the older forms. For example, David Bowie, well
known as a man with an eye for the next big thing,
wrote and performed (with guitarist Reeves Gabrels) an
entire concept album for the soundtrack to the 1999
videogame Omikron: The Nomad Soul. At the Los
Angeles press conference to announce this
collaboration, Bowie said he approached the project as
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he would a film, “to provide an emotional heart to the
game.” And it doesn’t stop there: the rock star’s
involvement extends to being a digitized character in
the game itself.
Videogames also extend their silvery tentacles into
the worlds of film and books. Star Wars director
George Lucas has had his own videogames division,
the widely respected LucasArts, for many years; Sega
put up a chunk of the budget for David Cronenberg’s
movie eXistenZ; and in summer 2001, Japanese
software giant Square released Final Fantasy: The
Spirits Within, an $80 million computer-generated
feature film based on its enormously successful Final
Fantasy games, with voices provided by Hollywood
stars Steve Buscemi, James Woods and Donald
Sutherland. Amazingly, videogames now compete
directly with movies in terms of financial returns. Over
the six-week Christmas 1998 period in the United
States, one videogame, Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda:
Ocarina of Time, grossed $160 million, well outpacing
the most popular film, Disney’s A Bug’s Life.
Meanwhile, thriller novelist Tom Clancy now
writes scenarios for videogames produced by his own
company, Red Storm, so that eventually his paperbased
products may be demoted to the status of
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videogame tie-ins. Michael Crichton is also setting up
his own videogame development studio. And in 1998
Douglas Adams—who had a hand in the first
videogame based on his sci-fi comedy The Hitchhiker’s
Guide to the Galaxy, a text adventure game published
by Infocom in 1985—scripted the adventure videogame
Starship Titanic before the appearance of the tie-in
novel, which he didn’t even write himself. These guys
aren’t stupid; they know which way the wind is
The major videogame console manufacturers,
meanwhile, have epic ambitions for their little lumps of
extruded plastic. Consoles aim to be not just gaming
machines but the one-stop entertainment center in the
homes of millions. One Sony insider has been
overheard saying that the company’s aim with
PlayStation2 is to “own the living room.”
In the late 1990s, you could already play audio CDs
on a PlayStation, but that’s small beer. Sony’s
PlayStation2 plays DVE movies through your TV, and
various interface ports allow the connection of digital
video cameras for editing home movies, printers,
scanners, storage devices and much else. Playstation2
sold 980,000 units on its first launch weekend in Japan
in March 2000, and by mid-2001 Sony had shipped 15
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million of the consoles worldwide. In 2002, Sony will
expand PlayStation2’s capabilities further to include
broadband internet access so that users will be able to
browse the Web, use email, play games online against
each other, and even download music and featurelength
movies straight onto the machine’s hard drive. While
the hard drive and modem of PlayStation2 are an
optional accessory, Microsoft has cunningly built these
features into its own first videogame console, the Xbox,
which is also a domestic DVD player. Consoles today
can offer more different types of entertainment than
ever before.
Can anything stop this fun-juggernaut? Research
from U.S. analysts Datamonitor suggests that sales of
games consoles and software in Europe and the United
States will generate over $17 billion worth of business
a year by 2003. The conventional media—Hollywood,
music, even books—are scared. Who can blame them?
The shock of the new
Videogames are not going to go away. You can’t
hide under the stairs. Resistance is futile. Any industry
with such a vast amount of money sloshing around in it
is by that token alone worthy of investigation.
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Videogames are powerful, but they are nothing
without humans to play them. So the inner life of
videogames—how they work—is bound up with the
inner life of the player. And the player’s response to a
well-designed videogame is in part the same sort of
response he or she has to a film, or to a painting: it is an
aesthetic one.
Alain and FrÉdÉric Le Diberder, authors of an
excellent French book on videogames called L’Univers
des jeux vidÉo, welcome this idea with open arms. They
already declare that the videogame is the “tenth art.”3
Most people are not yet so progressive. But videogames
clearly have the potential to become an art form, even if
they are not there yet.
Here’s why. A videogame is put together by highly
talented artists and graphic designers, as well as
programmers, virtual architects and sonic engineers.
Increasingly, first-class graduates in computer science
from such universities as Cambridge and MIT are
moving into videogames rather than academic research;
there is also a large flow of animation talent
3 Tradition (since the Athenian Greeks and Confucian Chinese) has held
that there are six distinct arts: music, poetry, architecture, painting, dance
and sculpture. The Le Diberders add TV, movies and bandes dessinÉes
(graphic novels) to the list, and then declare the videogame the tenth.
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from traditional cartoons into videogame development.
Musicians who might once have become television or
film composers are now writing videogame
soundtracks, and there is even such a beast as the
professional videogame scriptwriter. There’s a huge
amount of thought and creativity encoded on to that
little silver disc. And aesthetics, by which I mean in the
most general terms the systematic study of why we like
one painting or one film more than another, cannot
ignore this bizarre digital hybrid.
The original Greek meaning of “aesthetics” refers to
things that are perceived by the senses. Modern
videogames—dynamic and interactive fusions of colorful
graphic representation, sound effects, music, speed and
movement—are unquestionably a fabulously sensual form;
furthermore, the simple fact is that some videogames are
better than others, yet so far no serious attempt has been
made to understand why. Videogames are an increasingly
pervasive part of the modern cultural landscape, but we
have no way of speaking critically about them. The noisy
lightshows competing for attention in living rooms around
the globe appear as some kind of weird, hermetic monolith:
mysteriously exciting to the initiated, baffling to the nonplayer.
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affected by videogames in one way or another. Even if
you’ve never played Tomb Raider, you can’t escape the
clutches of Lara Croft.
People are always loath to admit that something
new can approach the status of art. Take this rather
aggressive ejaculation: “A pastime of illiterate,
wretched creatures who are stupefied by their daily
jobs, a machine of mindlessness and dissolution.” Such
high moral bile is typical of the attacks on videogames
But this sentence wasn’t written about videogames;
it was written seventy years ago by French novelist
Georges Duhamel, about the movies. Yet today, few
people would argue that filmmaking is not an art form.
An art form that is dependent on new technology
always makes some people uneasy. The German
philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno
expressed his wariness of jazz (dependent on a recently
invented instrument, the saxophone, as well as
emerging recording technologies) in similar terms
during his correspondence with philosopher and critic
Walter Benjamin.
Videogames today find themselves in the position
that the movies and jazz occupied before World War II:
popular but despised, thought to be beneath serious
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evaluation. Yet today there is a huge critical literature
that has expanded our understanding and appreciation
of films and jazz music. In half a century, I don’t doubt
that this will also be true for videogames.
I’m not trying to argue that there’s going to be a
revolution. Like it or not, the revolution has already
happened. Videogames are an enormous entertainment
business. The numbers, as we’ve seen, are huge. When
people talk about videogames, they tend to compare
them with forms they already know and love: film,
painting, literature and so on. But there’s one critical
difference that we need to bear in mind, and it throws a
huge spanner in the works of any easy equation
between videogames and traditional art forms. It’s this.
What do you do with a videogame? You play it.
In his Laws, Plato defined “play” like this: “That
which has neither utility nor truth nor likeness, nor yet,
in its effects, is harmful, can best be judged by the
criterion of the charm that is in it, and by the pleasure it
affords. Such pleasure, entailing as it does no
appreciable good or ill, is play.” It looks as if today’s
graphically astonishing videogames do have something
like “truth” or “likeness.” A casual observer would
certainly note the vast improvements in graphic style
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and detail every year and conclude that videogames are
increasingly realistic. Those cars look pretty real; those
trees at the side of the racetrack, waving gently in the
wind, look satisfyingly (arbo)real.
This turns out to be the subject of a fundamental
tension in videogames, which will appear in many
guises throughout this book. It’s a version of a very old
question about art, concerning what Plato called
mimesis (“representation”). Is it real or not? How can
videogames claim to be “realistic” at all? But the
peculiar nature of videogames gives the old question
several intriguing and novel digital spins. The problem
of mimesis in this context—the virtual representation of
“realities”—informs the inner life of nearly every
Plato allows something to be a game as long as it is
not “harmful” and has no “utility.” There is an
increasingly vocal charge from some sections of society
that videogames are in fact morally harmful. But do
they have positive effects—do they have “utility?”
Squabbles between psychologists as to whether
videogames enhance spatio-visual and motor skills are
largely unresolved. The only thing that everyone agrees
on is that playing videogames makes you better at
playing videogames. Their effects on our
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inner lives can only be investigated once we have a
more rounded view of what videogames actually are.
What does this novel sensual fusion really have in
common with films, with storytelling, or with painting?
Where do videogames fit in the development of leisure
technologies, of perspectival representation, of the
narrative arts? Where do videogames fit in the history
of play?
Playing videogames may or may not be “useful.”
That’s beside the point. This book is about their charm:
the life in them, and their life in us. Videogames are
fun, but just what kind of fun is it?
What does it mean to be Trigger Happy?
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It all started at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, one night in 1962. The first Soviet Sputnik
spacecraft had been launched five years previously, and
John F. Kennedy had just promised that America would
get to the moon within the decade. Six months earlier,
Digital Equipment Corporation had delivered a hulking
new mainframe computer, a model PDP-1, to MIT’s
electrical engineering lab—an innovative, massively
expensive tool for serious scientific research. And by
happy chance, there was a revolutionary achievement
with that machine: the invention of the world’s first
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Well, that’s how the story usually goes.4 But
beginnings are slippery things. Actually, the world’s
first videogame was created four years earlier, at a U.S.
government nuclear research facility, the Brookhaven
National Laboratory. William A. Higinbotham, an
engineer who had designed timing devices for the
Manhattan Project’s atomic bomb and helped in the
first developments of radar, worked at Brookhaven in
charge of instrumentation design. He was trying to
dream up an entertaining exhibit for visiting members
of the public, and he hacked together a rudimentary
two-player tennis game. An analogue computer showed
the trajectories of bouncing balls drawn as ghostly blips
on an oscilloscope, controlled by a button and a knob. It
was a smash hit with the visitors for two years.
But owing to this lone pioneer’s modesty—he
didn’t think he had created anything earth-shatteringly
novel—the game never left the confines of the facility.
“I considered the whole idea so obvious that it never
occurred to me to think about a patent,” Higinbotham
said wryly, years later. Luckily for the future of games,
4 Both J. C. Herz (in Joystick Nation) and Alain and FrÉdÉric Le Diberder
(L’Univers des jeux vidÉo) give this erroneous starting point. A thorough
history is provided by Leonard Herman’s excellent Phoenix: The Fall and
Rise of Videogames, to which I am indebted in this section.
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in fact, because the owner of any patent on oscilloscope
tennis would have been the United States government.
And so—as if, eons ago in the primordial soup, one
helix of a DNA molecule had winked into existence
without the other, and therefore didn’t catch on—the
videogame spark fizzled and went out. If that
oscilloscope could have spoken, it might have said:
“There is one who comes after me.”
And so there was. Three years later a big package
arrived at MIT. Until this point, computers had mostly
been tedious, mute hulks that usually had to be
programmed with ticker-tape or punchcards, and were
strictly for esoteric mathematical applications. But the
new-fangled circular, dedicated VDU screen and
keyboard of the PDP-1 tempted programmer Steve
Russell and his friends5 to indulge in a little creative
slacking. They began to fiddle around with the
interface, writing little bits of code that caused the
display to respond in real time to physical input. A
virtual typewriter and calculator. A model of the night
sky. And then . . . Spacewar.
5 I refer only to Russell by name for reasons of ease and fluency. These are
the full credits. Conception: Martin Graetz, Stephen Russell and Wayne
Wiitanen. Programming: Stephen Russell, Peter Samson, Dan Edwards and
Martin Graetz, together with Alan Kotok, Steve Piner and Robert A.
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The name’s melodrama, of course, grew out of the
geopolitical tensions of the time. But despite the lurid
sci-fi connotations, the game itself, which you can still
play on the Internet,6 was serene, austere, a thing of
alien beauty. Two dueling spaceships in a pas de deux
against an electronic starfield, firing lazy torpedoes at
each other in the silence of space, avoiding all the while
the lethal gravitational pull of a central sun.
A leap of faith had been made. What these
coffeeguzzling student pioneers realized was that new
technology made possible a new sort of experience.
The photons fizzing from the screen were conceived
as manipulable packets of pleasure in themselves,
rather than simply a fancy way for the computer to
tell its user the result of a calculation via a dull string
of numbers. Russell and his friends designed—or
redesigned independently, to give Willy Higinbotham
his due—the first symbolic visual interface. That,
along with the work done by Xerox Parc in the 1970s,
is why you use word processors and other software
based around “windows” and “icons” rather than text.
acknowledged to be more fun than using Microsoft
6 Java-capable browsers can just point themselves at
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products, at least until its X-Box console arrives in
Spacewar sprang so fully formed into the
microcosmos that it took a very long time for other
games to catch up. Its structure offered many of the
virtues that are still essential features of videogames:
simple rules with innumerable combinational
possibilities; the competitive urge to destroy your
opponent’s spaceship; the pleasure of mastery over a
well-defined, consistent system; the challenge of
reacting instantly to craft governed by inertial physics;
and the sensual buzz of playing with animated patterns
of light. The game is remarkably similar to Asteroids,
an arcade machine that appeared some seventeen years
Having briefly considered trying to sell this curio,
Russell and his team decided that no one would want to
buy it, so they gave away the source code to anyone
who was interested. Within a few years it was
everywhere, a benign virus, an unstoppable meme,
eating up time all over the world on government,
military and scientific mainframes. And if you can’t
beat them, join them: in the end, Digital Equipment
Corporation used the game as a centerpiece for
commercial demonstrations of their computer. In the
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same pivotal decade that saw the global war of the
space race and the tectonic cultural shifts of pop music,
videogames had launched a successful initial blitzkrieg
on the digital plains.
The lessons of the PDP-1’s unwitting involvement
in game history are twofold. First: give a man a tool,
and he will play with it. Second: pretty soon, everyone
will want one. Spacewar, however, never became a
mainstream entertainment, because so few people had
access to computers at the time.7 The videogame
concept was there, but it had to wait ten years for cheap
computer-chip technology to make possible its wider
Meanwhile, throughout the 1960s, the small
community of mainframe programmers produced other
highly influential game templates in tiny programs.
Lunar Lander was a turn-based game with a text
interface that required the player to administer
rocketthruster firing without running out of fuel before
meeting the surface. Hammurabi was the first God
game, requiring the user to manage a feudal kingdom
7 DEC sold about fifty PDP-1s in total. Even by 1971, there was only a total
of about 50,000 computers in the world (The Economist, September 28,
1996). By the end of 1993, there were more than 173 million computers in
use, not counting videogame consoles.
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by planting grain and assessing tax rates each year—a
direct ancestor of Civilization. And later, the advent of
ADVENT (1972): short for Adventure, this was the
first of a lost genre of game that was hugely popular on
personal computers right up until the late 1980s. It was
the first computerized version of “interactive
narrative”: the computer described a location and the
user typed in commands—“north,” “look,” “kill snake,”
“use torch”—to move around the virtual world, use
objects and solve fiendish puzzles. But the world at
large remained ignorant of the myriad charms of these
proto-videogames. It was a closed community, a
priesthood without a parish.
Most people assume that coin-operated arcade
games preceded home videogame technology. In fact,
in terms of conception rather than commercial
distribution, the reverse is the case, for by 1967 Ralph
Baer, the consumer-products manager of a military
electronics company, Sanders Associates, had invented
a TV-based home-tennis game and more complex
“hockey” simulations. Unfortunately it took him
several years to persuade other manufacturers of the
commercial possibilities. At last, at the turn of the
decade, Intel got their act together and invented the
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microprocessor. Videogames could now be just as
clever with much smaller, cheaper brains.
Back in 1965, an engineering student at the
University of Utah called Nolan Bushnell had
Spacewar on his computer, and like the other techies
Bushnell played it obsessively. He began to wonder
whether people might actually pay to play videogames
in an amusement park, but given the size and expense
of computers, it was a mere pipe dream at the time. By
1970, however, thanks to the microchip, the project had
become commercially feasible, and Bushnell joined
pinball company Nutting Associates to develop a massmarket version of Spacewar. In 1971, 1,500 units of
Computer Space, the first arcade game, were produced.
The project bombed.
So much for the future of entertainment. Computer
Space was just too complicated for the videogame
virgins of the general public. What the hell was it for?
Pinball, fine—it’s immediately obvious what to do:
there’s two flipper buttons, you light a cigarette and get
on with it. But this intimidating machine, with its reams
of instructions and its bizarre, bulbous casing, like
something out of Barbarella—it was just weird.
Bushnell learned his lesson. He would have to make a
videogame that anyone could just walk up to and play,
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without having to learn it first. He left Nutting,
determined to go it alone.
And so Pong was born. “Avoid missing ball for
high score” ran the only line of instructions on Pong’s
cabinet. It was a very simple version of tennis. A square
dot of light represented the ball, and two vertical lines
at each side of the screen were the bats. Players only
had to use one hand to rotate the paddle control, thus
facilitating simultaneous beer consumption. The first
Pong machine, hand-built in Bushnell’s apartment, was
set up in Andy Capp’s Tavern, a California pool bar. It
was soon collecting $300 a week in quarters—six times
as much as the neighboring pinball machine.
Amazed at the game’s success, Bushnell founded
his own company, the now-legendary Atari (named
after a term used in the Japanese chesslike game “Go”),
which was staffed by young, Led Zeppelin– loving,
herb-smoking hippies. Atari released the first
commercial Pong in November 1972. It was a huge
success, and altogether ten thousand of the machines
were manufactured. Four years later, Nolan Bushnell
sold Atari to Warner for $28 million, staying on as
chairman himself. Silicon entrepreneurialism, it
seemed, was the new rock’n’roll.
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But it was not all plain sailing. When Pong first
came out, Atari was immediately sued. Ralph Baer’s
home-tennis game had finally been taken up by
Magnavox. The first home console, the Magnavox
Odyssey, had been released six months before Atari’s
debut. And it was to all intents and purposes a home
Pong avant la lettre. It lacked the hypnotic sonar-blip
soundtrack of the arcade game, but there was no doubt
that it had got there first, and Atari was forced to pay
Magnavox a license fee on every game sold.
Of course, all these Pong-style games were direct
descendants of the lost oscilloscope program by Willy
Higinbotham, who never made a penny. Rip-offs of
home tennis and multi-player arcade versions of
“tennis” or “hockey,” as well as the first simplistic
shooting and driving games, flourished over the next
few years. But, as if punished by the Fates for not
honoring its ancestor, the booming videogame industry
was soon brought to its knees—and the reason was the
very multiplicity of Pongs. By 1977, there were so
many rival home machines that stores began dumping
them at knockdown prices, and many manufacturers
went bust. It looked as if videogames had been a mere
fad, a fad which had now burnt itself out. The industry
was on the verge of total meltdown.
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And then a little-known Japanese Pachinko
manufacturer called Taito rode in to the rescue. Their
extraordinary new arcade game was the seed of the
modern era. Within a few months of its 1978 release in
Japan, the game had caused a nationwide shortage of
the coin required to play it. Twenty thousand cabinets
were sold the next year in America, and over its
lifetime the game grossed $500 million. It was called
Space Invaders.
Art types
Videogames today are a broad church. I’m using
the term “videogames” to encompass arcade games,
homeconsole games, and computer games. The
bewildering array of different forms and styles could
lead a casual observer to think that the only thing all
these games have in common is a microprocessor. In
fact, all such games share crucial low-level qualities.
As with any form, videogame genres mutate and
shift over history. If they never exactly die, they can
sleep for a long time, while other, newer types spring
up to take their place. Furthermore, few modern
videogames slot neatly into very discrete categories.
But I’ll start mapping out this confusing terrain by
identifying certain families of videogame.
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Happiness is a warm gun
Perhaps the purest, most elemental videogame pleasure
is the heathen joy of destruction. You’ve got your
finger hovering over the trigger, you line up an enemy
and you fire. Such is the task presented by that
venerable videogame genre, the shoot-’em-up. Space
Invaders (see fig. 1) was not the first shoot-’em-up
(Atari’s Tank preceded it in 1974, and of course
Spacewar itself involved torpedo firing), but it was
revolutionary all the same. You control a laser turret
that can move from side to side at the bottom of the
screen. Farther up, a phalanx of fifty-five evil aliens
tramps across the screen in a smug dance of death.
When they reach one side of the screen, they all
descend one space and go back the other way. Your
task is simple: fire at will, and wipe them out.
Not so simple, though, because they are raining
bombs on you. You must dodge the bombs, or let your
four shields soak up the firepower. The shields,
however, crumble with every blast and are soon shot
through with holes, offering as much protection from
the merciless army above as a white handkerchief. As
you shoot off the invaders, their colleagues do not
panic, they do not break formation; in their infinite,
ego-less confidence they just move a little faster, and
faster still. They must not reach the bottom of the
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screen. You might manage to blast the entire division
away, but then another reappears in its place, lower
down and more bomb-happy. The eerie bass thumping
of the invaders’ progress increases in tempo, along with
your heartbeat. Just how long will you last, soldier?
Fig. 1 Space Invaders: time to get trigger happy (‰ 1978 Taito
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Space Invaders was the first game to feature
animated characters. The serried ranks of aliens
waggled their brutish tentacles across the screen; the
movement, for the time, was so realistically ugly that it
was all the more pleasurable to blast the critters away.
Space Invaders was also the first game to feature a
“high score” facility. The current highest score was
constantly displayed on your game screen, sneering at
your puny efforts, or encouraging you to develop your
own strategies to ever greater heights. As Martin Amis
put it in an early and engagingly enthusiastic book on
videogames, Invasion of the Space Invaders: “To
appear on the Great Score sheet is a powerful incentive
in space-game praxis—a yearning perhaps connected
with schooldays and the honor or notoriety of having
your name chalked up on the board, white on black.”
It was also the first “endless” game. Previously,
videogames had stopped when a certain score was
reached, or restarted; Taito’s classic, on the other hand,
just kept getting harder and harder, the aliens becoming
a terrifying blur as they whipped across the screen
raining bombs and hurtled ever closer to ground zero.
Therein lies the game’s special tension: it is
unwinnable. The player’s task is to fight a heroically
doomed rearguard action, to stave off defeat for as
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long as possible, but the war can never be won. Earth
will be invaded. And, of course, it was—by the
explosion of videogames that followed in Taito’s
trailblazing footsteps.
The late 1970s and early 1980s were the golden age
of classic shoot-’em-ups, with Asteroids, Robotron,
Defender, Galaxian, Scramble, Tempest et al. pushing
the tension envelope of this most fiery, physically
draining of videogame genres. Indeed, the extreme
simplicity of the basic concept—destroying things with
guns—is the reason why, for a few years, the shoot’em-up expanded the possibilities of videogame action
more than any other type of game. Throughout the
1980s, shoot-’em-ups boasted ever more dazzling
lightshows and huge varieties of offensive weapons,
while gradually replacing the static Space Invaders
arena with larger, roamable spaces. Examples such as
the Commodore 64 and Spectrum classic Uridium
(easily as compelling as any arcade shooter of the time)
required not just shooting accuracy but high-speed
inertial negotiation of solid obstacles in two-and-a-half
degrees of freedom (the extra fraction granted by virtue
of the player’s ability to flip his craft onto its side and
zip through narrow spaces).
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As processing power increased in the 1990s, the
genre definitively broke the bounds of flat-plane
representations with the emergence of the “first-person
shooter,” exemplified by Doom and its multifarious
clones. Doom casts the player as a marine on Mars,
tramping around an invaded base from the hero’s point
of view and, with the aid of a comically powerful
arsenal, blasting demons back into the bloody hell from
which they have erupted. This, a sub-genre that traces
its roots back to Atari’s 3D tank game Battlezone
(1980), ousted its two-dimensional counterparts as king
of the hill, at the same time adding rudimentary quest
and object-manipulation requirements which—
especially as environments and programmed enemy
cunning became more complex, as in the extraordinary
Half-Life (1998)—edged it into the gray zone between
shoot-’em-up, exploration and puzzle games.
The pure shooter, however, persists in the form of
lightgun games: Virtua Cop, House of the Dead or the
viscerally thrilling Time Crisis. This game has one of
the simplest, most intuitive human-computer interfaces
ever conceived: the player uses a molded plastic
handgun (with properly aligned sights and a
forcefeedback mechanism to simulate recoil) to shoot
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directly at the enemies on screen, and works a footpedal
to reload the gun (after every six bullets) and duck
behind objects to avoid enemy fire. Each section must
be completed before the clock runs out. Though the
games could hardly look more dissimilar, it is Time
Crisis that is the true modern descendant of Space
Invaders. Where the old enemies were alien spacecraft
in two-dimensional formations, the enemies in Time
Crisis are human terrorists scurrying about in virtual
arenas; where you used to be Earth’s last hope, you are
now a member of a U.S. government SWAT team
protecting the interests of national security. But the
purism and simplicity of the gameplay shows that the
games are brothers under the skin. Time Crisis even
manages to increase the sweating tension, because at
your back you always hear Time’s winged chariot. But
relax into your task and revel in the challenge, for the
blissfully simple rules are still the same. Kill them all.
In my mind and in my car
Gamers of a certain age often argue that the oldies
were the best, in much the same way as the pop records
of one’s own youth seem so much better than the
rubbish the kids listen to today. But we can’t
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rewind; we’ve gone too far.8 True, I have a certain
fondness for Vanguard, a game I could happily clock as
a nine-year-old on a family vacation in Wales (you
could shoot in four directions and the beepy tunes were
evil mind-limpets). Clearly, however, Goldeneye, a
first-person shooter for the Nintendo 64 console which
lets you play the role of James Bond, is a much better
One genre that certainly refutes this nostalgiatinged
argument is the racing game. In most sorts of
videogame, “feel” is at base more important than fancy
graphics or speed for its own sake. But in the racing
game, graphics and speed are part of the “feel.” Every
increase in technological power enhances the genre’s
unique pleasure: the feeling of hurling a vehicle around
a realistic environment at suicidal velocities.
Conversely, because of this intimate relationship
between hardware base and software superstructure, a
racing game has very often been used as a seductive
showcase for new technology: the Sony PlayStation
was the mouth-watering machine of the future on its
release, just because of the unprecedented speed and
solidity of one of its first releases, Ridge Racer. That
8 “Video Killed the Radio Star” (1979) by Buggles, a deathless masterpiece
of popular song, the KindertÖtenlied that on the one hand revels in
modernist sonic synthesis but on the other mourns the passing of the 1970s
and of youth itself.
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series of games continued to evolve until 1999’s Ridge
Racer Type 4, which ran on the same hardware but
looked many times slicker (see fig. 2).
Fig. 2. Ridge Racer Type 4: prettier, faster, better (‰ 1999
Namco Ltd; all rights reserved)
Early two-dimensional racing games, with a flat
road scrolling up the screen, were little more than
simple dodge games or, with gun-equipped cars,
variations on the shoot-’em-up (Spy Hunter). The first,
crude attempt at driver’s-eye-view perspective was
Atari’s Night Driver, but the genre truly blossomed
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with Namco’s arcade Pole Position (1982), whose
steering wheel and pedals controlled a bright, colorful
approximation of track driving. Ever since, racing
games have become better and better at true
perspective, while added textures on the tarmac and
solid passing landmarks enhance the feeling of speed.
One of the best examples at the time of writing is Gran
Turismo, with tracks modeled on Japanese suburbs,
superbly atmospheric lighting effects and (crucially)
wonderfully throaty engine roars. As in most racing
games, players must learn to throw their cars into
powerslides with abandon and not to worry too much
about hitting other competitors; these vehicles might
look like racing cars but they act like dodgems.
This is not true, however, of a more serious kind of
racer, usually modeled on Formula One cars and real
Grand Prix circuits, and in spirit more of a simulation
than a pure videogame. Cars suffer real damage and
braking technique is vital. Simulation, distinct from the
role-playing game, is arguably not a genre in itself;
rather, it promotes in certain genres (driving, flight
games) the primacy of supposed “realism” over instant
fun. A true videogame deliberately simplifies any given
situation (imaginary or real) down to its essential,
kinetic parts; a simulation is loath to simplify
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and only does so when available CPU power is already
maxed out. The problem is, as we shall see, that
videogame “realism” is always a fix anyway.
Furthermore, simulations stomp roughshod all over one
raison d’Être of certain types of videogame, which is to
let the player perform amusingly dangerous and
unlikely maneuvers in perfect safety. If playing an
arcade-style racing game is like being a car stuntman in
The French Connection or Ronin, playing a simulation
is a much more earnest business. Martin Amis again:
“It sounds rather like driving, doesn’t it?”
Unlike Space Invaders et al., racing games offer the
perfect opportunity for competitive two-person action,
either with two arcade cabinets linked together or with
one home console splitting the television screen into
two separate viewpoints for each player. And you need
not be satisfied with racing mere cars against a friend.
The racing-game genre splits into driving games (what
we have seen so far) and the rest, which encompass
cartoon go-cart competitions (the superb Super Mario
Snowboarding), tiny cars speeding over a kitchen table
(Micro Machines) or futuristic hoverplanes thundering
around a sci-fi rollercoaster of a course (WipEout).
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Racing games not based on traditional cars are
usually distinguished by the appearance of power-ups:
weapons scattered along the course that can be picked
up by a player and used to blow his opponents off the
track. But in all categories of racer, the aim is the same:
get to the finish line first. If the destructive orgy of the
shoot-’em-up captures the essence of humanversusmachine competition, the racing game is the purest
expression of machine-mediated human-versushuman
competition. There can be no arguments about who
won and who lost. You were just too slow.
Might as well jump
Around 1981, a young Nintendo apprentice
designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, was asked to write
something to replace the innards of Radarscope, a
tedious shooter Nintendo’s American arm had
unwisely stocked up on to the tune of two thousand
unsellable cabinets. Miyamoto quickly, if somewhat
unpredictably, designed a game featuring a fat
mustachioed carpenter and a giant monkey. The
carpenter, under the player’s direction, had to begin
at the bottom of the screen and, jumping to avoid
barrels thrown by the infuriated simian, climb
ladders and move across platforms to reach the top,
where he could defeat the monkey and rescue a
princess. It was a far cry from the alien-
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themed shoot-’em-ups that were popular at the time.
But Miyamoto’s first game, called Donkey Kong (see
fig. 3), became an enormous hit, and invented a new
genre: the platform game.9
The carpenter, known cratylically as Jumpman (for
it was his nature, uniquely at the time, to jump) in the
first game, was transformed by its sequel into a
plumber called Mario, who soon became the most
recognized videogame “character” of all, and most of
the innovations in the platform-game genre have been
made in games starring Mario, and written by
Miyamoto himself. Mario Bros. (1983) introduced the
plumber’s brother, Luigi, along with another paradigm
of platform gaming that stuck for years: enemies are
destroyed, not by means of projectile weapons, but by
the cartoonish method of jumping into platforms
underneath them to knock them over, then climbing up
and kicking them off the screen while they were still
dazed. Super Mario Bros. (1985) turned the platform
genre into a sideways-scrolling quest through a world
many times the size of one screen, and added powerups
(by eating a mushroom, Mario increased in size
9 In platform games, women are literally on pedestals, with men constantly
striving to attain their level. It is an interesting example of plinth ideology;
see, for the concept’s application in cognitive science, the rather eccentric
AndrÉ Tabrizifar, The Transparent Head, pp. 332–35.
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and could withstand one hit from an enemy), a system
whereby an extra life could be won after collecting a
hundred gold coins, and a regular “boss” battle at the
end of every level.
Fig. 3 Donkey Kong: get him over a barrel (‰ 1981 Nintendo)
Throughout its history the platform game has built
the most purely fantastical sort of gameworlds. In the
Mario universe, baby dinosaurs coexist with masked
birds and solid clouds, potent fungi and magical
crotchets hanging in the air. In an early platform hit on
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the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Manic Miner (1983), the
player controls a miner who must negotiate conveyor
belts and killer spikes while avoiding robots, malign
jellyfish, killer penguins and poisonous bushes to
collect keys before his air supply runs out. In the most
popular current platform game, and the closest
approach yet to a true interactive cartoon, Crash
Bandicoot 3, the eponymous orange marsupial rides on
the back of a speeding tiger across the Great Wall of
China or does battle with giant glassy-eyed men
wielding sledgehammers.
But now the very term “platform game” is
somewhat outdated; perhaps more appropriate is
“exploration game,” which has been the defining point
of platformers since Super Mario Bros. This is partly
because such games have quite recently made a
transition to three-dimensional rather than flat-plane
representation—most effectively in the astonishing
Super Mario 64 (1996)—and in the process the
gameplay has necessarily changed. The old, simple
lines denoting “platforms” are now solid ledges or
columns made of brick, wood, earth or steel, and while
essential features of the platformer are retained, such as
the problem of figuring out a series of jumps to get
from “here” to “up there,” there are hybrid factors
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from a number of other game types. The first Tomb
Raider game, for example, was clearly a development
of ideas in the classic 2D platformer Prince of Persia
(the first game in which a character could grab on to
ledges and pull himself up), yet it is also a
threedimensional block-moving puzzle game with
added combat elements. And Crash Bandicoot 3 is not
really a platform game at all, even though it requires
you very traditionally to jump on enemies’ heads and
collect fruit. Apart from in the two-dimensional bonus
levels, there are very few platforms. Its major influence
is in fact the racing game with a dynamic obstacle
course: rather than figure out complicated routes in a
vertically oriented environment, you must run full tilt
“into” (or sometimes “out of”) the depth of the screen.
It qualifies partly as an “exploration game” because of
the player’s simple desire to see what surreal beauties
the designers have hidden around the next corner.
The old “platform game” is no longer a discrete
game type in itself, but denotes an aspect of gameplay
that may occur in many different genres. Even
firstperson shooters like Turok (1997) cravenly require
the player to negotiate platform elements, even though
current 3D engines make such a task infuriatingly
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random rather than pleasurably challenging. What is
left of the platform game, then, is just the defining
physical ability that Shigeru Miyamoto gave to his
original monkey-battling woodworker. Go ahead, jump.
Sometimes you kick
Ah, how good it feels to boot a friend in the head
several times before applying an armlock and hurling
him to the ground. Especially if he’s bigger than you.
Fighting games allow players to battle each other’s
characters onscreen with an array of absurdly
exaggerated martial arts moves; with fists and feet or
with swords and flame. Of all the videogame genres,
the fighting game, or beat-’em-up, is one where the
solo, or player-against-computer, mode is most
pointless. It’s a two-player genre.
Early beat-’em-ups were particularly popular on the
home computers of the day. Way of the Exploding Fist
or Yie Ar Kung Fu (both 1985) took, as did most early
fighting titles, a relatively sober approach to martialarts gameplay, with a possible sixteen different
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moves.10 As videogame consoles and arcade machines
became more technically accomplished, however, the
temptation was to show off the graphic power with ever
more visually appealing displays, and never mind the
realism. Street Fighter II (1991), the first of the really
modern breed of fighting games,11 featured enormous
blue light trails from swishing limbs and fireball
attacks, while Mortal Kombat (1992) attracted
vituperative noises from the American Senate and the
British Parliament for its terrifically gory “death
moves,” where a victorious character would rip out his
opponent’s spine and hold it bloodily aloft.
One of the attractions of modern beat-’em-ups is
the player’s ability to choose to play as any one of
numerous different characters, each with his or her
own strengths and weaknesses but all lusciously
pictured and animated. Do you want to be a blond,
sandal-wearing Greek woman in a miniskirt, or a
supernatural pirate with two enormous broadswords
(Soul Edge)? A Croatian behemoth or a Hawaiian
10 With exceptions such as Barbarian, in which your friend could be
graphically decapitated with a broadsword. There was media criticism of
this game—not, however, for the violence, but for the fact that it featured a
semi-clad model in its advertising.
11 In terms of visual excess, that is. Street Fighter’s legacy otherwise
continues in a cult sub-genre of the fighting game that eschews
threedimensional, “solid”-looking characters in favor of a flat-plane,
comicbook style with characteristically jerky animation.
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Sumo wrestler (Ready 2 Rumble Boxing [see fig. 4])?
Bruce Lee in a gold lamÉ leotard, a pogo-happy alien
cyborg or a tiny, annoying dragon (Tekken 3)? Black,
Asian or Caucasian; male, female or indeterminate
xenomorph? Beat-’em-ups are nothing if not politically
inclusive; it is much more common for European men
to play as women or as Korean jujitsu experts than as
digital avatars of their own ethnic origins. It doesn’t
matter who you are in real life; here, the idea of play as
experimentation extends to your own genes.
Fig. 4. Ready 2 Rumble Boxing: Croatian tank Boris Knokimov
(left) takes on cuddly Hawaiian Salua Tua. Rumble bumble . . .
(‰ 1999 Midway)
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Since fighting games broke into 3D with Virtua
Fighter, the physical contact of these lightbeam
warriors has grown ever more convincingly thudding
and solid. The stunningly graceful animations,
meanwhile, are developed with a technique that films
real martial artists and digitizes the results as movement
code that can be applied to the imaginary game
characters. This is known as “motion capture.”
But herein lies a problem. Beat-’em-ups boast ever
more complex control methods, with at least three
buttons beside the joystick, and baffling combinations
of button hits and circular shapes made with the stick
unleashing ever more spectacular and lethal activity on
screen. These preset special moves, also known as
“combos,” actually require the player to memorize a
string of ten button-presses; there might be hundreds of
such strings in a game. This is the Achilles’ heel of the
genre, for you cannot design on the fly your own
strings of moves that have the same speed and fluidity
as the preset combos. You must learn the sequences the
programmers have built in to the game—and, okay,
there are hundreds of them, but that does not constitute
Not only is it (understandably) impossible to
perform a move for which there is no animation, but
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motion-capture techniques mean that once an animation
has started, it must finish before the next one can start.
You can’t change tactics mid-move. That rules out true
feints, which are critical in real fighting sports such as
fencing. Oddly, beat-’em-ups such as the Tekken series
have extremely complex input methods, but threaten to
offer the player far less creative freedom than almost
any other kind of game with a much simpler interface.
Robotron gives you two joysticks: one to move, one to
fire. Simple. But with those tools, there is a huge
tactical potential of feints, misdirections and
apocalyptic vengeance.
The excessively deterministic, combinatorial
template, however, seems to be happily on the wane,
overtaken by newer versions such as Power Stone for
the Sega Dreamcast (1999), where the controls are very
simple and the tactical gameplay is transferred to use of
objects (benches, lampposts) and hilariously magical
power-ups (guided missiles and the like) in the fighting
arena itself; or Ready 2 Rumble Boxing, which mixes
pleasingly simple controls with beautifully judged
tactics. The fighting game, like fighting itself, will
always be popular.
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Heaven in here
Oh yes, the computer can make us divine. Should you
want to build a city from scratch, construct a
substructure of water pipes, sewers, power lines and
underground trains, populate it with citizens, determine
tax levels, build museums, parks, houses and office
blocks, and then destroy the whole imaginary
metropolis by calling an earthquake on their heads—
sure, you can do that. It’s called SimCity. Or perhaps
you want to operate on a larger scale: create a neolithic
tribe and over the course of thousands of years send
them out to colonize the land, discover ironwork,
sailing and electricity. Play Civilization. Compete
against other gods in a polytheistic mythology?
Populous. There are similar “God games” for the fields
of global industry, railroad building and even
amusement parks.
There are two basic attractions of games like
SimCity. The first is that the virtual city itself, with its
apparently autonomous population, functions as a pet.
If neglected, it will pine and eventually die; if nurtured,
it will flourish. A player might form some sort of
emotional attachment to the gameworld. This is the
principle abstracted and miniaturized with such
extraordinary success by the Japanese company
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Bandai, with their keyring digital pet, Tamagotchi.
Notice, however, that a SimCity or Civilization pet
panders to a peculiarly narcissistic instinct in the
player: if he or she does well, monuments will be
erected and museums named in honor of the masterful
deity. It’s a kind of fame.
The second potential pleasure of a God game is a
function of the very artificiality of the soi-disant
“simulation.” Now, of course, God-game variables are
“kludged”—simplified and imprecise—and their reality
is laughably clean compared to the infinitely chaotic
and messy real world. As J. C. Herz tartly observes in
Joystick Nation: “You can build something that looks
like Detroit without building in racial tension.” But
what they do offer by virtue of their machine habitat,
and what makes them slightly different from what they
would be otherwise— complex board games—is the
modeling of dynamic processes. Time can be sped up
or slowed down at will, and interactions of data over
time can be readily visualized. In this way, for instance,
fiddling with the fiscal and monetary operators of
SimCity for a couple of minutes and observing the
results for the next accounting period provides a
remarkably intuitive way to understand the
fundamentals of balancing a budget in a capitalist state.
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Now, I have conscientiously played these games in
the interests of research, and I find them exceptionally
tedious. Even so, God games are highly successful.
Many people who aren’t at all interested in any other
sort of videogame—such as the high-speed, colorful
action experiences of racers or exploration games—
will often confess a sneaky addiction to Civilization or
Age of Empires. Some people simply prefer the
challenge of fiddling relaxedly with a process to that of
a high-speed test of reactions.
It seems, anyway, from the method by which God
games model dynamic processes, that they are not
primarily about cities or tribes or any of the putative
content. They are process toys. Time is transformed
from prison to Play-Doh. Perhaps the fantasy appeal is
really about a chance to observe the world over a
longer, more sober chronological span than that of a
single human life. But if the classic shoot-’em-up or
platform game is triumphantly individualistic—one
hero against the hordes—the God game is quite the
opposite. The individual doesn’t matter. He or she may
as well be an ant (in SimAnt, the individual actually is
an ant). The gameplayer doesn’t count as an individual:
he or she is, after all, God. What matters is the
inexorable march of the corporate machine. There
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seems to be a pernicious subterranean motive here:
such games offer you a position of infinite power in
order to whisper the argument that, as an individual in
the world, you have none at all.
Two tribes
Armchair generals are well catered for by the God
game’s sibling genre, the real-time strategy game. Its
natural milieu is that of war. Again in a godlike
position (single-handedly overseeing all military
operations), the player is briefed by advisers (actors in
video clips), and must then carry out certain missions
by issuing commands to numerous small troop units on
the battlefield. The player clicks on a certain unit and,
for instance, tells it to move somewhere, to attack
another unit, to defend itself or to scatter. The
stupendously successful Command and Conquer series
of games offers with every sequel more lovingly
recreated “theaters of war” and conflict situations
drawn from twentieth-century history, yet at the same
time litters the battlefield with increasingly fantastic
depositories of hi-tech weaponry for your troops to pick
up and bash the Axis with.
Real-time strategy games are, at base, congruent
with the traditional class of wargame played on a large
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table at the weekend by men pushing little figures
around with brooms—only now the computer allows
the precise calculation of thousands of variables. This
swamp of numbers, terrains and troop typologies
effectively disguises the complementary fact that, as
videogames, their formal root is Atari’s panic-inducing
arcade game Missile Command (1980), which
originally grew out of a military simulation to see how
many nuclear warheads a human radar operator could
track before overload set in. As we noted of simulation,
though, as games become ever more complex and
hybridized, the essential elements of realtime
strategy—control of multiple game pieces and tactical
calculus—may crop up in several other genres.
Real-time strategy games do not provide the instant
control and feedback of the more visceral videogame
genres, yet nor are they such leisurely affairs as God
games. Decisions about the disposition of troops and
units must be made in “real time”: if you don’t react
quickly enough, you’ll be overrun by the enemy. A
certain pleasurable level of sweating tension is thereby
induced. This median level of response requirement
makes strategy games perfect for the burgeoning field
of online play.
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Owing to different modem connection speeds, it is
often difficult to play a satisfying game of Quake over
the Internet against someone on the other side of the
world, because that game is a very rapid-response
shoot-’em-up. But a real-time strategy game such as the
amusing alien wargame Starcraft (1998) is the perfect
vehicle for such global connections, and moreover can
handle far more than merely two players at a time.
Starcraft’s American server, at one point on its 1998
launch weekend, had thirty thousand players connected
simultaneously. Earth is truly humming, as you are
reading this, with the smoke and crackle of imaginary
The cognitive demands made on the player of
realtime strategy games are among the most complex
any videogame offers, and the attraction of logical,
combinatorial thinking allied to often beautiful graphics
(such as in the extraordinary Commandos 2) makes for
a powerful experience. Wargames, too, are the most
complex and satisfying example of the videogame
pleasure of control: you are in charge not just of one
tank or airplane, but of an entire army. You are not to
be messed with.
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Running up that hill
Perhaps the most perverse-looking class of videogame
on first inspection is the sports game. After all,
videogames are supposedly played in darkened rooms
by people who never get any real physical exercise. But
in their hovels they can be tennis demons, baseball stars
or gifted golfers, or control a whole football or
basketball team to world victory.
In its own sweetly abstract way, Pong, of course,
was the first sports game. Subsequent refinements of
the Pong engine claimed to simulate soccer with four
paddles and two sets of goalposts, but the games were
unconvincing. Chris Crawford understandably claimed
in 1984: “I suspect sports games will not attract a great
deal of design attention in the future”12 —just before
higher-resolution graphics on home computers saw a
new wave of sports games become highly successful.
Konami’s Track and Field, Epyx’s Summer Games and
Winter Games, and Ocean’s Daley Thompson’s
Decathlon were all early hits on machines such as the
Spectrum and Commodore 64, multi-event games that
required the player to control tiny but well-animated
12 Crawford, The Art of Computer Game Design, p. 28.
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pixel humans in approximations of sprinting,
shotputting, ice-skating, ski-jumping and the like.
Variations on tennis, soccer (classic examples were
Match Day and Sensible Soccer), ice hockey and
baseball followed; graphics became more detailed,
control methods more complex, and environments more
colorful and detailed. The promising sub-genre of
“futuristic sports,” where designers, freed from the
limitations of having to reproduce a messy, real sport,
could attempt to create the perfect physical game, threw
up a few fine moments—most notably the wonderful
Speedball, a violent, sci-fi kind of taghockey that is still
considered by many to be the best sports game ever
made. But the unbeatable advantage of “real” football,
soccer, basketball and hockey games is that the rules
are given and everyone knows them: you don’t have to
spend precious time studying a manual to learn how to
When videogames cracked 3D representation in the
mid-1990s, sports games flourished as never before.
Today the world’s largest software publisher is the one
that has the most impressive stable of sports games:
Electronic Arts, which for the financial year 1998–99
broke the billion-dollar turnover mark. The soccer
game is one of the most popular videogame genres of
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all, with one of the best being Konami’s ISS Pro
Evolution (see fig. 5). In EA’s World Cup 98, not only
are real players licensed, their faces digitally mapped
on to computer figures, but the actual French stadia are
lovingly rebuilt on the screen. Hoardings around the
virtual playing field carry real advertisements; hours of
soccer commentary are recorded by real TV
commentators, with suitable comments retrieved from
the disc to suit onscreen events; and slow-motion
replays from multiple angles allow the repeated
savoring of a goal.
Sports games have grown up, but in the process
they have almost defected to another medium. Of
course soccer videogames are in one sense continuing
the heritage of mechanical games like Subbuteo, but
now solid-looking players can run smoothly around the
soccer field or the hockey rink and be viewed from
different camera angles, just like on TV. The modern
sports game is no longer a re-creation of an actual sport
so much as it is a re-creation of viewing that sport on
television. With a little more involvement than simply
shouting at the players over your six-pack.
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Fig. 5. ISS Pro Evolution: the beautiful game (‰ 1999 Konami)
It’s a kind of magic
Dungeons, dragons, elves and wizards, treasure,
trolls and spells. Yes, it’s the role-playing game (RPG),
the synthesis of classic text-based games like ADVENT
and the 1970s teenage-male leisure phenomenon,
Dungeons & Dragons fantasy boardgames. The
computer becomes the dungeon master and rolls all the
polyhedral dice to determine the outcomes of
incantatory duels.
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They are very popular, especially since, as with
wargames, their relatively slow pace ensures popularity
on the Internet. In April 1999, a player’s “character” in
Ultima Online, with impressive quantities of treasure
and magic amassed over a period of six months, was
sold at auction for hundreds of dollars in real money. If
you can’t be bothered to construct a new identity for
yourself, you can always buy one.
We can see immediately an instructive contrast
between the appeal of traditional RPGs and that of God
games. If God games hold out the opportunity of
transcending one’s individuality, RPGs offer the player
a chance to be fully individual in a world where an
individual has real power, where the inexplicable is no
longer actually supernatural but domesticated and
quantifiable (magic, assessed numerically, is stripped of
all its magicality), and where actions always have
deterministic consequences for character or events. It is
a seductive simplicity. But what RPGs really have
going for them is the sense (or perhaps the illusion) of
being involved in an epic, mythical story, however
clichÉd its details might be. In this way they also have
roots in the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks written by
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Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone (the latter is now
head of videogame publishers Eidos) in the 1980s.
Modern, complex RPGs owe their shared
paradigms to one game series in particular: Final
Fantasy, the first game of which was released in 1987.
It had detailed, colorful two-dimensional graphics, and
a traditional story line involving an ancient evil once
again on the loose, with rapacious pirates on the oceans
and demons in the bowels of the earth; the player was
required to choose four people to make up a team of
Light Warriors to save the world. The systems of magic
and fighting grew more and more complex with each
sequel, until Final Fantasy VII (1997) not only offered
sumptuous movieistic scenes to advance the plot, but
updated the milieu to one of magic futurism. Yet it is
still based on a remarkably old-hat “turn-based” system
of combat, with roots clearly in the dice-throwing game
played by unsocialized boys.
In essence, however, an RPG need not inhabit
exclusively such puerile, sub-Tolkien milieus. The
basis of any RPG is that the player “becomes” a
character in the fictional world. On a basic level, nearly
every videogame ever made is a role-playing game.
You play the role of a missile turret defending Earth
from the space invaders; you play the role of a
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ravenous yellow disc being chased by ghosts. In
generic RPGs, however, character is not merely a
pretext to the gameplay, but part of it. Character is
defined by talents, strength, cunning and even certain
psychological traits, measured strictly quantitatively in
points. Whereas the player is constantly getting killed
in shoot-’em-ups, the survival and growth of an RPG
character, the acquisition of new skills, are paramount.
(Because of this emphasis on character, the RPG is the
nexus of developments in what is called “interactive
storytelling,” of which more later.)
Donkey Kong designer Shigeru Miyamoto’s Zelda
games are all RPGs. Even his phenomenal Legend of
Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) is one, although on the
surface it is a seminal 3D exploration game, because
the character the player controls learns more about his
past and acquires numerous new skills according to his
success in the gameworld. One of the most
revolutionary home-computer games of the 1980s,
Elite, is usually thought of as an early 3D space game.
But it is just as much an RPG too, in that success
depends on carving out a career, over a period of
several real-world weeks or months, as an intergalactic
trader in minerals or narcotics. RPGs are the single
most popular genre of videogame in Japan, and
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encompass a far wider and more creative range of
subjects, from gardening to schoolday romance.
Role-playing elements are creeping crabwise into
any number of other genres, as a way of bolting on a
framework of narrative drive to the old repetitive game
style. Even arcade-style driving game par excellence
Ridge Racer: Type 4 (1999) is an RPG, in that the
player is required to complete a full Grand Prix set of
races with a particular team manager, who comments
on your performance and reveals his or her own
fictional preoccupations. And ever more complex
roleplaying games will be possible with the increased
storage and visual capacities of future hardware. Sega’s
fabulously ambitious Shenmue (2000), which chooses
the 1980s as a historical period so that the characters
wear leather blousons and acidwashed blue jeans,
points the way forward. And Japanese software giant
Namco has set up a whole department dedicated to
producing RPGs for the PlayStation2. From the genre’s
trollish beginnings, wonderful things may yet emerge.
We can work it out
While playing videogames may not constitute an
intellectual pursuit, they do challenge the mind in a
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more primitive, kinetic way—in much the same way, in
fact, as playing sports. Yet the closest thing to sport in
videogames is not necessarily a sports game. Reflexes,
speedy pattern recognition, spatial imagination—these
are what videogames demand. This is perhaps their
fundamental virtue. If so, the king of videogame genres
is arguably the most abstract, the least representational,
the most nakedly challenging: the puzzle game.
At the most basic level, a videogame puzzle
presents the player with a required action that cannot be
performed directly. You must therefore find the
intermediate steps and execute them in the right order.
Puzzle elements abound in all sorts of game genres. As
we mentioned earlier, Tomb Raider is in one sense a
puzzle game, in that it requires manipulation of blocks
in 3D space to unlock certain passages or secrets.
Object-manipulation or switch-tripping puzzles abound
in classic platformers like the early Mario games. Even
a shoot-’em-up like Defender in one sense poses very
high-speed puzzles measured in fractions of a second.
But a great puzzle game in its own right requires a
combination of perfect simplicity (both in terms of
rules and gameplay) and lasting challenge. Classics of
this particular genre are therefore thin on the ground.
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The 1980s curio Sentinel was an intriguing attempt at a
sort of three-dimensional, simplified chess: the player
had to negotiate a checkered landscape, avoiding the
immolating gaze of the sentinel, until he occupied the
higher ground, at which point the sentinel could be
defeated by having its energy sucked out. A superb, and
much simpler, concept is that of Bust-A-Move (also
known as Puzzle Bobble). Brightly colored bubbles
hang from the top of the screen; new ones are slowly
added. Your job is to fire bubbles at them in such a way
that three of the same color meet; they then burst, and
take any others that they were supporting with them.
But really, to understand puzzle games you only
need one word: Tetris. Created by a Soviet
mathematician, Alexei Pajitnov, Tetris became the
subject of a fascinating intercontinental copyright war
(detailed in David Sheff’s excellent Game Over), and
Nintendo’s acquisition of the handheld rights to the
game helped to sell thirty-two million Game Boys in
one year, 1992.
The game itself is viciously simple. It’s raining
blocks. Some are square, some sticky-outy, some long
and thin, some infuriatingly L-shaped. In some unreal
universe of fractional gravity, they float down the
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screen and must be rotated and laterally shifted so that
they all fit together at the bottom. When they do, the
horizontal line that they complete vanishes, and you
have a bit more breathing space. Your job is to clear all
the blocks away for as long as you can. Simple, but one
of the purest, most addictive videogame designs in
history. Where are you in the game? Nowhere. You are
pure mind, engaged in a purely symbolic struggle. As
in Space Invaders, you know that you can never win,
that eventually the blocks will descend so quickly that
the screen will be filled with a hideous jumble. Still you
try, for maybe this time you will do just a bit better.
Herein lies the demonic power, stripped naked of
graphical tinsel and story-lined misdirection, of every
videogame there is.
Family fortunes
This scoot around videogame genres is not meant to
be utterly exhaustive. But it’s a working sketch, a
snapshot. There isn’t room here for many videogames
through the years that defy easy genre categorization,
such as Deus Ex Machina, Parappa the Rapper, Skool
Daze, Nights or Ecco the Dolphin.
But one useful lesson is that the videogame
ecology is one rife with inter-species breeding: the
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lines between genres are gradually being erased. Just as
Hamlet’s Polonius happily burbles through the
permutational possibilities of dramatic genre—
“tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,
tragicalcomichistorical-pastoral . . .”—so at the beginning of
thetwenty-first century we are offered driving-RPG
puzzleexplorationshoot-’em-up games and more. And
increasingly, large-scale exploration games in particular
are incorporating “sub-games” of different styles within
them, as a reward for completing certain sections. Sonic
Adventure (1999) lets you play pinball or go
snowboarding; Ape Escape (1999) has a mini-boxing
game locked away inside.
But despite the myriad cosmetic and formal
differences, all videogames in fact share similar
concerns under the hood. When talking about racing
games, I mentioned a particular type that seemed very
serious and detailed: the simulation. Now, the concept
of “simulation” is actually rather pervasive in all sorts
of videogames. After all, God games and real-time
strategy games seem to present recognizable, real-life
phenomena like cities and armies, while exploration
games model seemingly realistic human beings
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wandering through recognizable environments built of
stone or wood.
But how closely can certain videogames ever hope
to recreate something from the real world; and how
does another sort of videogame, one that is built around
a purely fantastic world, persuade us that it is in some
sense real?
How can you simulate what doesn’t exist?
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Let’s get physical
You are playing a flashy, modern 3D videogame whose
theme is space combat. As your craft spins and yaws
around the fighting in response to frantic thumbpresses
and stick-yankings, the view from your cockpit shows
gorgeously rendered models of battlecruisers with
scarred gray hulls, detailed planet surfaces with moving
weather systems, accurately mapped constellations and
galactic dust-clouds floating serenely by in the distant
void. This must be the closest it is possible to get to
experiencing actual interstellar dogfighting. You feel
almost airsick, but exhilarated. Tracking, homing,
rolling, diving, firing, cackling in triumph. It’s pretty
real, isn’t it?
Actually, no. Consider this. You fight to get an
enemy craft in your sights, you fire off your lasers,
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but—damn!—you didn’t aim far enough ahead of the
fighter. By the time your lazy laser bolts reach their
destination, he’s sailed past. Videogames have nearly
always displayed lasers in this way, from the simple
fire-ahead of Space Invaders or Asteroids to the
rainbow-hued pyrotechnics of Omega Boost (1999).
But it’s wrong. Firing laser beams is not like skeet
shooting, because lasers are made of light,13 and light
travels very, very fast, at 300 million meters per
second. At the sort of distances modeled by
videogames, where fighting spacecraft are never more
than a mile or two apart, lasers will take about a
millionth of a second or less to hit home. It has been
demonstrated that the human mind cannot perceive as
separate events things that occur less than roughly three
thousandths of a second apart, so you will never have to
wait and watch for your lasers to hit home because, to
you, they will do so immediately.
But what of your enemy? Say he’s a nippy little
xenomorph, flying at thirty thousand feet per second.
That’s about twelve times faster than Concorde.
Unfortunately, even if he’s two miles away, and flying
directly across your sights (perpendicular to your line
13 Light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, to be precise.
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of aim) at that high speed, he will have moved a
pathetic total of four inches sideways in the time it
takes your laser beam to travel from your guns to his
hull. So unless he is very small, he is still very blown
up. Eat dust, little green man.
But perhaps our alien has very, very quick
reactions. Maybe he can spot your lasers firing, and
immediately engage some sort of warp drive to get him
the hell out of there in time. No, again. Because he
cannot see your lasers coming until some light from
your firing guns has traveled to his eyes. Unfortunately,
your lasers arrive at precisely the same time. As soon as
he sees you fire, he’s dead.14 And thanks to Einstein’s
theory of special relativity, one of whose principles is
that light appears to travel at a constant speed
regardless of the speed and direction of travel of any
observer, the alien is still fried the moment he sees you
fire even if he is running away in the opposite direction
as close to the speed of light as his little fusion engines
can manage.
That’s not all. Most of the time the lasers in this
epic space battle should be completely invisible. The
multi-hued rain of laser fire all around, a paradigm
14 This example is modified from one given in Lawrence M. Krauss’s, The
Physics of Star Trek, p. 165.
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whose early apotheosis was defined by the beautifully
chaotic red and green laser bolt choreography in the
film Star Wars (1977)—that’s wrong too. A laser is a
very tightly concentrated ray of photons that have been
lined up so they are all traveling in exactly the same
direction (unlike a normal light source, which scatters
all over the place). Like any sort of light, a laser is only
visible if it reflects off something. At a club, for
instance, the low-powered circling laser beams are
visible because they are reflecting off small particles in
the intermingled clouds of dry ice and cigarette smoke.
However, anyone who tried to smoke a cigarette in the
interstellar void would have his brains sucked out
through his face (in fact, he wouldn’t be able to light
the cigarette in the first place, owing to the lack of
oxygen). There is no dry ice, either—space is, more or
less, a vacuum. Which means there is nothing that light
can reflect off on its way to the target. Hence, lasers are
invisible, unless they are coming straight at you, in
which case you are dead.
One corollary of this, of course, is that if the
cunning enemy aliens were to build their craft with
perfectly mirrored hulls, they would be impervious to
laser attack, because the light would just bounce off
them. You’d have thought they’d have worked that one
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out in all the time they’ve had since Space Invaders,
getting thoroughly vaporized time and time again.
Why, then, do videogames get it so wrong? The
answer is they get it wrong deliberately, because with
“real” laser behavior it wouldn’t be much of a game. It
would be far too easy to blow things up. The challenge
of accounting for an enemy craft’s direction and speed,
of aiming appropriately off-target, and the concomitant
satisfaction of scoring a fiery hit, are artifacts of this
unrealism. Generally, the world-building philosophy of
videogames is one in which certain aspects of reality
can be modeled in a realistic fashion, while others are
deliberately skewed, their effects caricatured or
dampened according to the game’s requirements.
The most intriguing way in which videogames are
apparently becoming more “realistic” is in the arcane
world of physical modeling. Laser behavior may be a
fantastical paradigm, but such games nevertheless
enforce very strict systems of gravity and motion.
Videogames increasingly codify such natural laws,
such as those of Newtonian physics and beyond, in ever
more accurate ways. This sounds abstruse and
technical, but you have already experienced it if you’ve
ever played or seen a game even as old as Pong (1972).
Pong was modeled on simple physics: the way
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the ball bounced off the bat obeyed the basic law “angle
of incidence equals angle of reflection.” Approach a
stationary bat at an angle of forty-five degrees, and
you’ll leave it at the same angle. Elementary stuff.
Similarly, Asteroids enjoyed a smattering of physics
modeling in the fact that your spacecraft had inertia:
you carried on moving across the screen even when
your engines stopped firing. And mastering this inertial
control system (later refined and made much trickier in
games like Thrust) was part of what made the game so
enjoyably challenging. Now processor speeds are such
that ever more tiny variables can be computed “on the
fly”—near instantaneously, as and when required—to
give the player a sense of interacting with objects that
behave just as they would in the real world.
At the vanguard of physics modeling is a company
called Mathengine. Their airy, relaxed Oxford
headquarters is crammed with casual young
mathematicians and physicists gazing intently at the
screens of muscular computers. One displays a crude
wireframe representation, in blocky green lines, of a
human calf and foot. “Modeling a simple ankle joint,”
the programmer confides. This sort of thing will soon
have applications in, for instance, soccer games: the
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virtual players will respond to physical knocks and
tackles through a system based on detailed mechanical
models of the human musculo-skeletal system, rather
than through predetermined animations. Motioncapture
techniques, based on filming human actors and
digitizing the results, synthesize “realistic” movement
from the outside, and so in-game possibilities are
strictly limited to those that have been filmed in the
development studio. Physical modeling, on the other
hand, synthesizes movement from the inside, from the
interaction of fundamental parts, and so allows a
theoretically infinite range of character movement.
Other Mathengine demonstrations include a ball
bouncing onto a slatted rope bridge, whose resonant
swings and twists differ every time according to where
exactly the ball was dropped; and a string-puppet
articulated elephant, controlled just as in reality by a
wooden cross from which the strings hang, and which
can be tilted on two axes by manipulating a
motionsensing joypad attached to the computer. One
begins to have an ever stronger sense of moving
objects, rather than mere patterns.
Mathengine provides a software development kit
for games designers and other industries that allows
the developer to use “real,” very accurate and
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processor-cheap physics in his or her applications. If a
game company is writing a racing game, for instance,
using a kit like Mathengine’s the car can be defined as
a certain mass resting, through a suspension system, on
four wheels, which have a certain frictional relationship
with the road. From this very simple mathematical
definition, it turns out that “realistic” car behavior, such
as oversteer and understeer, loadshifting and tilting,
comes for free. Whereas games developers used to have
to “kludge” the physics, to laboriously create something
that approximated to realistic behavior, physical
modeling makes it all happen as behavior emerging
from a simple set of definitions.
And this process directly affects the videogame
player’s experience. As Mathengine’s product manager
Paul Topping puts it, “Dynamic properties are a very
intuitive thing.” We are used to handling objects with
mass, bounce and velocity in the real world, and we can
predict their everyday interactions pretty well. You
don’t have to be Paul Newman to know roughly how a
pool ball is going to bounce off a cushion; you don’t
have to be Glenn Gould to know that striking a piano
key with force is going to produce a louder sound than
if you’d caressed it. And anyone who plays tennis is
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automatically doing pretty complex parabolic calculus
without any conscious thought. Appreciation of
dynamic properties is hard-wired into the species—it’s
essential for survival. This, then, is one of the most
basic ways in which videogames speak to us as the real
world does, directly to the visceral, animal brain—
even as they tease the higher imagination by building a
universe that could never exist.
Furthermore, just as timing a good shot in tennis is
a pleasure in itself, there is a direct link between
convincing videogame dynamics and gameplay
pleasure. A game that is more physically realistic is
thereby, Topping says, “more aesthetically pleasing,”
because the properly modeled game enables us
pleasurably to exercise our physical intuition. “All
great games have physics in them—that’s what gives it
the lovely feel,” Topping points out. And this is just as
true for classic games such as Defender or Asteroids as
it is for modern racers like Gran Turismo 2000. In
Defender, you aim your ship to face left or right and
then thrust, and the simple inertia means that you can
flip around and fire at aliens while still traveling
backward; the subsequent application of forward thrust
takes time to kick in. Even a very simple puzzle game
such as Bust-A-Move exercises the intuitive
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knowledge of Pong-style (or, in the real world,
squashstyle) angular reflections, as bubbles may be
bounced off the side walls to achieve tactically
desirable formations that are impossible by aiming
Even so, the physical systems that games can model
so accurately are never totally “realistic.” Just as with
the operation of lasers, videogames deliberately load
the dice one way or another. If you put a Formula One
racing driver in front of an accurately modeled racing
game, Topping says, he would still crash the car,
because of the gulf between controllability and visual
feedback. And an ordinary player would find the game
merely boring and frustrating. So, Topping explains,
“You’re gonna fake the physics. Increase friction, make
the car smaller— you choose what you model
The lesson is that even with whiz-bang math
programming, a videogame in important ways remains
defiantly unreal. Videogames’ somewhat paradoxical
fate is the ever more accurate modeling of things that
don’t, and couldn’t, exist: a car that grips the road like
Superglue, which bounces uncrumpled off roadside
barriers; a massive spacecraft with the maneuverability
of a bumblebee; a human being who can survive, bones
intact, a three-hundred-foot fall into water. We
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don’t want absolutely real situations in videogames. We
can get that at home.
Let’s stick together
Naturally, the player doesn’t mind this fakery, this
playing fast and loose with the laws of nature in the
name of fun. But a critical requirement is that the
game’s system remains consistent, that it is internally
coherent. Crucially, it is lack of coherence rather than
unrealism that ruins a gameplaying experience. This is
largely but not exclusively a phenomenon of more
modern videogames, whose increasing complexity in
terms of space, action and tasks clearly places a greater
strain on the designer’s duty to create a rock-solid
underlying structure.
Videogame incoherence has three types: it can
apply to causality, function or space. Incoherence of
causality, firstly, appears, for ex-ample, in a driving
game such as V-Rally (1997), where driving at full
speed into another car causes a slight slowing down,
but hitting a boulder at the road’s edge leads to a
spectacular vehicular somersault. Another example
crops up in Tomb Raider III, where a rocket-launcher
blows up one’s enemies into pleasingly gory, fleshy
chunks, but does no damage to a simple wooden door,
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for which one simply has to find a rusty old key.
(Indeed, having traveled far from the austere
nearperfection of its original incarnation, Tomb Raider
III boasts many instructive examples of design
incoherence.) In direct contrast, Quake III incorporates
the hilarious but highly coherent idea of
“rocketjumping.” You’ve got a rocket-launcher. If you
point it at the floor and then fire as you jump, you’ll be
catapulted much higher into the air by the recoil of your
foolishly potent weapon. Eminently reasonable.
Incoherence of function is more serious. In many
games one encounters “single-use” objects, such as a
magic book that only works in a particular location or a
cigarette lighter that can only be used to illuminate a
certain room. Resident Evil typifies this lazy approach
to game design, with all manner of special scrolls,
gems, books and other things that are used once as
puzzle-solving tokens and then forgotten about. Tomb
Raider’s rocket-launcher fails on this count too,
because its use is artificially restricted in the game. If a
game designer chooses to give the player a special
object or weapon, it ought to work consistently and
reliably through all appropriate circumstances in the
game, or the believably unreal illusion is shattered.
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By contrast, perfect coherence of function is great
fun. It is just one virtue of Zelda 6415 that, despite the
colorfully huge gallimaufry of in-game objects, they are
hardly ever single-use items; it is an unprecedentedly
rich and varied yet highly consistent gameworld. The
titular ocarina, a clay flute, has a different function
according to what tune is played on it: if Link plays
certain songs he has learned (the gamer must physically
play the notes using the control buttons), he may cause
day to turn to night, invoke a storm, warp to a different
place in the gameworld or cheer up a miserable rockeating king. Link’s hoverboots can be used in several
different places for several different results. The bow
and arrow might be used to kill a far-away enemy, or
(in one brilliant problem) to melt a frozen switch by
firing an arrow through the flame of a blazing torch
while standing on a revolving platform.
But of course a bow and arrow isn’t going to open
locked doors. You wouldn’t expect it to. The hookshot,
a retracting chain device with a hook on the end, may
be used to kill enemies, but it is also a means to get up
to hard-to-reach places, Batman-style. Even here there
15 Shorthand for the remainder of this book for Legend of Zelda: Ocarina
of Time.
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is a thoughtful, stern consistency based on properties of
physical substances: Link’s hookshot will bounce off
stone, but if it hits wood it will sink in and let him
swing up. And the player can be sure that a burning
stick will always light a torch, wherever it may be
The third type of incoherence is that of spatial
management. Tomb Raider III adds to its heroine’s
series of possible moves—which already include
implausibly high jumps and rolls—a crawl, so that the
player can move around in low passageways. But at a
certain stage in the game Lara finds herself at the end
of a low tunnel, giving out onto a corridor. Try as the
player might, it is impossible to get Lara out into that
corridor, owing to the game’s basic construction around
a series of uniformly sized blocks. If the tunnel
entrance were a full block above the corridor floor,
Lara could get out. But the getting-out-of-a-tunnel
animation requires her to lower herself fully down the
side of the block while hanging from her hands, and the
tunnel exit does not achieve the required altitude. So
the move becomes impossible. This sort of
inconsistency also rears its gory head in Resident Evil,
where the player is not allowed simply to drop
unwanted objects on the floor, but must stow them
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away in one of several chests—and, risibly, an object
put in one chest may be retrieved from another chest
three floors higher up in the building.
By these standards, Tomb Raider III and Resident
Evil are arguably inferior to Space Invaders or Pong,
both of which exhibit total consistency in the laws of
the imaginary world. As Chris Crawford says in The
Art of Computer Game Design, special-case rules
(which roughly map on to our causal, functional and
spatial incoherences) are bad: “In the perfect game
design, each rule is applied universally.” This is easy to
verify if you consider the situation in other types of
game—chess, for instance: Garry Kasparov would be
profoundly, glaringly unimpressed if his opponent
sought to stave off defeat by pronouncing that, actually,
at this particular juncture, the black queen was not
allowed to move diagonally.
Tomb Raider III also illustrates perfectly another
potential danger of trying to increase “realism” in a
game—in this case by adding extra ranges of
movement to a human character. Because the hero of
Manic Miner lives in such a resolutely bizarre world,
where flying electrified lavatories are the least of his
worries, we do not worry that our character is able only
to walk and to jump. But in the far more
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naturalistic milieu of the Tomb Raider series, the
bolted-on possibilities of movement that are added in
each sequel only serve to remind the player how odd it
is that Lara can run, swim, crawl and jump, but cannot
punch or kick an assailant, for instance. She cannot
even sit down, although given her lecherously
siliconenhanced curves, it is probably just as well, for
she would never get up again.
This is not to say that expanded physical
possibilities in human characters are bad—in
themselves they are good—but their introduction poses
other problems of design that must be attended to. In
Zelda 64, for instance, Link’s inability to punch or kick
is never an issue, for by the time he is first in danger he
already permanently owns a sword. A sword is better
than a fist, so the player doesn’t feel that anything is
missing. By contrast, Lara Croft often goes about
unarmed among enemies, having had her guns
confiscated, and so her unwillingness to punch and kick
is frustrating.
To complain about these aspects in a game, of
course, is not incompatible with happily accepting that
the heroine must on occasion do battle with a slavering
Tyrannosaurus rex. There is a crucial difference
between axiomatic principles of the fantastical world
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on the one hand—for instance, the laser behavior
considered earlier, or Manic Miner’s winged cisterns—
and inconsistencies in the fantastical system—such as
Lara’s rocket-launcher or Resident Evil’s item boxes—
on the other.
Life in plastic
Of Sweeney’s 16 three certainties of life,
videogames have so far largely eschewed birth and
copulation. But, as if in sardonic compensation,
they are triply teeming with death. And their
particular reinvention of death is but one of a
whole lexicon of happily irrealist principles that
videogames have amassed over their history.
Death in a videogame is multimodal: it means one
thing for your enemies, another thing for certain
other types of enemies, yet another for you. Shoot
a space invader and he is gone for ever. Kill a
dungeon skeleton in Zelda 64 and it is dust—but if
you leave and then reenter the room, it has
horribly regenerated, there to be fought all over
again. But what does death mean for you, the
player? If the aliens’ rain of bombs becomes
overwhelming and one hits your ship, blowing it
to pixelated smithereens, it is certainly bad news.
But wait—suddenly a gleaming new ship
16 Protagonist of T. S. Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes, that is.
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appears at the bottom of the screen, under your control,
and you can continue the never-ending battle from the
point where you left off.
We are used to thinking of “life” as a single,
sacred thing, the totality of our experiences. But
videogames redefine a “life” as an expendable,
iterable part of a larger campaign. In part this
resembles the brutal calculus of war, where a human
life, normally the definition of total value in
peacetime, is arithmetized as being worth, say, one
hundredth of the value of taking the next ridge. But
videogames offer a multitude of lives to the same
individual. It is instant reincarnation, though
reincarnation in a body indistinguishable from the
original. It is instant expiation for the sin of failure.
The standard number of lives granted at the
beginning of a game is three, which corresponds to
the paradigmatic number of tries allowed in many
other games, from a baseball hitter’s number of
strikes to a javelin-thrower’s attempts at the gold, to
the number of doors from which a contestant must
choose in the American gameshow Let’s Make a
Deal,17 or the number of “acts” or significant
subdivisions of the protagonist’s story in classical
17 Source of the amusing “Monty Hall Paradox” in probability theory. For
an excellent explanation, see Deborah J. Bennett, Randomness (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1999).
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drama.18 In a universe where guns have infinite
ammunition and spacecraft infinite fuel, it is life itself
that becomes a resource whose loss is survivable.
Yet a videogame “life” is not just a resource but
also a possible reward. Games such as Defender or
Space Invaders offer “extra lives” when a certain score
is achieved (usually a multiple of ten or twenty
thousand). It resembles an ethically inverted form of
Buddhism. In the Eastern philosophy, if you commit
wrongs, your growing karmic debt means you are
constantly reincarnated into a new existence in order to
suffer anew. But whereas Buddhism’s final aim is to
jump off the exhausting carousel of constant
reincarnation and to be no more, life in a videogame is
always a good thing, and killing is the morally
praiseworthy action required to resurrect it. The fact
that simple survival edges the player closer, as the score
increases, to an extra life argues that—as Nietzsche
would have growled through his mustache after half an
hour at the Robotron controls—what does not destroy
you makes you stronger.
The concept of multiple videogame “lives,” then,
bespeaks an arena of strategic experimentation in
18 The claim that classical drama was born from the gameplaying instinct
is made persuasively in Johann Huizinga, Homo Ludens.
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which a fatal mistake need not be your last; branches of
a system can be multiply explored until all the lives are
used up. But when that happens, the downside is grim
indeed. The result in this final situation is not a simple
death, but a violent ejaculation from the safety of the
entire game universe. The petit mort of Homo ludens:
Game Over.
Subsequent to this distribution of multiple “lives,”
videogames began to introduce another highly
unrealistic paradigm, again disguised in deceptively
ordinary language: that of “health.” Whereas in Space
Invaders or Asteroids the player’s ship is destroyed by
contact with one bomb, bullet or rock, later games
further subdivide a life with a colored bar representing
“health,” which is degraded (to use an ugly
latetwentieth- century military euphemism) by damage
to the player’s character. When the bar is completely
emptied, the life is gone. Applied to spacecraft or other
vehicles, this concept is understandable, as it could be
thought to measure the integrity of the craft’s hull or
other analog, flight-critical criteria. Yet from a
doggedly literal point of view, it approaches risibility
when applied to human characters. Lara Croft can take
several bullets in the torso, or get savaged by a tiger,
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while losing only an eighth of her “health.” Modern
videogames, however, are so full of perilous situations
that such a sliding scale, rather than simply being alive
or dead, is crucial to the game’s playability.
Health is also the primary means of adjudication in
beat-’em-up games, where each combatant has an
“energy” meter that is depleted when the opponent
lands a punch or a kick. The player whose energy is
reduced to zero first is the loser. Of course this is
unrealistic in that an ax blow to the head—in Soul
Calibur, for instance—only takes off a fraction of your
“health.” Yet it is a causally incoherent system as well:
a punch to the face does the same damage as a kick to
the shin, although in real life it would be debilitating in
a completely different way. This is another obvious
future application for developments in physical
modeling, when the game will “know” automatically
that a jolt to the head will affect vision and balance,
whereas a leg trauma will affect locomotion and
kicking ability.
The first steps toward this kind of more complex
system have already been made in games like the
fascinating Bushido Blade (1997), a more “serious”
weapon-based game in which one well-aimed blow
with a katana or sledgehammer will—naturally—kill
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the opponent, while severe blows to a limb will disable
him. The spectacle of two wonderfully animated virtual
fighters in beautiful oriental robes shuffling about a
cherry-tree garden on their knees because leg injuries
mean that they can no longer stand is hugely amusing.
The wittiest use of the “health” paradigm yet seen is
in Metal Gear Solid (1998), an exploration game that
initiated its own sub-genre, the “sneak-’em-up.” The
player has access to rafts of guns and bombs, but if she
simply runs about firing, the guards will call for
reinforcements and quickly go in for a kill. The
gameplay necessarily becomes stealthy: guards and
security cameras must be avoided wherever possible. In
the game, the player controls a soldier, Solid Snake,
who can be made to smoke a cigarette. The game
provides the mandatory tobacco health warning, and
while Snake is puffing away, his health meter slowly
goes down. If you smoke for long enough, health
reaches a minimal sliver on the bar, but it is impossible
in the game to commit suicide by cigarette.
This raises an important point. The programmers of
Metal Gear Solid have unfortunately not provided the
option of smoking several cigarettes at once, or eating a
whole pack, which would almost certainly kill you. It
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wasn’t written in as a possibility, so you can’t do it.
Remember, in a videogame you can only perform such
actions as the programmers have allowed for. This
recalls Heidegger’s notion of “enframing”—that
technology, far from being liberating, actually
circumscribes the possibilities of action. But a good
videogame will allow predetermined actions to be
combined in creative ways that certainly weren’t
deliberately predicted at the design stage. In chess, after
all, you don’t invent the forms of individual moves, you
choose creatively among them and string them together
in a strategy. This is the basic difference, if operating at
a far less complex level, that we touched on in the last
chapter, between beat-’emups, which provide many
hundreds of individual actions but little freedom of
combination, and something like Robotron, with two
basic actions— move and fire—and strategy aplenty.
Indeed, as Eugene Jarvis, programmer of Robotron and
Defender, told J. C. Herz about someone he watched
playing the latter game: “He was doing things I never
envisioned, never thought of, tactics I never dreamed
Meanwhile, back to smoking. Metal Gear Solid
stresses that it’s bad for you, but if Snake hasn’t found
some infrared goggles, he needs to smoke a cigarette in
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order to render visible a web of security beams that will
set off alarms if he breaks them; and if he smokes while
using the sniper rifle, his aim is steadier. In this way,
with its alluring mix of peril and desirability, smoking
in Metal Gear Solid, as in life, is sublime.19 In a more
general sense, it is an example of how health can be
traded for other benefits concerning the game objective.
The idea of health sacrifice is a relatively new one; it
appears in a much cruder fashion in the Tomb Raider
games, where if Lara is in a recessed pit filled with
spikes or barbed wire, she can avoid injury by walking
carefully, but to get out of the pit she is forced to jump
and therefore lacerate her legs.
Most games featuring a health bar also provide
some means for the player to restore her health, rather
than face an inexorable slide toward loss of life. Pick
up a mystical “medikit” and bullet wounds are healed,
all injuries forgotten, stamina replenished. Medikits and
other health-restoring devices are further examples of a
class of items in the gameworld that usually obey none
of the gameworld’s normal physical rules: power-ups.
They can be items on the floor to be picked
19 See the intoxicating Richard Klein, Cigarettes Are Sublime (Durham,
N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995).
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up, or amorphous blobs of energy floating in the air to
be driven or flown through.
Power-ups in general enhance the abilities of the
player’s character in the game: aside from restoring
health or granting an extra life, they may also increase
speed, envelop the player’s ship in a temporary shield
(which mysteriously stops bullets from entering, but
allows the player to shoot outward) or furnish the
player with one of an arsenal of extra-destructive
weapons with which to meet the next enemy onslaught.
In their instantaneous and nakedly magical effect,
power-ups partake of a totally different ontology from
anything else on the screen. Their mode and effect is
purely relational, redefining the logic of how the
player’s character and the enemies interact.
Out of control
What’s the most glaringly unreal aspect of
videogames? It’s a cybernetic thing. Cybernetics is the
study of control systems (from the Greek kubern t s,
meaning “steersman”). And videogame control systems
are for the most part radically removed, in structural
terms, from what happens on the screen. I have so far
been talking about how videogames manipulate the
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in the ruses and paradigms of their unreal worlds. But
the videogame is not simply a cerebral or visual
experience; just as importantly it is a physical
involvement—the tactile success or otherwise of the
human– machine interface. Some games recommend
the use of a peripheral: an extra piece of interface
hardware that plugs into the console or PC. For driving
games this would be a steering wheel, complete with
floor pedals; for Time Crisis the player buys an actual
lightgun with which to shoot at the television screen.
Yet most games are still controlled with curiously
alienating devices: a standard joystick or “joypad,” or a
computer mouse and keyboard.
We saw one way in which this can hobble
gameplay in the last chapter, when it was noted that
beat-’em-ups rely on memorized combinations of
button-presses to perform almost arbitrary series of
martial arts moves. Sports games, too, suffer from a
particularly limiting cybernetic dissonance. The swing
of a golf club, for instance, is accomplished in
videogames simply by pressing buttons at the right time
while observing “power meters.” All manner of ball
tricks, spins and tackle evasions are called up in a
football game by particular combinations of buttons.
This is clearly not ideal for convincing involvement
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with the action. But there is no reason why such an
arrangement should persist.
Early sports games like Daley Thompson’s
Decathlon actually boasted a far more compelling
“joystickwaggling” method: the faster you could
waggle your joystick from side to side, the faster your
character would sprint or skate. This system has been
resurrected for Konami’s brilliant multi-player athletics
game International Track and Field 2 (1999), except
that the player must now press two buttons alternately
at very high speed. But Sony’s present-day controller
for the PlayStation, the Dual Shock pad with two
thumbcontrolled analogue joysticks, has so far been
woefully underused in just the types of game it could
revolutionize in a similar way.
An analogue joystick provides far greater sensitivity
and range of control. The old-style digital joysticks
only recognized “on” or “off” states of any particular
direction; the analogue joystick recognizes degrees of
change. You can move, for example, slightly right or
fully right, with degrees in between, which may
correspond to various velocities between a slow walk
and a run, or various rotational positions of
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a steering wheel. The cybernetic possibilities are rich
and largely unexplored.
A tennis game, for instance, could use one stick for
your character’s movement over the court, and the
other to control directly the movement of the racquet
arm when playing a shot. Move the stick faster, and you
play a more powerful stroke; move it in a curve, and
you impart spin. Similarly, in a boxing game, each stick
could be programmed to control directly the movement
of an arm. This seems such an obvious idea that it is
astonishing that software companies do not so far
implement it generally. The first, and so far only, use of
the idea occurs in the splendid gadget-festooned
exploration game Ape Escape (1999), in which the
player must row an inflatable dinghy downstream by
rotating both sticks, each controlling a separate oar;
sub-games offer direct control of skis or, indeed, arms
in “Monkey Boxing.” Analogue control is becoming a
new standard. The standard controller for Sega’s
Dreamcast console only provides one analogue stick
instead of Sony’s two, which is a bad oversight,
although its dual triggers are both analogue. Sony’s
PlayStation2 controller, meanwhile, boasts analogue
response on all its buttons, opening up intriguing new
gameplay possibilities.
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Another fairly recent cybernetic innovation has
certainly enhanced the “feel” of many videogames:
force feedback. Sony’s Dual Shock controller is so
named because the videogame can tell it to vibrate or
“rumble” in the player’s hands. This vibrational
feedback can be used in a driving game, to simulate the
shuddering of braking or a skid into a gravel pit; it can
add a physical dimension to damage done to the
player’s character by bullet or blunt instrument; in
Metal Gear Solid, a game that makes splendidly
creative use of this extra mode of information, it even
simulates the thumping of the main character’s
heartbeat when he is looking through the scope of his
sniper rifle—the rhythmical jittering of the control pad
justifiably makes it difficult to aim accurately. We can
expect that in the future controllers will provide more
subtle gradations of vibration, as well as physically
resisting the player’s movement and even, as
hypothesized in Kurt Andersen’s 1999 novel Turn of
the Century, changing temperature according to the
action onscreen.
Perhaps the most enjoyable recent cybernetic
novelty is that offered by Konami’s fabulously
eccentric Dance Dance Revolution (now known in the
West by the inferior title Dancing Stage), in which the
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player must use her whole body to control the game. It
consists of actually dancing, on a pressure-sensitive
floormat, in time to pumping techno music blaring from
the speakers. The screen simply shows a bunch of
symbols floating downward, and they correspond to
squares on the floormat that must be hit by the feet at
exactly the right moment. This speedy techno version
of Twister provokes the thought that the best
videogame interfaces are indeed those that are most
intuitive (an idea that will crop up later in another
context). No one needs to learn how to stamp on the
floor, just as no one needs to learn how to turn a
steering wheel or shoot a play gun.
In general, cybernetic developments will always
increase the possibilities of closer and more
pleasurable interaction with a videogame. In just the
same way that a motor-industry journalist might say
one car “feels” nicer to drive than another, there is a
particular pleasure to be had simply from engaging in
a responsive control system, whether in videogames
or in real life. It is no accident, then, that Nintendo’s
Shigeru Miyamoto, widely regarded as the “God of
videogames” (in Jeremy Smith’s phrase), not only
designs software but actually designs the controllers
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for each new Nintendo system in order to maximize
gameplay potential.
When I spoke to Richard Darling of British
developers Code-masters about what makes a game
“fun,” he echoed Paul Topping’s admiration of early
physics-based games such as Thrust: “You’re flying
that little space rocket around and you pick up a ball
and it’s on the end of a pole with a weight, and the way
it swings and the way your thrust and acceleration
affects the swing and the motion and everything is
extremely intuitive. It’s complex, but it’s intuitive.” But
more than that, according to Darling, Thrust was also
cybernetically clever:
The control system is deep—in that anyone can pick it up and
play it; you’ve got a thrust button and you rotate left and
rotate right. Now if that was move left, move right and move
forward, the gameplay would be extremely limited. But the
fact that what you’re actually doing is thrusting, which is
accelerating you, and you can rotate to any angle, and thrust
at any angle, means that the learning curve in becoming an
expert at the control system is very long.
That was true of Super Mario Bros as well. It seems like a
simple “press a button to jump, run left, run right” game,
but if you analyze it, you actually accelerated left
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and right up to a maximum speed, and when you jumped, the
amount of time you held the button down for determined how
high you jumped. Therefore there was an awful lot of skill in
running along over a hole, jumping up on to a platform and
landing on it without falling off the other side. It was actually
an extremely skillful thing to do.
What about total immersion? Virtual reality systems
have been around for many years and no doubt will
soon be affordable and efficient. Some combination of
headset (such as Sony’s Glasstron monitors),
motionsensitive data gloves and so on will enable the
player to become totally immersed in a game, just as
the science fiction movies have been telling us for
decades. Will this, then, become the dominant means
of videogame control? Perhaps; but if so, the spirit of
Heidegger will rise again to warn that such cybernetic
hegemony will necessarily narrow the field of
possibilities. Immersive VR will be fine for
exploration games, driving games, 3D space shoot’em-ups and so on. But what happens to the
pleasurable unreality of human-body physics? How
will such a system enable the player to somersault like
Lara Croft, to climb sheer walls, to swim a hundred
feet down in icy Arctic rivers or to finish off a brutal
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martial arts combination of smacks and punches by
floating six feet into the air and delivering a
roundhouse kick to the head?
Counterintuitively, it seems for the moment that the
perfect videogame “feel” requires the ever-increasing
imaginative and physical involvement of the player to
stop somewhere short of full bodily immersion. After
all, a sense of pleasurable control implies some
modicum of separation: you are apart from what you
are controlling. You don’t actually want to be there,
performing the dynamically exaggerated and physically
perilous moves yourself; it would be exhausting and
painful. Remember, you don’t want boring, invisible
lasers; you don’t want a Formula One car that takes
years of training to drive; and you don’t want to die
after taking just one bullet. You don’t want it to be too
The purpose of a videogame, then, is never to
simulate real life, but to offer the gift of play. In a
videogame, we are citizens of an invisible city where
there is no danger, only challenge. And our videogame
metropolis, like any city, is teeming and multifaceted.
We have already sketched out a rough map of its
geography. Later in this book we shall look at its
architecture, dig below its tarmac to the pipes and
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cables that keep it running, and stroll around in its
forest of signs. But for the moment we want to know
just what kind of industry buzzes behind those
imposing towers. Is this a city of words, a modern
Alexandria, or a city of images, a virtual Hollywood?
Look over on that street corner: a camera crew,
smoking under black plastic cloaks, huddled in the
neon-flecked rain. Let’s go and ask them.
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A specter is haunting Tinseltown. We have seen how
successful videogames already compete in financial
terms with the figures grossed by Hollywood
blockbusters. And one increasingly popular term of
praise for a certain sort of exploration videogame is to
say that it is like an “interactive film.” On the summer
1999 release of Silent Hill, a horror videogame in
which you play the character of a man searching a
deserted American town for his missing daughter, one
journalist claimed that this game “fully exploited” the
developments toward “fully interactive cinema.” The
media buzz is that cinema and videogames are on
convergent paths. If this is true, Hollywood ought to be
worried that videogames are going to swallow it whole.
Some of the world’s best videogame developers
happily admit that they lean heavily on styles of action
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and decor drawn from popular cinema. Hideo Kojima,
the brilliant designer of Metal Gear Solid, who comes
on like a twenty-first-century Beck, dressing up for
interviews in garish PVC outfits and tinted shades, has
joked that whereas most people are 70 percent water, he
is 70 percent movies. Konami’s publicity for Silent
Hill, meanwhile, claimed “cinematic quality” as a
virtue, noting that its developers cited David
Cronenberg, Stephen King and David Lynch as
aesthetic influences.
So what in fact makes Silent Hill like a film? Well,
it has an impressive introductory video sequence,
prerendered with high-quality computer graphics
workstations, which tells the story of how your
character suffers a car crash and wakes up in the
ghostly small town with his daughter missing. This
sequence is indeed very filmic, with fast cutting and
weird camera angles. However, it’s not part of the
game, even though one entertainment magazine that
featured a piece on Silent Hill clearly based its
judgment of the game’s “filmic” quality entirely on this
video sequence.
During the game itself, the part you actually get to
play, the graphics are of a far inferior quality, and
occasional scenes of scripted dialogue between
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characters are incompetently written and amazingly
badly acted. Some films have a “so bad it’s good”
quality, but this hack attempt at drama is just so bad it’s
appalling. If it’s supposed to be like a film in this way,
it’s a film you wouldn’t ever want to see.
However, what Silent Hill does successfully breed
from its cinematic forebears is quite simple: a powerful
sense of atmosphere. Tense wandering in dark
environments is interrupted by shocks, sudden
appearances of blood-curdling monsters. Silence is
interrupted by grating noise, making you jump and
increasing your nervousness. The same sort of
atmospheric virtue is present in the Resident Evil series
of zombie videogames, which themselves are the
subject of interesting cross-media developments. It was
long rumored that George Romero was to make a liveaction film based on Resident Evil, which would have
been apt, not only because he directed a highbudget
television commercial for the second game in the
franchise, but because the Resident Evil games
themselves cheerfully lift wholesale the camera angles
and action sequences from Romero’s own classic
zombie flicks such as Dawn of the Dead.
Why is it particularly the horror genre, and to a
lesser extent science fiction, that largely provides the
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aesthetic compost for supposedly “filmlike”
videogames? No one has yet claimed that a videogame
is like a good comedy film (though it may be funny in
other ways, as is Grim Fandango, a rococo
puzzlesolving RPG with delightful cartoonish
graphics), or that a videogame tells a heartbreaking
romance. The answer is that the horror genre can easily
do away with character and plot; it is the detail of the
monsters, the rhythm of the tension and shocks, that
matter. Plot and character are things videogames find
very difficult to deal with.
The fact is that Silent Hill and Resident Evil
resemble each other far more than they resemble any
film you care to name. But will this necessarily always
be the case, or could the much-hyped “convergence”
between films and videogames become a reality?
The gift of sound and vision
Videogames are superficially like films in one major
respect, which is that they communicate to the player
through eyes and ears. Just as film crews include
specialized audio technicians for the post-production
dubbing of sound effects, the sound design of
videogames too is a mini-art in itself, and development
companies also employ composers to provide musical
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soundtracks. At first, this looks very like film industry
practice, but it soon becomes clear that deployment of
the audio arts cannot always follow similar lines in the
two media.
The reason sound design is important in
videogames is quite simple: if a laser makes a
pleasing, fizzy hum, and if an exploding enemy makes
a particularly satisfying boom, then the game is just
more fun to play. Defender (1980) had particularly
avant-garde sound design for its time, with its near
sub-bass rumblings and eldritch alien buzzings offset
by the heroic, almost melodic sound of your ship’s
weapon fending off the vicious hordes. Purely abstract
sonic invention such as Defender’s was partly
necessitated by the comparative crudeness, in those
days, of the videogame machine’s sound chip. But
now that videogame systems can read huge amounts of
digitally encoded sound straight off a CD, sound
design has largely moved in a more conventional
direction, using “samples” (digital recordings) to
reproduce actual, real-world sounds. A modern
development company might devote many hours to
accurate sampling of different cars’ engine noises for a
driving game, to make the whole audio-visual
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experience as immersive and (deceptively) “authentic”
as possible.
This concentration on “real” sounds in general
parallels what movies do. But just as a film with terrific
abstract sound design, like David Lynch’s Lost
Highway, is highly refreshing to the ears, so I think this
attitude of “realism” is narrow-minded in a videogame
context. The best audio engineering now seems to be
constrained to highly generic videogames such as space
shoot-’em-ups or science fiction racers, where the
fantasy world can justifiably be accompanied by
fantasy sound, all manner of lovingly crafted blips and
whooshes. An instance of particularly good
contemporary work is in the otherwise rather shallow
shooter Omega Boost, where, if you bump into
enemies, a grating metallic clang enhances the
momentary discomfort, and spacecraft whoosh past you
to fabulously alien stereo effect. The sonic mayhem
(with these effects unfortunately competing with a
musical score of Japanese heavy metal) effectively
increases the level of sweating tension in the player.
Such a strong division between games that enjoy
“real,” sampled sounds and games with an invented
sonic architecture, I think, is unfortunate. Surely, if
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videogame developers were to experiment, say, with
weird and unexpected sound effects to accompany
supposedly “realistic” visual action, this might open up
new avenues of strangeness and even comedy—the
amusing disjunction of small action with epic sound,
say—to future digital experiences. Videogames are best
at imagining whole new worlds of their own, so why
can’t they invent more new sounds to bring them to
sensual life?
Moreover, given that in real life all sorts of
information about our environment is constantly
flooding into our ears, videogames ought perhaps to
think of cleverer ways to let us use this gift in their
imaginary worlds. After all, a videogame player, unlike
someone watching a film, needs to use information
from the senses to decide what to do next. Any sound
can become a clue, a spur to action. One fascinating
new idea has been tried by Rare, which in Perfect Dark
(2000) has engineered a quasi–surroundsound system
that lets the attuned player know which direction
enemies are in purely by listening to their footsteps.
This is one example of sound design that is not
merely decorative, but functional. Many games,
particularly in the popular horror genre, are already
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quite creative in using sound to enhance the player’s
involvement. Resident Evil, for instance, shows a
superb handling of sound effects that is directly
influenced by its movie forebears. One room is eerily
silent, whereas a large galleried hall is ominously and
stressfully dominated by the solemn ticking of a clock.
When the moans of zombies suddenly float out of
nowhere, or the silence is broken by the piercing sound
of a smashing window, you know you had better run.
Silent Hill, too, does this sort of thing very well. Early
on in the game, the player’s character is given a radio
that seems to be broken, but it emits a nerve-fraying
fortissimo jangling noise whenever a monster is
approaching. The evocation of fear is deliciously
heightened by this aural sign, as you run around
panicking when the alarm goes off, not knowing from
which direction the beast is going to approach through
the omnipresent fog.
Videogames’ musical soundtracks, too, are an
important part of the player’s aesthetic experience. But
oddly, in the far-off days of the Commodore 64 and
Amiga, videogame music was far more distinct as a
stylistic genre than it is now. The composers generally
had to wrestle with programming languages to force the
most sophisticated sound possible out of woefully
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underpowered audio chips, and these strictures resulted
in a flood of remarkably inventive videogame music. If
polyphony—the number of notes it is possible to play
at the same time—was restricted to, say, four notes, the
musician might write a piece characterized by
deliciously floaty buzzing arpeggios. And because the
microcomputer’s sound chip didn’t have much inbuilt
information to speak of—unlike a modern synthesizer,
it didn’t boast banks of ready-made instrument
noises—the composer also had to invent the quality of
each of the sounds he used. The star of this era was the
musician Rob Hubbard, whose excellent soundtracks
for old games—with their airbrushed, joyfully artificial
aesthetic that mixed robotic beats with hummable
tunes—have now been collectively preserved on a
commercially available compact disc.
Nowadays, videogame soundtracks fall into
two main classes: the compilation of licensed pop
tracks, or the specially composed score. Slapping
an existing pop record over a videogame, or a
film, is a rather hit-ormiss affair: as we have seen,
it worked wonders for early PlayStation games
like WipEout, but it can equally be grindingly
inappropriate, the French heavyrock songs on VRally 2 being an emetic case in point. The
alternative of a specially written score is now
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blessed with total sonic freedom, because videogame
systems (apart from the poor Nintendo 64) now read
music directly off a CD, so soundtracks are recorded
with full banks of pro-quality digital instruments and no
restrictions on epic breadth. Sometimes the music may
even be recorded by a full orchestra of live musicians,
as is the case with Outcast.
The problem with such scores, even when—as is
increasingly the case—they are highly competent and
pleasing pieces of music in their own right, is that,
unlike the videogame’s visuals, they are not interactive.
A film score is written to accompany a predetermined
and unchanging visual story. So it is recorded once and
cast in stone. But videogames can change from one
moment to the next depending on what the player does.
One way round this is just to cut in a rather ugly
fashion from a light-hearted piece of music to a doomladen one when something bad happens onscreen.
Microsoft has developed a system called Direct Music
that hopes to automate this technique more smoothly.
But all this means in practice is that the composer
writes tiny little “cells” of music a few bars long that
are then algorithmically combined into longer episodes
by the processing engine. (Avant-garde classical
musicians had exactly this idea of combining cells in
the 1960s.)
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The best videogame scores circumvent this knotty
problem altogether by not attempting to be continuous,
film-like soundtracks at all. Instead, music is used as
another kind of atmosphere-heightening information.
The rather beautiful title music of the Tomb Raider
games features undulating orchestral strings with a
lovely oboe tune. But within the game, the mood and
instrumentation change dramatically, according to the
fictional context. The celebrated Venice level of Tomb
Raider II, for example, features a superb piece of
pastiche baroque. In these games, music’s appearance
is much rarer than it is in your average film, and when
the speakers burst into a fast cello motif or a clatter of
electronic percussion, you know that something
exciting is going to happen and you look round rapidly
for an enemy to avoid, or watch in awe as another
fabulous vaulted ceiling stretches up above you, and
then the music fades away again, leaving you with the
drips of condensation from the walls or the rumbling of
some ominous nearby machinery. When music in a
game is this good, less is often more.
So music in a videogame does not work in exactly
the same ways as music in a film. In a game, sound can
be functional, a means of providing information that the
player then acts on. But what about the visuals? Do
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videogames present information to our eyes in the same
way as films?
CinÉ qua non?
Since the upstart videogame form shattered film’s
monopoly on the moving image, the two media have
been engaged in a wary standoff. As their powers of
graphic realization have increased, videogames have
begun superficially to look a bit more like films, while
films have become more interested in videogames as
visual furnishing and conceptual subject matter.
Videogames have lovingly appropriated set-piece forms
from the cinematic milieux of horror, action and
science fiction (the enormous monster, the car chase,
the space dogfight), while films have stolen ever more
brazenly from videogames’ hyperkinetic grammar (the
exaggerated sound effects, the disregard for classical
gravitational laws) in executing those same forms on
the silver screen.
It is, of course, understandable that the mass media,
in having to deal with the vast but to them
incomprehensible culture of videogames, naturally
reach for the vocabulary of film—apparently the
nearest medium in visual terms—in order to describe
such games as Silent Hill. But before we start positing
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a hybrid future of “interactive movies,” it would be as
well to take a cold mental shower by looking at what
actually exists in film videogame crossover form.
Disney’s Tron (1982) was the first film actively to
engage in an aesthetic dialogue with videogames,
arguably as a symptom of Tinseltown’s increasing
insecurity about its silicon rival—for at the time, just
before their first market crash, videogames were
grossing more in America than the Hollywood cinema
and gambling put together. Tron is still probably the
best film of its kind. The shallow, primary-color fable
about a gameplaying wunderkind beamed into
cyberspace to do battle with an evil programmer was
based around live-action interpretations of existing
videogame formats (most notably the “light cycle”
race), and then soon became a licensed arcade
videogame in its own right.
For videogame companies, film licenses are often a
sure winner. Studios generally acquire the videogame
rights to a film, such as Batman, Rambo, Aliens, or
Raiders of the Lost Ark, and then produce a painfully
substandard platform game or shoot-’em-up that might
borrow a certain visual style from one or two of the
film’s scenes but has nothing to do with the story line.
In 1983, famously, Atari, having acquired the rights to
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produce an ET videogame, was so confident of its
success that it produced nearly six million copies. One
fly in the ointment: the game was terrible. Gamers
aren’t stupid. Most of the cartridges were eventually
buried in a landfill site in New Mexico, where one
hopes they will eventually provide some amusement for
archaeologists in the distant future.
Films based on videogames are even worse, as
anyone will testify who has giggled throughout the
truly spectacular artistic abyss that is Street Fighter:
The Movie, starring sex symbol Jean-Claude Van
Damme and renowned pugilist Kylie Minogue. Mortal
Kombat was not much better, and Bob Hoskins
displayed rather less animation than his pixellated
counterpart in Super Mario Bros. Meanwhile, the 2001
film of Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie,
abandoned the essence of the videogame character’s
graceful movement through space, seeking instead to
batter the viewer into submission with fast cutting and
special effects.
Postproduction computer manipulation of the film
image is increasingly common; director George Lucas
even prefers to modify his actors’ performances
digitally, so that a performer’s frown in take six might
be mapped onto his forehead in take three.
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Interestingly, some of the first technical demonstrations
of Sony’s PlayStation2 console in Tokyo concentrated
on animating the muscles of a highly detailed human
face in exactly the same way. In this purely cosmetic
respect, it is true that videogames are converging with
The commercial praxis of the two industries is also
looking more and more similar. The relative simplicity
of computer and videogame systems in the 1970s and
1980s meant that a game was often written by just one
person over a period of a few months. The graphics
design, gameplay design and programming were all
done by the same red-eyed multitasker, and some of
them—Matthew Smith, Andrew Braybrook, Geoff
Crammond, David Braben—became wealthy stars.
Videogames had a relatively long period in which the
auteur theory was actually true.
But now all that has changed. Just as a film is a
composer, set designer, costumier, dolly grip, best boy
and so forth—so videogame “studios” today employ
concept designers, animators, 3D artists, tool
developers, programmers, composers, writers, character
designers and a host of other experts in
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relatively hermetic fields. The first stage in
development of a videogame at British designers Core,
for example, consists of the writing of several hundred
pages of a “Game Design Document,” which is rather
like a (nonlinear) script for a film: the game’s
characters are introduced through drawings and verbal
sketches; the gameplay concept is elaborated; and
example situations are described. A top game will now
take around two years to develop, with a budget of
anything up to tens of millions of dollars—which is
Hollywood blockbuster money. And the rewards can be
equally impressive.
Meanwhile, Japanese videogame giant Square
moved the other way, making an entirely digital feature
film based on its best-selling Final Fantasy games.
Videogames and the cinema nowadays certainly look
like close media competitors.
Perhaps this perceived competition is one reason
why, when videogames themselves feature in films,
they are so often shorthand for moral or cognitive
vacancy, or actual destructive tendencies. Russ Meyer
shows a woman playing Pong at the beginning of
Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens precisely to
indicate her anomie and lack of sexual interest in her
partner. Meanwhile, the superb slice of 1980s teen
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paranoia Wargames features a young geek hero who
hacks into the Pentagon’s military computer system
because he thinks he’s going to get to play some cool
videogames; in fact, he nearly starts a global nuclear
war. Generally, if a movie shows a child playing
videogames in his bedroom, the message is that this
antisocial kid needs to get out more.
Other films extrapolate some hypothetical
videogame future in order to make more or less
successful points about man’s increasingly intimate
relationship with technology. The abomination that is
The Lawnmower Man typifies Hollywood’s prurient
fascination with the oxymoronic and irremediably
adolescent concept of “virtual sex.” More thoughtful is
David Cronenberg’s orthographically eccentric
eXistenZ, which pictures a biomechanical future whose
characters jack into an animal game “pod” via a slimy
spinal socket, and toys in a rather facile but entertaining
way with the problems of competing realities.
But preeminent in this filmic tradition is The
Matrix, which, despite competition from The Phantom
Menace, was most people’s choice for science fiction
film of 1999. With a cunning script incorporating a
kaleidoscope of Homeric, Christian and Gibsonian
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references, it starred Keanu Reeves as a computer
hacker who learns that the world is something like an
enormous game of SimCity run by computers to keep
us enslaved. In its exaggeratedly dynamic kung fu
scenes, in which actors float through the air and smash
each other through walls, The Matrix contains the most
successful translations to date of certain videogame
paradigms to the celluloid medium. (This film also
reminds us that the concept of “virtual reality” is itself a
very old idea, for Descartes conceived of a malin gÉnie,
or evil demon, which, exactly like the computers in The
Matrix, caused him to have the thoughts and
perceptions he ordinarily believed to be signs of a real,
external world.)
The primary influence on The Matrix’s sort of
hyperkinetic action is still a filmic one: the Hong Kong
guns’n’kung-fu movie apotheosized by such cult
directors and performers as John Woo and Chow Yun
Fat. But the increasingly unrealistic dynamics of such
films through the late 1980s and 1990s clearly owe a lot
in turn to the rise of the videogame beat-’em-up such as
Street Fighter, and in one such film this is explicitly
acknowledged. The star of City Hunter, Jackie Chan, is
at one point knocked into an arcade beat-’em-up
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which Chan, dazed by the blow, imagines his assailant
as different digitally generated characters from the
videogame itself, finally winning the fight in the virtual
world and so in the real one. Videogames repaid the
compliment with Tekken 3 (1998), which contains,
although the makers Namco explicitly deny this,
playable characters that look as if they might be heavily
influenced by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan himself.
For their part, films have been very successful in
influencing the look of certain types of videogame. The
first great film tie-in (still only one of a handful today)
was the videogame Star Wars (1983), a
threedimensional space shoot-’em-up that abstracted
elements from certain battle scenes in the film and
turned them into simple game objectives. The most
impressive visual aspect of these action sequences in
the film was the shower of red and green laser bolts,
and it is these that were most easily translated into early
videogame graphics, while John Williams’s pompously
brilliant score, mixed with high-pitched R2–D2
wibbles, pumped from the arcade speakers. The game
did not replicate the movie, but stole those parts of the
movie (the action sequences) that could be
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successfully reimagined as videogame forms. And the
lure of the Star Wars franchise is such that every
console and computer-game platform since then has
been home to a game based on the film. They have
covered nearly every conceivable genre: platform, 3D
shooting, role-playing—even, lamentably, beat-’emup,
in Masters of Teras Kasi for the PlayStation.
One of the most seminal modern influences, not just
on videogames but on all forms of science fiction, is the
film Blade Runner. This is partly due to aesthetic
considerations—the popular style of futuristic
technoir— but for videogames it has also had, until the
current generation of extremely powerful machines, a
technological payoff. For the vision of neon-soaked
streets at night in a skyscraper-studded, futuristic
Tokyo was particularly amenable to videogames’
limited powers of representation. The nighttime setting
meant the processor had less to draw, could fill large
areas of the scene with black; neon lighting is gaudy
and luminous in a way that computer graphics can
easily imitate; and the absence of vegetation freed the
machine from the very processor-hungry task of
creating a convincing tree with hundreds of leaves and
different shades of green. A game such as G-Police,
one of the most blatant videogame homages to the
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visuals of the Blade Runner city yet, welcomed these
in-built visual limitations of the tech-noir genre
thankfully, since it had so much else on its silicon
As well as influencing hundreds of other
videogames, mostly futuristic shoot-’em-ups, Blade
Runner has also been made into a rather successful
adventure game in its own right. But we have seen
already that influential currents between the two media
do not run only one way. And this turns out to be true
even of Ridley Scott’s own remarkable film: one of the
production designers on Blade Runner has said that his
work was inspired by the cabinet art on—what else?—
an arcade videogame.
But while creative aesthetic interpollination
between films and videogames may have positive
results, the attempt at wholesale translation from one
medium to the other is usually doomed. If you make a
film based on a videogame world, you instantly lose
what is most essential to the videogame experience.
One problem is that pleasurably unreal visual qualities
will be lost. Good software simulation of grass, for
instance, can, in its necessary stylization, be more
aesthetically interesting than a field of real grass on
film. Jeremy Smith, managing director of Core Design,
is very decided on this point:
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For me, driving a touring car in a race game, I don’t want a
photo-realistic car in there, I want a computergenerated car. I
think it would spoil it as soon as you put a proper car in there.
I think in that, the interaction between the movie and the
videogame is a step in the wrong direction. These things need
to be generated by a computer. Okay, you can get them
looking absolutely gorgeous, with fantastic shading and all
these beautiful effects, but fundamentally I’m still looking at
an arcade game.
And the difference works the other way: even Bob
Hoskins in a padded suit is not as lovably squat as the
real Mario.
Yet even if you make your film entirely digitally,
along the lines of Toy Story or A Bug’s Life, a second,
major problem remains. In Star Wars, Episode 1: The
Phantom Menace, the plot stops for ten minutes for the
technically remarkable “pod-racing” scene, in which
the young Anakin Skywalker races a turbo-charged
hovercraft around the rocky Tattooine desert. Critics of
the film complained that this was just like a videogame,
but the point is precisely that it wasn’t anything like a
videogame. Because the viewer is not in control. The
pod-racing sequence was nothing more than an
extended advert for the actual videogame that
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was based on it. You couldn’t play the movie, so it was
far inferior in terms of high-speed thrills.
Of course, films become works of art in their own
right by involving the spectator emotionally. But there
is precious little emotional material in an actionoriented
videogame for the filmmaker to latch on to. A film
based on a game, therefore, is likely to be utterly
impoverished in two ways: not only by failing to
provide the fundamental attraction of the videogame
experience, but by failing to exploit what the medium
of film itself is best at doing.
Videogames, in fact, have the better of this strange
relationship, in that they are able to suck into
themselves more aspects of the filmic art without
compromising their raison d’Être. For one thing, more
and more videogames now contain mini-“films” in their
own right. Known as FMV (“full-motion video”)
sequences, these are almost always computergenerated
scenes that advance the plot around which the game is
based, such as in Final Fantasy VIII or Tomb Raider:
The Last Revelation. The visuals might be digital, but
they are voiced by real actors and graced with filmic
scores. They function like the proverbial carrot and
stick: the player must successfully complete a portion
of the game before the next “film” sequence
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is activated, providing an opportunity to relax and rest
those tired wrists. FMV sequences can be graceful and
beautiful in their own right (especially in the Final
Fantasy games, where they alone can eat up $4 million
of the budget), but they are something of a red herring.
These sequences are simply there to be watched; they
cannot be played with. They are merely tinsel around
the real gameplay.
The question remains: what kind of cinematic
action happens, not as self-contained intervallic
episodes, but in the thick of videogame play itself?
Camera obscura
When videogames were flat, two-dimensional affairs,
the player was furnished with a God-like objective
viewpoint. The gameworld of Pong or Space Invaders
is laid out flat before the eye; everything takes place in
the same horizontal plane. You can see everything at
once, because you can see the entire universe. The
problem once three-dimensional games became the
norm was that in a solid world every viewpoint is
subjective, and no viewpoint enables you to see
everything. So videogames began to offer the player a
choice of windows on their worlds that could be
switched at will, depending on the task in hand. In a
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seemingly robust analogy with film, they are known as
player-controlled “cameras.”
If it can be argued that the film camera in some
sense creates the onscreen world rather than passively
recording it,20 such a theory can be taken rather more
literally with videogames. For, of course, there is
nothing really there for the videogame “camera” to
shoot in the first place. Instead, there is a complex
mathematical model held in computer memory that
only ever erupts into visual “solidity” for an instant,
before fading away and being replaced with the next
frame. The world is drawn perspectivally from one
moment to the next, depending on the camera settings
the player has chosen.
Videogame cameras (“cams” for short) have fairly
recently settled into a group of standardized viewpoints.
“Follow cam” is usually offered in driving or flying
games, and sets the viewpoint to a position behind and
slightly above the vehicle under the player’s control.
Sometimes this is differentiated from a “chase cam,”
the latter taking a tighter and lower
20 While AndrÉ Bazin famously likened the film image to a “window on
the world” on the analogy with Renaissance theories of geometrical
perspective, other film critics, such as Pascal Bonitzer, insisted that the film
world could never extend outside the frame and so constituted a
microuniverse in its own right.
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view to enhance the feeling of speed. The same genres
also offer a “cockpit cam,” which puts the player in the
hotseat, right at the virtual controls. G-Police (1997), a
helicopter gunship sci-fi shoot-’em-up, makes available
an “aerial cam” that looks perpendicularly down on
proceedings from a great height. Threedimensional
exploration games, meanwhile, generally offer elevated
cams at each point of the compass that may be switched
at will. They will also offer the player either a
temporary first-person viewpoint—as in Mario 64,
where you can look through Mario’s eyes to line up a
tricky narrow path—or a “shoulder cam,” as in Tomb
Raider. The latter is a curious invention that provides a
viewpoint that is very near to the character’s own, yet is
still an external one, peeping impishly through the eyes
of a virtual stalker over Lara’s shapely trapezium.
Why is it important for modern 3D videogames to
provide this multiplicity of viewing angles? There are
two answers: one functional and one aesthetic.
Consider a real-life experience—say, watching a tennis
match. If you watch it from the side and near the
ground, you will see different aspects of the game from
someone watching higher up at one end of the court.
The spectator watching from the latter viewpoint, the
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classic television angle, has an averagely good view of
all the lines and can appreciate cross-court angles. By
contrast, the side-on spectator has a limited experience
of these aspects, but he is much better placed to
appreciate the varying arcs of the balls through the air,
the niceties of topspin and slice, and the sheer length
and speed of the shots.
Given that viewing angles have such an effect on
the experience of spectatorship, how much more
important must they be when you are actively involved
in the game? Imagine if you were asked by an eccentric
scientist to play a game of snooker wearing a VDU
headset wired so that your point of view was situated
on the ceiling, looking straight down onto the table. It
would be a completely different experience, because
you wouldn’t be able to sight down the line of the balls
while cueing. In fact, before the advent of efficient 3D
realization, several videogame versions of snooker and
pool were produced that replicated exactly this thought
experiment, with a top-down view.
Such games were pointless, but what is more
interesting is that owing to this viewpoint differential
they didn’t merely fail to replicate accurately the
experience of snooker or pool, they actually became
entirely different sorts of game. Martin Amis expertly
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catches this point when he dismisses one early
example, Video Hustler, as “like playing marbles.” A
similar sort of disjunction might be argued to operate in
G-Police, where the multiplicity of viewpoints on offer
creates different game styles within the same
environment; the aerial cam, especially, which is more
useful than the standard perspectival cockpit cam for
lining up bombing raids on ground targets, harks back
to classic two-dimensional top-down shoot-’em-ups
such as Xevious.
Normally, of course, we don’t encounter these sorts
of problems in real life, because our eyes are (sensible,
prescient Nature) hard-wired into our bodies. It is only
the creative alienation of videogames, which translates
physical action here (on this piece of plastic, in my
living room) into visual effect there (in this
otherworldly arena, at once viewed through my eyes
and mediated through the prosthetic, virtual eyes of the
videogame camera), that throws up such novel
perceptual conundrums.
But ignoring for the moment the difference
between watching the action of a film and
implementing the action of a videogame, presumably
this “camera” analogy between the media still holds to
some extent? No, it does not. Videogame camerawork
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was developed in order to enable the player to see the
action from the most useful angle. In Mario 64, for
instance, the player must often rotate the camera to a
different compass point, or select a view from slightly
farther away, in order to guide the rotund plumber
across a particularly narrow bridge or up a series of
tough platforms.
Cinematic camerawork of the kind that is
immediately noticeable or stylish, however, often
depends for its effect on hiding something from the
viewer, not letting you see everything. When the
detective mounts the staircase of the Bates Motel in
Psycho, Hitchcock deliberately chooses a very tight
shot on his hand moving up the banister, inducing
tension through dramatic irony, as we know what
awaits him at the top of the stairs, although he does not.
But there can be no dramatic irony in videogames,
because dramatic irony depends on a knowledge
differential between spectator and protagonist—yet in a
videogame the player is both spectator and protagonist
at once.
True, some videogames attempt to replicate this
kind of stylized shot choice, most notably Resident Evil
2 (see fig. 6). But in a videogame, as opposed to a
movie, this becomes a fraudulent and frustrating
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method of inducing tension: the player can get killed by
zombies not because the environment is cleverly
designed but because he was deliberately hindered from
seeing them coming until it was too late. And, crucially,
Resident Evil 2 doesn’t let you choose the shots in the
way Mario 64 does. As with film, shots are done to
you. Silent Hill, meanwhile, sometimes lets the player
control the camera when walking around the streets, but
dive into a dim alley and the tilted overhead shot is the
only perspective you’ll get. And this shows how a
purely filmic notion of camerawork cannot work in a
videogame context. Film manipulates the viewer, but a
game depends on being manipulable.
There is an even more fundamental formal
distinction to be made between the structures of visual
imagery in films and videogames. Modern film relies
for its storytelling and conceptual effect on a highly
sophisticated grammar of montage, a technique
invented in cinema’s youth, and perfected by Sergei
Eisenstein. In simple terms, it describes the process of
“cutting together” discontinuous shots—something so
common now in dynamic visual media that we hardly
notice it at all.
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Fig. 6. Resident Evil 2: claustrophobic camera angles don’t
always help your battle against the undead (‰ Capcom/Virgin
Interactive Entertainment)
Here is an example from any standard television
commercial. A car turns a corner, coming toward the
viewer, seen from a helicopter’s altitude; in the next
shot our eyes are at fender level and a car is moving
away. Because we are culturally attuned to montage,
we automatically see this as the same car performing
one continuous movement. Yet it is easy to imagine
that a person who had never seen film or television
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might assume that these were identical-looking but
different vehicles. This is how montage creates a sense
of rhythm and motion, but such an approach would be
fatal in a videogame, where the player has to control
the car, and thus requires a continuous, unbroken
viewpoint—either a cockpit cam or follow cam. This is
essential for easy, intuitive navigation; if the camera
cuts to a different position so that your vehicle appears
to be going the other way, the physical videogame
controls will suddenly be reversed in their effects.
You’re going to crash nastily.
Sometimes videogame camera positions change
automatically rather than at the player’s behest; even
so, when they do, they are not performing traditional
montage but trying to give the player a better view of
the action under his control. This is the case in the
Tomb Raider games, for instance. Such changes of
view, however, can and often do employ other
quasifilmic techniques such as tracking and panning.
Metal Gear Solid is given a particularly “cinematic”
feel by touches such as these: whenever the hero backs
up against a wall to hide from an enemy guard, the
camera, which normally takes a functional aerial
viewpoint, swoops in to about shin level to frame the
player’s character and the guard walking past (see fig.
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7). But function always takes precedence over such
stylish touches: when the hero moves away again, the
camera reverts to its normal view, enabling the player
to see more of the environment. True montage,
meanwhile, is still not used. An action movie would,
for instance, cut from a close-up of the hero’s face to
his point of view of approaching enemies, then back to
a mid-shot of the hero with gun drawn, whereas such
scenes in Metal Gear Solid’s gameplay necessarily take
place in long shot. Metal Gear Solid is a great
videogame with quasi-filmic visual gimmickry, but it is
nothing like an interactive movie.
Most of the work done by automatic videogame
cameras, indeed, is largely modeled on a different
medium altogether, and this brings us to the second,
aesthetic rationale for such visual systems. The kind of
montage seen in a car commercial does crop up in
videogames, but only after the action has finished. This
is the burgeoning phenomenon of the videogame
“replay.” Gran Turismo enables the player to watch a
race he has just driven, with virtual cameras placed at
spectacular angles on every bend. The reins are handed
over to the digital director. The effect is thrilling, and
clearly drawn not from film but from the style of
television sports coverage. Similar replays accompany
goals scored in the soccer game World Cup ’98, and
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slavering slow-motion reiterates the final, lethal
combinations of kicks and punches when a fighter in
Tekken 3 is brutally floored. Television sports directors
have understood for a long while that, when it comes to
the electronic mise-en-scÈne of fast movement in three
dimensions, several heads are better than one; the
cutting together of different viewpoints gives a better
and more visceral understanding of the action.
Here, however, the term “replay” is particularly
misleading. Play is still primary; what comes next is not
a “replay,” a playing again, but a watching. The
carnival of camera angles in a videogame replay does
not impinge at all on the basic functional requirements
of in-game viewpoints. The two are properly separate
“modes” of the game. But this is exactly what I meant
earlier when suggesting that videogames are potentially
a more flexible form than film. Such borrowings from
cinematic techniques can indeed enhance the visual
experience of a game without compromising its unique
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Fig. 7. Metal Gear Solid: a low cinematic angle as Snake (left)
hides from a guard (‰ 1998 Konami)
You’ve been framed
When videogame “versions” of films do work, it is by
creating a completely different experience that branches
off from the same scenario as its parent movie.
Goldeneye 007 (1997), for instance, is a firstperson
shooter that casts the player as James Bond. You are
required to complete certain missions that are loosely
based on the plot of the film: infiltrate an underground
compound and blow things up; reprogram
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a satellite; rescue Natalya from a speeding train; and so
on. Such sections of the plot generally happen at the
end of a mission, and they happen to the player. The
game does not let the player change the plot: for
instance, to the dismay and fury of many addicts, you
cannot decide that vulnerable, annoying Natalya has
outlived her usefulness and shoot her in order to make a
quick getaway. The game signals failure and forces you
to play the mission again. Such plot nuggets, therefore,
mean little more in the videogame context than excuses
for the action of the next mission to move elsewhere.
But Goldeneye’s strength is that it manages to cut
and paste all its filmic influences—the faces of actors
Sean Bean, Robbie Coltrane and so on are digitized
and mapped onto the in-game characters—onto a
mode of action that is pure videogame, with the accent
heavily on stealthy shooting, and nothing in the way of
sipping Martinis or seducing Russian women.
Particularly successful is the way in which locations
from the film, such as the main satellite control room,
have been not just represented but fully recreated in
three dimensions in the game. This fully investigable
architecture is what the videogame can uniquely offer.
When watching a movie, you cannot go and look
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round a corner unless the plot and the director take you
that way. But in Goldeneye you can explore areas from
every conceivable angle. Indeed, one aficionado of the
game, on seeing the film again, commented: “I thought,
‘I know this place—I know it better than the characters
do.’” In the movie theater, the world is projected at
you; in a videogame, you are projected into the world.
This virtue of videogames is so seductive that on
occasion it can override all other formal deficiencies.
Games like Myst and Riven were rightly derided by the
videogame cognoscenti for having tediously simplistic
gameplay properties, yet they sold in their millions
precisely because they are rather beautifully pure
exploration games. The player wanders around
gorgeously designed virtual environments with
fabulously detailed landscapes, water lapping against
jetties and mysterious dark buildings. J. C. Herz is
exactly right in labeling the appeal of these games as
that of “virtual tourism”: “Myst put you into a world
you might actually want to visit, if you only had the
money and time. . . . It was an escape destination.”
The fundamental point in comparing this aspect of
videogames with the movies is that, for instance,
Goldeneye the videogame offers a different and
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incommensurable sort of pleasure to that of Goldeneye
the film. For the moment it is hard to see how
videogames and movies could ever converge without
losing the essential virtues of both. The cinema—
especially good action cinema, which, as we have seen,
has the closest links with videogames—is first and
foremost a ride, like a fairground rollercoaster, part of
whose pleasure is exactly that you are not steering, and
you cannot decide to slow down. A videogame, on the
other hand, is an activity. Watching someone else with
a videogame, to non-players, is terribly boring. And
even watching the most “cinematic” of videogames is
still like watching a really bad, low-resolution film. A
videogame is there to be played.
There is one exception to the rule that videogames
are boring to watch, and it is exemplified by the
inventive beauty of the Crash Bandicoot games. Here it
is apparent that, for all the talk of war between
videogames and movies, the former have already won a
stunning victory over one genre of film: the animated
cartoon. The golden age of Looney Tunes was always a
fertile ground from which videogames could reap
certain mechanical ideas: the comedy of Mario and
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Luigi bashing their enemies with huge mallets in the
1980s is a direct homage to such exaggerated cartoon
violence as that found in Tom and Jerry.
Now, with vastly increased graphic power, the
multi-million-selling Crash Bandicoot 3 (see fig. 8) is
as gorgeously colored, smoothly animated and
thoroughly entertaining as many Warner Bros.
examples. (While it is a very simple game to play, it is
superior to cleverer examples like Ape Escape, Donkey
Kong 64 or Spyro 2 in terms of sheer visual splendor.)
Crash 3 is particularly successful in replicating and
extending the tradition of humorous cartoon deaths—
which, like videogame deaths, are only ever temporary.
The eponymous orange marsupial, Crash, can get
flattened into two dimensions by a rolling boulder and
will wobble around piteously; he can get blown up by a
mine and jump, singed and yowling, into the air; he can
fall down a crevasse and have his ghost hauled
heavenwards by an angel; or he can bump into a malign
puffer fish and suddenly balloon to twice his size.
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Fig. 8. Crash Bandicoot 3: a cartoon you can play with (‰ 1998
Sony Computer Entertainment)
It is perhaps no coincidence that since videogames
have been able to offer a detailed world of humorous
action similar to that of the traditional cartoon, with the
added killer ingredient of control,animated cartoons
themselves have changed in order to survive. Cartoons
such as South Park or The Simpsons no longer rely
solely on pure kinetic comedy, but excel in the scabrous
comedy of situation and character. Hence it is easy to
see how the disgraceful videogame adaptation South
Park (1998) totally missed the point, offering as
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it did boring first-person shooter sequences with
weapons such as the cow-launcher.
If film, as Jean-Luc Godard said, is “truth, twentyfour times a second,” then modern videogames are lies
that hit the nervous system at two and a half times the
frequency. Videogames, as we have seen, have
borrowed from movie visuals. But films, too, have
borrowed from videogame dynamics. Such proximities,
however, are purely cosmetic, far outweighed by the
structural dissimilarities. Videogames, far from being
an inferior type of film, are something different
altogether. The comparison between the forms—
initially so inviting because they both look like they are
doing similar things—is in the final analysis an
informatively limited one.
Here is one description of the cinematic experience
itself—Walter Benjamin’s poetic appreciation of the
perceptually liberating effect of early film:
Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our railroad stations
and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly.
Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by
the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the
midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and
adventurously go traveling.
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Videogames are still a very young medium. Yet
videogames already—it can hardly be denied—
constitute a type of entertainment every bit as
revolutionary, in its form, as cinema was for Benjamin.
If it’s adventurous traveling the chthonic prisoner is
after, videogames can deliver in spades, for the player
is free to wander at will around an imaginary world,
meet interesting people and burst things asunder by the
dynamite of the sixtieth of a second.
Benjamin’s reference to “far-flung ruins and debris”
is, of course, far more deeply ambivalent about the
desirability of such a detonation. And there is more to
say about the negative interpretation of such destruction
in videogames. For the moment I should point out that,
though the videogame world may currently be enslaved
to Hollywood aesthetics, there is no reason why this
should not change in the future. Director David
Cronenberg has said: “In the graphic sense, many
videogames can already be viewed as art, but overall I
see a propensity to imitate Hollywood, which could be
termed the ‘anti-art.’ Great videogame designers may
have to struggle against this trend.”
If Hollywood is home to the anti-art that
videogames must resist, where better to continue our
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A tale of two cities
Los Angeles is a game of SimCity played by a maniac.
Six-lane freeways gridlocked with sports utility
vehicles pump out untold cubic tons of exhaust fumes,
enveloping the city in a permanent yellow smog. It’s
more or less compulsory to drive any distance more
than ten yards, but you’re not allowed to smoke a
cigarette. In fact, thanks to designer Will Wright’s
inbuilt bias toward public transport, it wouldn’t actually
be possible to build Los Angeles in his videogame. This
satirical dystopia is too weird to be anything but real.
It’s also the venue for the world’s largest annual
videogame trade show, E3. The bustling steelandconcrete cathedral of the Los Angeles Convention
Center is roaring with the combined sound effects and
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apocalyptic music of hundreds of new games on
display. This is where videogame companies show off
their latest glories of manipulable son et lumiÈre, with
hundreds of PlayStations, Dreamcasts and Nintendo 64
consoles hooked up to television monitors running
soon-to-be-released products. Sony’s triumphal stand
features thirty-foot-high inflatable models of cutesy
game characters Spyro the Dragon and Um Jammer
Lammy (a cartoon girl who plays heavy-metal guitar,
obviously). Nintendo’s section of the hall projects the
playable images of Star Wars, Episode I: Pod Racer
onto, yes, a cinema-sized screen, while a room given
over to Perfect Dark features helpful blond women
gliding among the gamers, dressed in black PVC and
white jodhpurs and suggestively stroking their leather
whips (Perfect Dark, an espionage-themed first-person
shooter, is strictly speaking not a game about
horseriding, but I don’t see anybody complaining).
Elsewhere, a Planet of the Apes videogame is promoted
with the help of a bamboo cage imprisoning seminaked women in animal-skin bikinis.
Refreshed or repeled by such marketing schlock
and an endless supply of burgers, hot dogs, soft drinks
and coffee over the four days of the show, journalists,
designers, retailers and publishers scurry around the
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vast acreage of the various videogame halls to meet and
do business, and to play as many of the games as
possible in five- or ten-minute bursts. People happily
wait in line for twenty minutes to try out the most
promising new videogames, and the constant bustle and
electronic noise starts claiming victims alarmingly early
on in the course of the event. The popular outdoor cafÉ
area is regularly full of half-comatose men and women
sprawled in plastic chairs with a small mountain of
promotional carrier bags strewn over the ground. Many
of them suck hungrily on cigarettes with an expression
of bliss peculiar to the Californian tobacco aficionado,
everywhere hounded by the law. I notice this, of course,
because that’s where I stagger myself every few hours.
Everybody who’s anybody in the industry turns up at
E3. So I have gone to Los Angeles too, in an attempt to
take the temperature of the videogame industry. And in
one way, it’s running pretty high. This year, producers
are more concerned than usual about the question of
“violence”; parental lawsuits are in the air, and federal
interference with their industry is thoroughly
undesirable. Hence, the Dreamcast version of zombieshooting game House of the Dead 2 is on
demonstration without the game’s cybernetic sine qua
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non, the lightgun. And as I wander the halls speaking to
designers showing off their latest games, there is a
marked tendency for them to make excuses. Yes, they
say, this is a cutting-edge first-person shooter where
you can put bullets through people’s heads and blast
their limbs off individually in gushes of beautifully
animated blood, but that’s not the point. You see, it’s
basically a really good story.
Storytelling is the second oldest profession. Epic
poetry, drama, the novel and the cinema have all
become expert in their different ways at the craft of
telling a story. Why should videogames, then, be any
different? Modern videogames have plots; they use
voice actors for different “characters”; there is usually a
main protagonist who must accomplish specific tasks;
the games boast self-contained, carefully scripted
“movies” in them.
So far, so once-upon-a-time. But as we’ve seen,
videogames have an important quality that militates
against easy conjunctions with other media such as
film. That quality is interactivity. Of course, in one
sense books themselves have always been highly
interactive, depending on the reader’s imagination to
flesh out their worlds in color and detail, but, unlike a
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film or a book, a videogame changes dynamically in
response to the player’s input. Surely this must mean
something drastic for the traditional concept of a story,
authored jealously by one godlike writer? Two extreme
responses, for example, might be: videogames are so
radically different from stories that there can be no
comparison; or videogames have the magical, catalytic
ingredient that will change our very conception of what
a story is.
Now some theorists, such as the designers I met in
L.A., cleave to the latter view. They see in the unique
quality of videogames a potential revolution, a
liberation from the shackles of old, “linear”
storytelling. How? Well, according to a speculative
essay by Chris Crawford, “because the story is
generated in real-time in direct response to the player’s
actions, the resultant story is customized to the needs
and interests of the audience, and thereby more than
makes up for any loss in polish with its greater
emotional involvement.” (But the telephone directory
is “customized to the needs and interests of the
audience” about as much as anything could be, yet it
still doesn’t make me cry or laugh. There has to be
something more to the idea of storytelling than that.)
Interactive narrative, or interactive storytelling, it is
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argued optimistically, is the entertainment medium of
the future.
Well, the proselytizers are right in at least one weak
sense, because it’s certainly not the entertainment
medium of the present. Not only has no convincing
example of this new creature called “interactive
storytelling” yet been spotted in the wild, no one is
even sure what it might look like. Like Albrecht DÜrer
and his confident rhinoceros, perhaps they’ve stuck the
horn in the wrong place. Still, “interactive storytelling”
sounds like a fascinating idea. That disyllable “active,”
in particular, makes us feel very modern. Intrapassive
storylistening doesn’t sound like half so much fun.
So how do videogames use stories? What kind of
stories are they? And most importantly, is interactive
storytelling the glorious future of videogames, or is it
an imaginatively seductive entry in some fabulous
illustrated bestiary?
Back to the future
The word “story” itself covers a multitude of sins.
Think of the cinema concept of the “back story.” A
back story happened in the “past,” and it determines the
conditions and sets up the concerns of the present
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action. For instance, the back story of Blade Runner is
the invention, programming and rebellion of the
replicants; the “present” story is Deckard’s attempts to
find and kill them. Some movies in fact are all about
attempts by the characters in the present to find out
what the back story actually is—for instance,
Hitchcock’s Vertigo, or The Usual Suspects (What went
on at the wharf? Who is Keyser Soze?).
For the purposes of talking about videogames, the
“back story” is the diachronic story, and the story that
happens in the fictional present is the synchronic
story—an ongoing narrative constituted by the player’s
actions and decisions in real time.21
Now synchronic and diachronic modes of story in
other media are very often combined in the same
narrative. For example, in the Oedipus Rex of
Sophocles, the synchronic (present) story is about
Oedipus as the King of Thebes trying to find out why
his city is cursed. The diachronic (background) story,
gradually revealed through Oedipus’s dogged
investigations, is that in the past Oedipus himself killed
his father and slept with his mother. (This is the
21 Of course, even what I am calling a “synchronic” story unfolds over
time, but since that period is far shorter—usually, in the fictional videogame
universe, a few hours or days—I will let the term stand.
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model, indeed, for all detective fiction: whodunit is the
diachronic story, while the process of investigation is
the synchronic story.) In general, because a story in any
medium must limit itself to a finite period of time, and
cannot tell the entire history of the universe leading up
to the events it describes, it must nearly always refer to
some diachronic story—old Hamlet was murdered
while asleep in the garden; a Jedi turned to the Dark
Side and the Empire grew22—in the process of
elaborating the synchronic one.
What does this mean for videogames? Well, it turns
out that the delicate balance of story types is skewed in
videogames: it is very heavily weighted toward the
diachronic. Perhaps surprisingly, videogames have
nearly always had a back story, however simple.
Robotron acquits itself diachronically with a postnuclear fable about evil machines and saving the last
human family; Doom’s back story is that the moon has
been invaded by aliens; Donkey Kong is predicated on
a princess’s kidnapping.
22 The theoretical problem with George Lucas’s prequels is exactly that
they plan to elaborate synchronically what was so suggestively mythical in
the back story of the original Star Wars films: how Anakin Skywalker
became Darth Vader.
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Some diachronic stories, even in old games, are
very complex, dipping freely into the myth kitty by
basing themselves on Arthurian legend (Excalibur),
Celtic sagas (Tir Na Nog and Dun Darach on the ZX
Spectrum), Norse sagas (Valhalla), or Tolkien’s Middle
Earth (The Hobbit), not to mention science fiction and
fantasy derivatives of these basic templates. But notice
that these kinds of stories are, formally speaking,
mostly more like folktales than novels. And folktales,
according to Russian theorist Vladimir Propp, adhere to
one of a handful of simple formulae. They are highly
plot driven and predicated on strong actions; what there
is of a purely “literary” character can be readily
stripped away. That’s ideal for computers. (It is hardly
surprising, though obscurely disappointing, that no one
has tried to make a videogame out of Nabokov’s Pale
But what kinds of synchronic stories do such games
have? Very little to speak of. The “story” of what the
player actually does during the game would be merely a
list of movements (up, down, run, shoot, open door,
jump)—hardly something you’d want to sit down and
actually read. At its most sophisticated it will be a
highly skeletal version of a quest narrative. You look
for something; you find it. The situation is
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even thinner with more action-oriented games whose
diachronic stories are less rich with suggestion: the
story of what a player does during a game of Robotron
will just be a tedious list of movements and shootings,
or more generously a higher-level, but still highly
abstract—and uninvolving to anyone who is not the
player—cyclical narrative about patterns of attack and
rhythms of success and failure.
If these games can be said to have a “story” at all, it
is untranslatable—it is a purely kinetic one. The
diachronic story of a videogame, however complex, is
merely an excuse for the meat, the videogame action;
while the synchronic story, as a story, is virtually
nonexistent. This is not a criticism of videogames, not a
sign of their impoverishment—it is simply pointing out
that, in general, they are doing something totally
different from traditional narrative forms.
But since a diachronic story is by definition
unchangeable—remember, it happened in the past—it
surely must be the synchronic story, the thing that the
videogame player is able to change at will, which is
essential to the possibility of “interactive storytelling.”
But we have just decided that many videogames so far
don’t have synchronic stories at all. So what’s going
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Well, Robotron and Valhalla are pretty old games.
Things on first inspection look somewhat different with
the modern multimedia extravaganzas. Gamers familiar
with epics such as the Final Fantasy series will quickly
voice this objection. For every so often in such games,
an FMV (full-motion video) sequence—the computergenerated “movie” nugget—pops up and moves the
plot along. The narratives of the FMV sequences and
the actual gameplay are contemporaneous: that is, the
FMV is a synchronic story line, and a very involved
one it is too. The same thing occurs in Metal Gear
Solid23—where the highly entertaining plot is as tightly
scripted and twisty as most Hollywood action movies—
in Zelda 64 and, to a lesser extent, in the Tomb Raider
games. Here are games that do have synchronic stories.
Do they constitute some form of interactive
As we touched on in the last chapter, the thing
about FMVs is that they are completely predetermined.
The player must watch them, cannot take part in them
interactively. These sequences are also known as
“cutscenes”—appropriately, because they signal a
23 Although here they use the game engine’s normal graphics, rather than
the superior rendering of FMV. FMVs are just the most popular type of cutscenes.
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discontinuous break between gameplaying, which still
has no story to speak of, and watching, which bears all
the narrative load. In general the player runs around
fighting, solving puzzles and exploring new areas, and
once a certain amount of gameplay is completed, he is
rewarded with a narrative sequence that is set in stone
by the designer. This alternation of cut-scenes and
playable action delivers a very traditional kind of
storytelling yoked rather arbitrarily to essential
videogame challenges of dexterity and spatial thought.
Why “arbitrarily?” Well, it is as if you were reading
a novel and forced by some jocund imp at the end of
each chapter to win a game of table tennis before being
allowed to get back to the story. Actually, with some
games it’s worse than that: it’s the other way around.
You really want a good, exciting game of Ping-Pong,
but you have to read a chapter of some crashingly dull
science-fantasy blockbuster every time you win a game.
Where’s the fun in that?
How many roads must a man walk down . . .
Several videogames, however, are a little more
sophisticated (in a purely narrative sense), in that they
decide which FMV sequences to play at any particular
time according to what the player has done so far. This
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is a small step toward narrative interactivity—but only
a small one. In the space-combat game Colony Wars,
for example, every few missions the player gets an
FMV sequence detailing how the war is going: if
gameplay has gone badly, a player’s side is in disarray;
if gameplay has gone well, a player’s side is making
victorious incursions into the enemy’s solar system. But
note that this overarching synchronic story is an
extremely simple one: one side wins, the other fights
back, somebody emerges as the war’s victor. The plot
in fact only branches in two directions at any given
point, and there are only a handful of possible endings
to the saga, depending on the player’s overall skill.
One reason for this is that it would be prohibitively
expensive and time-consuming for a studio to make the
bank of hundreds or thousands of different cut-scenes
needed to create satisfyingly complex stories by
stringing together permutations of a handful of them.
This problem of data intensiveness is likely never to be
overcome. It is not a question of data storage, but data
creation in the first place. It is simply impractical to
write and pre-render that much FMV video.
The amount of work involved is not peculiar to the
videogame form, either. Imagine an author writing an
“interactive story.” Let us say this story will be
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composed of only nine short chapters; at the end of
each chapter (except the last), the reader will be offered
a choice of eight different directions in which the story
might go. That sounds pretty simple. Eight, nine—
they’re pretty small numbers. Unfortunately, if each
possible plotline is to be truly independent of all the
others, the number of chapters required by such a
scheme is eight to the power of eight, or sixteen
million, seven hundred and seventy thousand, two
hundred and sixteen. Show me a writer who wants to
work that hard and I’ll choke on my Martini.
If you begin to adulterate this hyper-purist concept,
though, and allow the different story paths to cross each
other or converge, so that they can “share” chapters
with each other, the numbers do get more manageable.
But that in turn throws up its own unique storytelling
problems. And they have already been encountered in
prose writing. As noted earlier, the popularity of the ZX
Spectrum and Commodore 64 computers in the early
1980s coincided with the rise of the Fighting Fantasy
gamebooks by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, as
well as the American Choose Your Own Adventure
series (by various authors).
Each numbered story nugget of a few hundred
words ended with something between two and four
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choices; you made your choice and went to the next
appropriate numbered section to see what happened.
The Fighting Fantasy titles, such as The Warlock of
Firetop Mountain, Citadel of Chaos and Forest of
Doom, were generally darker and nastier, based on
Dungeons & Dragons and with many more gory ways
to die. Global sales eventually totaled more than
fourteen million. (Ian Livingstone, now chairman of
Eidos, in 1998 released the Tomb Raider–style
videogame version of one of the early gamebooks,
Deathtrap Dungeon. Steve Jackson, meanwhile, was
involved in the design of God-game supremo Peter
Molyneux’s Black and White [2000].)
Now these books are entertaining children’s
pastimes, but as examples of “interactive storytelling”
they too are instructively limited. To keep the numbers
manageable, very many sections of story in these
gamebooks are shared by different plotlines. Yet, if an
episode can be reached by means of several different
previous ones, there is no way it can ever refer to its
past—because it has no way of knowing what its past
is, which is to say what particular route the reader took
to get there. You end up with a species of story that is
totally amnesiac, that has no sense of its own history.
Try to think of a film or a novel in which at no point
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does a character reflect upon previous events within the
synchronic story. Not easy, is it?
A second problem with shared story nuggets is
increasing familiarity. The reader of a particular
Fighting Fantasy book, after just a few “plays,” would
soon learn to avoid number thirty-four if it was an
option, because the Ganges demons lived there, and the
game would end horribly. In such a situation, the
player/reader’s own memory is taking advantage of the
book’s amnesia to the detriment of the story-telling
experience. A very similar sort of situation obtains in
the sort of videogames that reward the wrong choice
with instant death. You get killed in Tomb Raider, you
reload the game and this time you don’t run heedlessly
down the path because you know about the spike-filled
pit that killed you last time. Or you get shot to pieces in
Metal Gear Solid and next time you remember to creep
nervously past the security camera. If you know the
consequences of your choice in advance, it is no longer
a choice. A corner of the imaginary world has been
cordoned off.
Erase and rewind
Knowledge gained through a previous play throws up
a deep problem with the whole notion of “interactive
storytelling”: what the fact of videogame
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replayability—in that you can always try again—
means to narrative. One problem is that great stories
depend for their effect on irreversibility24—and this is
because life, too, is irreversible. The pity and terror that
Aristotle says we feel as spectators to a tragedy are
clearly dependent on our apprehension of
circumstances that cannot be undone. If Oedipus, on
learning of his unintended parricide and philomatria,
were able to go back and undo his deeds in another
“play” of the story, there would be no tragedy, for he
would live happily ever after. If Raskolnikov were able
to undo his murders there would be nothing for
Dostoyevsky to write about. The argument is, of
course, equally true of farce. If Basil Fawlty had
surreptitiously banked his horse-racing winnings so that
Sibyl couldn’t commandeer them, he wouldn’t have
been driven to such hilariously doomed attempts to
keep the cash, and we wouldn’t laugh at him. But in a
videogame we can go back and change our actions if
they turn out to have undesirable consequences.
Secondly, some choices just make better stories
than others. If you are the hero in a videogame version
of Oedipus Rex and you think, “To hell with it, I don’t
24 This argument is suggested by Alain and FrÉdÉric Le Diberder in
L’Univers des jeux vidÉo.
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care why my city is cursed, I’m off to the hills with
Jocasta to live out my days in luxury,” you’re not going
to get much of a story out of the game.
Some kinds of irreversibility, indeed, are actually
anathema to good videogame design. A good
exploration game, for example, should never let the
player get irreversibly “stuck” in a space from which
there is no escape (because, for example, he or she
hasn’t collected the right key yet), forcing her to switch
off completely and reload. Although this is a feasible
real-life situation for behatted and whipped
adventurers, it is merely frustrating and boring in a
videogame. The Tomb Raider games are admirable
examples in this respect, as the level designers have
always been careful to provide a way back to the more
open environment: when the player gets stuck, she can
be confident that there must be some way out that
hasn’t been spotted yet.
The fact that the videogame form is predicated
strongly on such types of reversibility is one
explanation, then, why the action tells no very
compelling synchronic story. On the other hand, the
FMV cut-scenes that move the plot along in the more
ostensibly “cinematic” types of game are full of
irreversible factors that are out of the player’s
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control—and it is precisely because of these
irreversible factors that a videogame story can become
involving. The death of a certain character in Final
Fantasy VII is often cited as an example of
videogames’ power to induce emotional reactions—
and if a player does so react, this is clearly because the
death occurs in an FMV scene, and is irreversible: the
player does not get a chance to resuscitate him.
Similarly, the player’s discovery in Zelda 64 that Link
is not, as he thought, a real Kokiri elf is potentially
poignant only insofar as the player can do nothing
about it.
Such storytelling as so far exists in videogames,
then, is not really very interactive. The player may
interact with the environment in which the story takes
place but may not change the story at will. A good
theoretical reason for this is pointed out by Olivier
Masclef, the cheerfully erudite project director for
Outcast (1999). “You need to have talent to write a
story,” he says with a grin. “I’m not saying
[videogame] players don’t have any talent—but it’s not
their job.” Over Diet Sprite and watery coffee in the
Los Angeles Convention Center, he tells me about the
way in which his own game approaches these
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Outcast is a fine example of the sort of quasi“cinematic” narrative sweep that a videogame with a
three-million-dollar budget can create. The player’s
character awakes in a strange alien world, and is
identified by the inhabitants as a long-awaited prophet.
He must win the trust of people in the game while
embarking on a quest to find five religious artefacts.
While exploring the game’s gorgeously rendered
organic-looking planets, the player may ride a
twolegged camel, slap a robed elder, and now and then,
of course, shoot enemies with very big guns. Masclef
enthuses that such a game should ideally be like being
“thrown into a big, exotic movie.” The appeal of this
sort of epic videogame is “to be an action-movie hero.”
The game’s specially written two-hour musical score
was recorded by the Moscow Radio Symphony
Orchestra; twenty hours’ worth of character dialogue
was provided by sixteen different voice actors; as a
reward for finishing the game, the player is given a full
half-hour cut-scene to watch. There’s a lot of story
going on in this game, but how much of it is the
player’s business?
Our blond Belgian expert insists that a designer
cannot simply leave the whole story up to the player.
“A totally open world is okay,” Masclef muses, “but if
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you don’t have high levels of dramatic changes,
everything starts to seem the same. So above the
nonlinear play you have a totally linear story line.”
This, he thinks, is one way to address our theoretical
concerns about nonlinearity (that is, reversible,
interactive stories). Nonlinearity, Masclef agrees, leads
to non-urgency: the player has no particular reason to
do one thing rather than another. “You’ve got to hook
the player again. So when, say, ten percent of the game
is completed, we throw in a preplanned event that
changes things in a certain way. Generally [the story] is
scripted and possibilities are locked in time.” This,
then, is the traditional solution thus far in videogame
history: the drama is provided by the prescripted story,
the virtual exploration is interactive, and never the
twain shall meet.
Cracked actors
But what makes Masclef’s game more sophisticated
than most is its approach to character. Now, of course,
stories involve people (or at least intelligent, sentient
life forms), and so any videogame with narrative
pretensions must be populated with people other than
the main character (the one under the player’s control).
These are known generally as NPCs, or non-playable
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characters. And just as it is largely the interactions
between people that make a story interesting, so a good
storytelling videogame ought to simulate believable
exchanges between characters.
Character interactions can happen in cut-scenes as
much as the designer likes, but a greater feeling of
being immersed in the videogame world would
naturally result if other characters reacted to the
player’s actions in a real-time, organic sense. Outcast is
one game that is just beginning to scale this
computational mountain. It is a problem of AI, of
artificial intelligence: how do you make the
computergenerated characters behave in a convincingly
lifelike fashion?
Masclef’s solution was found in the AI theories of
Marvin Minsky. Outcast’s “Gaia” computational
engine uses Minsky’s concept of “agents.” These are
little mental homunculi with specialized jobs: one
agent is for hunger, another agent is for curiosity,
another is for fear, and so on. Weave enough of these
agents together and you have a fairly crude model of a
consciousness, but one that leads to surprisingly
complex sets of behavior. In Outcast the effects,
though rudimentary, are enjoyable to see. As Masclef
describes it: “Say you make a big noise. If its agent of
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curiosity is bigger, the creature will investigate; if its
agent of fear is bigger, he’ll run away.” Meanwhile, if
the player accidentally or deliberately kills a friendly
alien, the rest of them have their agents of helpfulness
instantly adjusted downward: they will be far less
inclined to help the player in his quest, or even to talk
to him. Sure you can have a little fun with the
rocketlauncher, but then Outcast quite surprisingly
makes you feel guilty for having done so. Joyous
deathdealing À la Quake this is not. In order to regain
your friends’ trust after such an aberration, Outcast
sentences you to the equivalent of community service:
giving money to beggars, for instance, or helping with
agricultural work.
In the future, Masclef would like to see computer
algorithms such as the agents expand and take on an
ever larger role. “We’ve developed very clever AI for
the behaviors and the life cycles of the characters, but
sometimes the player doesn’t see it,” Masclef says.
“Speech is one of the things that is not generated on the
fly [in this game]. They speak this funky English—
why not generate it on the fly? And then other
characters’ responses would be a continuum depending
on your reputation and actions in the game.”
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What a huge challenge for programmers. But the
results would be worth it. It’s all very well to try to
script every possible interaction, but then—as we have
seen—the game’s story engineer has to write an awful
lot to approach any semblance of interactivity. The
artificial intelligence algorithms that are present
embryonically in Outcast, however, while being very
hard to set up initially, result thereafter in interesting
and believable behavior “for free.” The videogame
designer, like a deity, sets up laws of behavior for his
creatures, and then lets the processor do all the
calculation to create the actual behavior at any given
point in the game. Algorithmic processes solve our
problem of storytelling data intensiveness at a stroke.
In a certain crude sense, this has been the case for a
long time. For instance, the enemy machines in
Robotron are programmed with simple movement
algorithms that tell them either to hunt down the player
or go straight for the other humans on screen. But now
that such movement rules are being combined with
simulations of curiosity or fear, and if in the future they
may even be accompanied by rules for communication,
the illusion of other “life” in the gameworld will be
vastly enhanced.
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A fascinating corollary of this arm’s-length
approach—set it up and let it roll—is that what happens
in the videogame, though not random, then becomes
highly unpredictable. This idea is seconded at Core
Design’s development studios, during the early stages
of work on a beautiful PlayStation2 game that requires
the player to herd eccentric cartoon wildlife. Never
mind the humans; every creature in the forest, from
insects to deer and cows, has its own specific web of AI
algorithms. And this complexity leads to very rich and
varied possibilities of behavior. “We may have written
the game,” a programmer insists with amazed pride at
his creation, “but we don’t know what’s going to
These developments are analogous to Mathengine’s
work on the physical modeling of dynamic properties.
And just as convincing feelings of bounciness, heft or
inertia in virtual objects increase the aesthetic pleasure
of the game, so will more convincing simulations of
other wills, whether enemy or ally. The Holy Grail now
for story-led videogames is nothing less than the
physical modeling of personality.
Yes, this sounds like a tall order. But note that we do
not need to believe in the cognitive science project
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of “Strong AI” in order to become excited by these
possibilities for videogames. “Strong AI” is the
position, much postulated in science fiction from Blade
Runner and Terminator to The Matrix, that one day
computers will be able to think for themselves. Now,
just as with physical modeling, with NPCs you only
ever need as much realism as is appropriate to the
game. Remember, an accurate simulation of Formula
One racing would be a bad game, and simplifications
and elisions are part of the process of good game
Some simplifications, however, are more
impoverishing than others. And as much as the
behavioral possibilities of videogame NPCs (whether
flesh, fish or fowl) are increasing, dramatic interactions
are still going to be pretty one-sided unless the
videogame player is allowed greater freedom and
creativity in the exchange.
Outcast requires the player actually to “speak” to other
characters in the game; their responses vary from the
helpful to the belligerent. Yet how are the player’s lines
chosen? You cannot simply say anything you like.
Instead, you call up a menu screen that offers you a
handful of possible conversational gambits, and you
simply choose one with the joystick or keyboard. It is
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clear that, even if Olivier Masclef’s ambition to have
the computer generate the characters’ responses
automatically is fulfilled, the process will never feel
like a conversation to the player as long as he is
constricted by having to choose from a set of
predetermined speechlets.
Superior though Outcast may be, the player can still
only choose between conversational options that are
offered to him by the computer. Whether these choices
are predetermined by the designer or computed in real
time by the processor is irrelevant. The fact remains
that the player still cannot do something that the game
is not prepared to allow.
Talking it over
How could such freedom even be possible? To let a
player “say” anything he or she liked in a videogame
conversation, the machine’s processor would need, in
short, to be able to parse natural language, to
understand and respond to whatever was said to it in
English (or American, Japanese, German, Finnish and
so on), either via a keyboard interface or by analyzing
speech waves. This is such a massively difficult thing
to get a computer to do that it actually constitutes one
minimal requirement of Strong AI: the Turing Test.
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And, needless to say, it hasn’t been achieved yet.
There are anecdotal reports of “bots”—little mobile
computer programs that roam the Internet25—fooling
people in chat rooms, but given the depressing level of
conversational aptitude in such places, that is hardly
surprising. But a computer that speaks your language,
like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, is still—so far—a
pipe dream.
In fact, videogames deliberately turned their back
on the most promising avenue for success in this field
in the late 1980s, for that is around the time when the
classic text-based “adventure” game was replaced by
versions with pictures alone and no typing required.
(This move was made for two largely commercial
reasons: firstly, videogame manufacturers reckoned
pretty moving pictures sold better than boring old
words; secondly, videogames were increasingly played
on consoles, such as the Nintendo Entertainment
System, which didn’t come with keyboards.) The
adventure game, remember, is a puzzle game whose
static problems are solved by rudimentary textual
“conversation.” The computer says something like,
“You are in a dark cavern. There is a door to the east,
25 The term “bot” is also used for the speechless but artificially
“intelligent” enemies in games such as Quake III.
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but it is locked. An orc appears, snarling hungrily.” The
player would then type in unlock door. go east, thus
getting out of the way of the monster and calling up the
computer’s stored description of the next environment.
The input language available to the adventuregame
player began as a very rudimentary set of verbs:
ADVENT’s commands involved little more than
directions, compass points, attacking, picking up and
dropping things. Yet by the full bloom of the
microprocessor revolution of the 1980s, the parsing
engines of adventure games had reached a higher level
of sophistication, able to respond accurately to
prepositional and pronoun constructions, and inviting
simple speech exchanges with NPCs. Players of the ZX
Spectrum version of The Hobbit might remember
frustratedly trying to use a wizard’s muscle with the
command: tell gandalf “break door.” At such times, of
course, the bearded one was singularly unhelpful.
Richard Darling specifically remembers one
program, Eliza, which was the fruit of early attempts
to pass the Turing Test. It was originally written in the
1970s but cropped up on several home
microcomputers in the 1980s: several versions of it are
still available on the Internet. It played the part of a
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virtual psychotherapist. The user had a rudimentary
conversation with it by typing answers to its questions,
and Eliza would then respond to those answers and ask
for further elaboration. “Eliza was one of the really
exciting events throughout the computer industry,”
Darling recalls, “because you could type to it and it
wrote back to you. It’s interesting, I think, that in the
games world, AI hasn’t to me actually exceeded that
excitement level.”
With current videogame hardware thousands of
times faster and more sophisticated, great strides could
have been made toward in-corporating more fluent
language engines in games, and even steering them
toward something approaching true conversation. But
that evolutionary path was not taken. “Unfortunately,”
Richard Darling says, “I think we’ve gone through a bit
of a dark age as far as communication AI is concerned,
but we’ll hopefully come out of that soon.”
Instead, the kind of static puzzles that used to be
typical of adventure games persist in what some call
“action adventures” (they belong in our genre of
exploration games). How does this work? Well, a game
such as Resident Evil, for example, is built on exactly
the same kind of puzzles that were the meat and drink
of text adventures in their heyday. A nasty
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plant monster bars the way: go find some weedkiller
that you can splash on it. You must collect three books,
or some crystals, or combine some herbs, or get more
ammo for your gun. The only difference is that instead
of typing in commands, you directly control the
movement of your character, select items and use them
by pressing specialized buttons on the joypad.
Resident Evil is in this way somewhat less
sophisticated than Zork or Snowball, or any number of
classic text adventures. Nostalgia aside, the comparison
is instructive because of the ways in which each game
executes aspects of a story. Adventure games on first
sight seem to be very close to traditional stories. They
were, after all, in the same medium: text. And their
descriptions of locations and scenes (often very well
written) stimulated the mental imagination in exactly
the same way that the prose of a novel does.
Yet even they did not tell an “interactive plot”:
locations were all prescripted, and though you had
certain freedoms to explore, you were still exploring a
determinate, linear world. And just as with more
modern games, the uses and combinations of objects
available were only those that had been deliberately
foreseen by the designer. Resident Evil, on the other
hand, imitates a different medium altogether: as we’ve
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seen, it tries to be like a film, making use of certain
horror-movie camera angles and so on. And its most
evocative language is the incoherent moaning of
The play’s the thing
So what might the future hold? It is clear, for one thing,
that mainstream videogames will never go back to the
keyboard. (Games played on personal computers rather
than on keyboard-free consoles such as the PlayStation
account for only about 10 percent of the total sold
worldwide.) The text adventure, therefore, is dead as a
dodo. But future games will probably start to
incorporate accurate voice recognition and eventually,
no doubt, sophisticated language parsing, so that you
can actually “talk” to other characters in the videogame
world. Richard Darling agrees. “And then with AI
systems as we are now, that could be a huge leap in
excitement levels, where you could actually
communicate with AI people in a way that you believed
to be pretty close to realistic.”
Sega’s beautiful and fascinating oddity Seaman
(2000), for the Dreamcast system, is an admirable first
step to reclaiming this higher path for videogames.
Described as a “voice recognition pet,” it requires the
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player to rear a hilariously bizarre fish with a man’s
head (straight out of Monty Python’s The Meaning of
Life) that swims around a digital aquarium. The player
can speak into a microphone peripheral that plugs into
the joypad, and Seaman answers back. For the moment,
however, only half the job is done, for Seaman’s
responses are still all pre-scripted. Dynamic voice
synthesis and language creation in response to a
player’s conversation is still, it seems, a long way off.
When it happens, it will certainly be a wonderfully rich
form of interaction. But I don’t think it will achieve the
dream of interactive narrative. What it will
revolutionize instead is Olivier Masclef’s ambition of a
“dramatically interesting virtual world”: it will bolster
the illusion of actually being a character in an
imaginary social context. Yet for the game to be able to
surprise and move the player with its story line, it must
necessarily still keep certain plot developments out of
the player’s control. (“Could there be a truly
interactive, democratic art form?” David Cronenberg
wonders. “My films certainly aren’t democratic—their
creation is more like a dictatorship.”)
Guildenstern, the future gameplayer might be an actor
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in a drama over which he has no control—for only
then, as we have seen, is it a drama. The author, pace
Roland Barthes, is not quite dead yet.
Pending some future computational revolution,
then, in which a machine might be programmed to
simulate a real human author, with a real author’s
consciousness, creativity and life experiences, truly
interactive narrative is going to be out of reach. These
are the (very difficult) minimum requirements, and they
go beyond even the requirements of Strong AI. There
are heuristic “story-writing” programs already, but their
output, although impressive in its syntactical
sophistication, is worthless in literary terms. There is as
yet no reason to think that solving the data
intensiveness problem by applying algorithmic
processes to the actual plot, rather than to character
behavior, will result in anything a human gameplayer
would be interested in, emotionally or otherwise.
But this should not be surprising, or even
disappointing. Because stories will always be things
that people want to be told. If everyone wanted to make
up their own story, why would they buy so many
novels and cinema tickets? We like stories in general
because they’re not interactive.
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Tie me up, tie me down
So should videogames totally abandon their current
model of prescripted story line interrupting interactive
play? Not necessarily. While it certainly does not
amount to “interactive storytelling,” it can still work
remarkably well on its own account, under the same
circumstances as any good story: when it is well
A good videogame story provides a powerful
external motivation (external to the actual gameplay
mechanics) for continuing to try to beat the system. A
well-scripted game, such as Metal Gear Solid, keeps
you playing because fundamentally, as E. M. Forster
remarked of the primary appeal of the novel, you just
want to know what happens next. It helps that Metal
Gear Solid’s cut-scenes of vocal dialogue are generally
well acted, and the multiple twists and turns of the
thriller plot are highly enjoyable, dropping little hints as
to the true nature of your mission and the organization
you work for, keeping you guessing as to how it will all
turn out.
But Metal Gear Solid’s true brilliance lies in its
touches of humorous self-consciousness. It knows
it’s a game. One of your opponents, a pink-
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bodystockinged martial arts cyborg called Psycho
Mantis, comments sarcastically on the other
videogames you play (by reading the memory card in
your console, which contains data saved from other
games). And a helpful character will tell you at one
point to pull your controller out of the PlayStation and
put it in the other socket, so that Psycho will no longer
be able to predict your movements and kill you quickly.
Such clever devices ensure that the player is a happy
slave: though he has no freedom to change the story, he
has a lot of freedom in the gameplay itself, where many
different creative solutions can be found to the game’s
problems. The unique pleasure of a videogame, after
all, the one that no other medium can offer, is always
going to be what happens between the episodes of the
The videogame industry knows just how successful
this approach can be—and, increasingly, professional
scriptwriters are being hired to work on high-budget
productions for exactly these reasons. In the future,
videogames will no doubt have much better stories, but
it seems unlikely that we will be given much more
freedom to change them than we already have in games
like Perfect Dark, Zelda 64 or Metal Gear Solid. And
above all, there will still need to be interesting
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tasks for the player to perform. Sega’s Dreamcast game
Shenmue, for example, looks absolutely gorgeous and
has a suitably epic story line, but the gameplay is
somewhat limited.
What we want in general from a videogame story is
not interactive narrative at all, but a sophisticated
illusion that gives us pleasure without responsibility.
Sure, it might be nice to feel like we really are
infiltrating a terrorist compound in Alaska, or going on
an exotic quest to find an archaeological artefact, and if
prescripted story scenes can enhance this feeling of
involvement, then they serve a useful purpose. If we
can further choose to do certain things, and so see
certain episodes of the story in a different order, then
fine—but we don’t want to have to make crucial
narrative decisions that might, in effect, spoil the story
for us. We want to have our cake and eat it too.
A great deal of cake, not to mention roast chicken,
salads and pizza piled high on hundreds of trestle
tables, was consumed at Sony’s 1999 E3 party, held in
the lots of Sony Pictures in Culver City. This is where
the throngs at the Los Angeles videogames fair went to
wind down one evening—at least, those lucky enough
to secure invitations. Before the stage was taken for a
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live performance by slacker-country rocker Beck, Ken
Kutaragi, the engineering genius at Sony Japan who
designed the PlayStation and its successor, gave an
intriguing speech that concentrated on the advantages
of “new worlds” and “characters.” He was cheered to
the echo by the audience.
Kutaragi’s concentration on “character” rather than
storytelling was informative. Developments in Los
Angeles and elsewhere show a new pragmatism among
videogame designers: concentrating on what they alone
can provide, rather than chasing the fashionable dream
of interactive narrative, or uncritically seeking
convergence with the cinema. Instead, especially in
their concentration on character, videogames are
carefully strip-mining our conventional notions of
narrative and storytelling for what can be usefully
simulated in their own, utterly different, medium.
But how do videogames build the worlds that their
characters inhabit?
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Vector class
The world is made of glowing green and red lines. You
are seated in a cockpit, grasping a sculpted black lever
in each hand, thumbs hovering over the twin red fire
buttons on top. You are in a tank. Audio rumblings and
sonar-like pings go off around your ears as the other
tanks on the battlefield seek to destroy you. It’s kill or
be killed. It’s a dream of perfect destruction. You’re
playing Battlezone.
This arcade game, released by Atari in 1980, in
which the player must shoot other tanks and flying
saucers while surviving as long as possible, was a
milestone in the history of videogame imagery, and in
the construction of videogame space itself. It was the
first really successful “first-person” game, where the
screen showed the action from a perspectival point of
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view, as if you were actually there. (There had been
previous attempts at perspective in games, notably in
Night Driver, which used moving white blocks on a
black screen to evoke cats’ eyes and side bollards on a
road, and in Star Raiders [1979], a rudimentary 3D
space shoot-’em-up, but Battlezone provided an
environment where the player had complete freedom of
movement over the ground in any direction.) And
Battlezone was also the defining moment of a style of
graphic representation whose influence is still felt, even
in the most modern games of the new millennium.
The ghostly images of enemy tanks and flying
saucers were drawn in vector graphics. Whereas a
television screen or a modern computer monitor is a
“raster” display, consisting of hundreds of horizontal
arrays of dots that are drawn one at a time, so that a
diagonal line on screen always looks “stepped,” vector
screens enabled a perfectly straight line to be drawn
between any two points on the screen. Battlezone’s
universe was one of sharp-edged perfection.
But the most immediately noticeable thing about
the game now is that its tanks and mountains are drawn
only in luminous outline. You can see right through
everything. This method became known as “wireframe
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3D.”26 Where two planes of an object meet, a line is
drawn, but the planes themselves have no surface, no
solidity. Every object is drawn from simple geometrical
objects such as triangles and rectangles. These are
generally known as “polygons.”
Wireframe 3D caught on after Battlezone, and
several arcade classics borrowed this technology while
making the leap from pervasive green to full color,
most notably Star Wars and, in excelsis, Tempest,
whose abstract pyrotechnics drove one of the greatest
shoot-’em-up games ever conceived.
The peculiar ascetic attraction of wireframe
graphics (whose apotheosis coincided with the last days
of vector displays, but persisted after they had gone, as
raster monitors now had sufficient pixel resolution to
draw pretty straight-looking diagonals) enabled the
player to concentrate purely on the action in a defiantly
alien, unreal and still featureless arena. For many
people growing up on these machines, the pinpoint
glowing geometries of these worlds became a new
metaphor for the terrain of the imagination—the
26 The first 3D wireframe computer animation had actually been created
nearly two decades previously, by Edward Zajac, an engineer working at
Bell Labs, as part of an experiment to see whether an orbiting satellite could
be stabilized so that one of its surfaces always faced Earth.
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structures of logical thought incarnated in a beautiful
dance of electrons.
Martin Amis wrote that Battlezone has “the look of
op or pop art and the feel of a genuine battlezone.” This
intriguing comparison is instructive in its shortcomings.
For unlike op art, which produces an illusion of
movement in the abstract, static image, Battlezone has
partly representational ambitions (that is a tank, that is a
flying saucer), and produces an illusion of movement
by stringing together simple static images at high
speed. Battlezone’s defining aesthetic (owing in part to
technical limitations at the time), on the other hand, and
in contrast to pop art, is one of purely imaginary
surfaces. Where pop art glories in colorful flat shading
and razored curves, Battlezone evinces contempt for
color, for material, for substance itself. Such qualities,
it murmurs seductively, are illusory anyway. The edge
is everything: the frontier where one plane meets
another, where turret joins body, where missile meets
The look of Battlezone or Tempest was at the same
time shockingly weird and comfortingly familiar, not
from Warhol or Riley but from a much nearer and more
disturbing medium. It was as if high school
mathematics lessons had come to life, benignly. No
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doubt Battlezone and its ilk had some influence on
William Gibson’s seminally incandescent descriptions
of the Matrix (whence the 1999 film got its title). In
computersimulated world, where corporations are
represented by “green cubes” or a “stepped scarlet
pyramid,” where the landscape consists of “lines of
light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and
constellations of data. Like city lights, receding . . .”
Battlezone was the first game to draw with those
familiar schoolroom objects, polygons—and in that, it
prefigured the firework geometries of cutting-edge
games in the late 1990s and beyond.
Battlezone was at once fantastically complex, in the
demands of reaction and strategy it placed on the
player, and reassuringly simple. Here was a universe
devoid of clutter, eternally shiny and new. Early dreams
of virtual reality were always expressed visually in
wireframe graphics for these very reasons (see Tron),
and now that videogame graphics have moved on to fill
in the wireframe skeletons with textured surfaces, and
to smooth their hard-edged outlines, the wireframe
aesthetic can be seen as one of the great futurist dreams
of the late twentieth century.
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Modern videogames themselves understand the loss
and even grieve it, in witty ways: Metal Gear Solid, for
instance, provides the player with a delicious “VR
Training Mode,” in which strategies for the game
proper are practiced in a wireframe world, and moving
among these glowing green rectilinear constructions
feels, in a funny way, like a sort of homecoming.
The art of the new
From Space Invaders to the creation of space itself.
For many years the Holy Grail of videogame graphics
engineers was a system of true three-dimensional
action, a “virtual” space that the player could inhabit.
The problem of representing three dimensions on a
flat plane (in this case, the television screen) had
already been worried about by painters for thousands of
years. The earliest attempts at perspective that we know
of are found in scenery painting for the Dionysian
theater at Athens in the fifth century B.C. (the Greeks
called it skenographia), and foreshortening and shading
developed with increasing sophistication up to and
through the medieval period. But an exact theory of
perspective in painting was not codified until circa
1420, when Filippo Brunelleschi systematized a
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mathematical method for what became known as
“scientific perspective.”
You know it already. Objects in the distance
decrease in apparent size according to strictly defined
ratios. Parallel lines converge at one or more
“vanishing points.”27 Scientific perspective is
universally familiar today, at least in the West. It is
everywhere, and it just looks “right.” When a child is
taught to draw railway lines converging as they roll into
the distance, she is learning scientific perspective. We
are familiar with Escher’s unsettling distortions of it.
And scientific perspective is the kind on which most
modern 3D videogames are constructed. In games such
as Doom, where the screen supposedly shows the
player’s point of view in an imagined, putatively solid
environment, the computer calculates—precisely
according to the rules first devised by Brunelleschi and,
later, elaborated by Alberti in his On Painting (1436)—
the appropriate size and shape for all objects on the
screen, depending on their distance from and angle to
the hypothetical “viewer.”
27 This familiar term was not, in fact, coined (by Brook Taylor, in Linear
Perspective) until nearly 300 years after the discovery of scientific
perspective by painters.2
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But along the way, videogames have rehearsed
other histories of pictorial representation, and come up
with imaginative and original visual strategies
themselves. Moreover, as has been made abundantly
clear in the mid- to late 1990s by the industry’s
numerous abortive attempts to convert old
twodimensional game paradigms into 3D space,
videogame possibilities often depend totally on the
form of representation chosen. It is hard to imagine a
workable true-3D Asteroids or Defender. The critical
problem is this: you can’t see behind you. Of course,
you can’t in real life either, but then in real life you
don’t often find yourself piloting an arrow-shaped
spaceship and blasting big rocks. The latest reiteration
of Asteroids (1998), in fact, finally recognizes this
problem. The ships and rocks are reimagined as “solid,”
multifaceted objects, but the playing area is a good old
two-dimensional plane.
So what is the story of videogames’ visual
refinement? What shapes of world have sprouted from
the silicon, and what might the future still hold?
Pushing the boundaries
The very earliest videogames, such as Spacewar
and Pong, represented objects on a flat plane, the
boundaries of which were those of the screen. The
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environment had no characteristics of its own: it was
not terrain, but simply a function of the relations
between objects (such as the perilous gravitational field
surrounding the sun in Spacewar) or a means by which
time could pass while one object traveled across the
screen (the ball in Pong), so that everything did not
happen simultaneously.
This was a mode of space purer than any that exists
in the real universe. Its laws produced no frictional
resistance, and it offered no decorative matter to
distract from the task in hand. It was a pure dream of
unhindered movement and harmonious action. More
modern games have diluted this primal passion in a
mania of hyper-representation. Certainly it is clear that
as soon as more advanced graphic systems become
available in the history of videogames, it is space that
gets filled up, terraformed, converted into a game
object itself. Perhaps in the end there was something
disturbing about the alien vacuum.
In the early flat-plane games, the boundaries of the
TV screen limited the play arena to a fixed, small size,
and thus limited the type of action available to game
designers. (Just as in real life, a game of football
requires more space than a game of tennis.) The screen
was a prison. But it didn’t take long before ways were
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invented to gild the cage, and then burst its bars
“Wraparound” screens were soon developed, as in
Asteroids (1979), where the player’s ship could, rather
than bouncing off the screen edges, travel off one side
of the screen and magically reappear on the other,
providing increased fluidity of action. Now space was
curved. Your disappearing ship would sail “over” the
top and zip around the (imaginary) back
rematerializing at the bottom. Topologically, the spatial
arrangement of Asteroids, though it looked flat, was
actually equivalent to the surface of a torus (a doughnut
with a hole in the middle). While this curvature
maneuverability, it also cunningly increased the sense
of entrapment. For anyone who has watched their
Asteroids ship career repeatedly across the screen time
after time at full speed knows that there is no escape,
however far you travel, from the implacable boulders.
The superficial limits of the screen were further
eroded by the invention of scrolling. The term was
borrowed, with semi-conscious irony, from that
precodex literary technology, the scroll, which may be
unfurled horizontally or vertically, according to the
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dispensation of characters, in order to uncover more
text than is currently viewable on the open section. We
are now all familiar with the process of smoothly
scrolling down a word-processing document or Web
page: videogames got there first.
Early scrolling games were mostly of the vertical
shoot-’em-up genre. Rather than sit waiting for aliens
to come knocking at one’s defenses, as in Space
Invaders (1978), the player was in constant motion,
rushing forever upward on a long, linear strip of space,
dodging and fighting enemies along the way. But most
revolutionary was a type of space delineated by the
combination of horizontal scrolling with a variation on
the wraparound concept.
This idea in fact featured in one of the earliest
scrolling games, Defender (1980 [see fig. 9]), for many
reasons a classic of radical design, in which the player’s
ship is free to fly left or right, or simply to hover,
spitting lasers at the evil hordes. When the ship is in
motion, it remains in the center of the screen;
everything else scrolls by to give the illusion of
movement. But fly far enough in one direction and the
player approaches the original starting point, from the
opposite direction. Horizontally, then, the play area is
finite but unbounded.
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Videogames had, with such forms as Defender’s,
somehow acquired a new dimension of action. It is
certainly not the same space as in the old, static,
onescreen games. Yet nor is it three-dimensional, for
the player cannot fly “into” or “out of” the screen. The
game demands, moreover, that the player watch two
representations of the same space: one on the main
playing area, and one on Defender’s innovatively
complex radar, a small subscreen that shows a wider
section of the game universe at any one time so that
attacks can be planned and threatened humans rescued.
The arrangement of space on the primary screen is
rather as if we found ourselves in the center of a large
circular strip, onto which is projected the battle action;
when we scroll sideways, we are metaphorically
turning our heads to investigate another area of the
This spatial arrangement is indeed the perfect,
unforeseeable fusion of two pre-cinema visual
technologies: the Cyclorama of the 1840s, in which the
viewer stands inside a circular drum painted with a
continuous image; and the Kinematoscope, patented by
Coleman Sellers in 1861, in which a series of
photographs arranged around the inside of a revolving
drum presents the illusion of movement to an observer
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Fig. 9. Defender: swoop low over the mountains and defend the
human race. The radar (top) shows the whole level space in
miniature (‰ 1980 Williams)
focusing on a fixed area of the interior. Defender
marries the endless, wraparound vista of the Cyclorama
with the flickering animation of the Kinematoscope,
although the vista itself is different in purpose. It is not
the visual depiction of the cycloramic space that is
important in the videogame—Defender’s space is still
mostly unindividuated—but the strategic opportunities
it offers, the chance to come up behind the enemy.
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Later games, such as R-Type (1988), took
advantage of spare power to create an inventive
impression of depth with “parallax” scrolling. Imagine
the viewer inside the circular strip described above,
only now it is not one but several concentric circular
strips, revolving at decreasing speeds as they increase
in distance from the viewer. In a train, the observer
notes that trackside posts flash by in an instant, while
distant scenery rolls past in a more leisurely fashion. In
order to imitate this effect of moving perspective, the
game screen background now acquires several different
flat planes, so that objects in the foreground plane
sweep by more quickly than objects in the middledistance plane, which in turn pass more quickly than
objects (mountain ranges, clouds and the like) near the
horizon. The term “parallax” itself was, fittingly for a
family of games that usually featured alien worlds,
borrowed from astronomy.
It is important to emphasize again at this point that
innovations such as wraparound and scrolling did not
at once render earlier forms obsolete. The limitations
of a fixed, bounded screen, for instance, are
reimagined as positive gameplay virtues by the tense,
claustrophobic design of Robotron (1982), in which
the player’s post-apocalyptic hero must do battle in a
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confined space with twenty, fifty or a hundred
bloodthirsty automatons in order to save the last nuclear
family on Earth. As the game’s designer, Eugene
Jarvis, explained to J. C. Herz: “It was kind of about
confinement. You are stuck on this screen. There’s two
hundred robots trying to mutilate you, and there’s no
place to hide . . . You can’t run down the hallway. You
can’t go anywhere else . . . A lot of times, the games
are about the limitations. Not only what you can do but
what you can’t do.”28
Points of view
In 1980, Battlezone’s scientific perspective was still
only one of many competing modes of representation
available to the videogame designer. Games continued
to perform on two-dimensional planes, scrolling in one
or more directions, for years. In 1982, however, another
new mode, which came to be known as “isometric
perspective,” was popularized by Zaxxon (see fig. 10),
28 Jarvis’s point is further backed up by the fact that nine years after
scrolling and perspectival representation were invented, along came Tetris,
an ultra-simple affair that featured neither, but almost instantly became the
world’s most popular videogame. The modern success of Grand Theft Auto,
too, has not been limited by its “old-fashioned,” top-down viewpoint.
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vertically or horizontally, but diagonally up and to the
right. “Isometric” means “constant measurements.” In
architectural parlance, “isometric projection” is the
name given to a type of drawing in which all horizontal
lines are drawn at an angle of thirty degrees to the
horizontal plane of projection. In other words, parallel
lines do not converge, and equal emphasis is given to
all three planes. In videogame terms, this means that an
illusion of solidity is created while preserving an
external viewpoint. You could see three sides of an
object rather than just one. And now, crucially, the
game screen was not just a neutral arena; it had become
an environment.
By means of simple jagged lines, Defender had
created an illusion of planetary surface by sketching a
mountain range; below the level of the mountains it
was safe to drop off rescued humans. But the
mountains worked only to delimit functional areas of
the arena in this way; they were otherwise
metaphorically “behind” the player and did not have to
be negotiated. Later derivatives of the scrolling 2D
shoot-’em-up, such as Scramble, did require the
navigation of tortuous tunnels, but this design only in
effect limited the play area, which remained as fluid
and empty as ever. The player’s ship in Zaxxon,
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Fig. 10. Zaxxon: isometric perspective and terraformed space
(‰ Sega 1982)
however, while having as usual to deal with enemy
aircraft, could also explode if it crashed into any of the
numerous barrels, pylons and buildings poking up out
of the ground. Movement was now nearly in three
dimensions, with the introduction of controls to vary
“height” above the ground. Only the fact that motion
was automatically one-way (a function of the scrolling)
inhibited complete freedom of movement.
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Isometric perspective was not a brand-new
discovery. It is very similar, for instance, to the form of
“parallelism” (representation in which parallel lines do
not converge) found in ancient Chinese art, whose high
viewpoint and oddly elongated (to the modern eye)
diagonals are reproduced by Zaxxon and its siblings. In
this case it is irrelevant that isometricity doesn’t
resemble the way we see things in real life.29 In
videogames, isometric perspective enjoyed a phase as
the most technologically sophisticated means of
building a 3D world, for example on games such as Ant
Attack, Highway Encounter and Knight Lore for the
ZX Spectrum.
Foreshortening implies a subjective, individual
viewpoint, so its absence in isometric graphics, along
with the elevated position of survey, conspired to give
the user a sense of playing God in these tiny universes.
God could not yet move around—he was still glued to
his chair—but he could see everything, he was in
control, and he saw that it was good.
29 At any distance, that is. In fact, according to modern psychologists, when
scrutinizing objects that are very close in our visual field, convergence
doesn’t operate, and what we “see” actually resembles parallelism more
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Isometric perspective still prospers in the huge
genre of strategy gaming. In SimCity and Civilization
or Command and Conquer, the player controls
numerous units (people, tanks, factories and so on)
within a vast playing area. Construct this world in
scientific perspective, without an omniscient overview,
and you’d be totally lost among the details. In such
games, you don’t need to peer behind at the hidden
surfaces of an arms factory, for instance, because it is a
functional counter in the gameplay, defined solely by
its use and potential.
Scientific perspective is not just one alternative
mode of representation among others; it is not just an
arbitrary artistic “convention,” but is wired into true
theories of physics and biology. And its lure was
irresistible to videogame designers who were searching
for ever more elaborate ways to convince the player
that he or she was not merely watching, but was really
in that world.
Being there
People usually say that the first true “immersive”
3D game was Wolfenstein 3D, released by iD in 1992.
This did indeed kick-start a blossoming genre, the firstperson shooter, where the screen displays the
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supposed viewpoint of the player’s character wandering
around an enemy-infested arena with a battery of
projectile weaponry.30
Yet Battlezone, more than a decade previously, was
in effect a first-person shooter, and the first-person
viewpoint had even been crammed into a game released
for the Sinclair ZX81 home computer, 3D Monster
Maze, in which the player had to negotiate a black-andwhite maze (drawn in a very low-resolution
approximation of wireframe) while avoiding a
marauding Tyrannosaurus rex; the entire game, a
beautifully terrifying experience for any nine-year-old
of the day (me, for instance), ran in a mere 16 kilobytes
of code, which wouldn’t be nearly enough to run even
the joystick drivers for modern games.
Yet it was Wolfenstein that first situated the player
in “rooms,” connected by doors, with walls receding
realistically into the distance and other humans
wandering around to be killed. (In this case they were
Nazi officers, so no compunction need be felt about
blasting them to their doom.) Wolfenstein’s illusionism
was rather crude: there was no texture to the floors or
ceiling to aid the impression of forward
30 With wry names. In the follow-up, Doom, the most potent weapon was
known by the acronym BFG: “big fucking gun.”
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movement—only the walls of the room moved; and the
enemy soldiers were constructed by bit-mapped sprites,
which means they were basically flat drawings. When
the enemies got nearer, they grew perspectivally by the
simple means of enlarging every pixel in the drawing,
so that they looked fuzzy and “blocky.” But another
innovation Wolfenstein made has been copied by every
first-person shooter since: at the bottom of the screen is
a representation of hands clutching a gun, drawn
foreshortened so that the gun appears to be pointing
“into” the screen. This was a clever effort to try to cross
the barrier between onscreen action and the player’s
physical situation— those are my hands, so my head
must be in this world too—and the animations of recoil
and reloading have become ever more impressive.
But the purpose of this gun onscreen is purely
cosmetic and psychological, rather than operational. It
is not used for aiming, for while Wolfenstein and Doom
have the gun pointing straight into the center, other
first-person shooters, such as Goldeneye, have it
coming into the screen at an angle (usually from the
right, which sadly compromises believability for
lefties), so it is impossible to judge its precise direction
and range. Of course, anyone actually using a gun
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points it dead ahead along the central axis of vision,
rather than across the body; the videogame gun,
however, is moved over to one side so as not to obscure
the center of the screen, where most of the action takes
place, and a separate aiming cursor (usually small
crosshairs) is provided for accuracy of shooting.
The makers of Wolfenstein went on to release the
far more successful Doom, which added floor and
ceiling textures as well as external locations, and then
Quake, which further enhanced the illusion of a solid
environment with solid, polygonal monsters. Suddenly,
videogame space was inhabited, occupied by the
And it was all done with geometry. The triangles
and oblongs of Battlezone are the same objects that
make up a level of Half-Life (1998), only in the latter
they are massively more numerous, and the surfaces are
filled in. So why did polygons become the ubiquitous
virtual bricks of videogames? Because, whatever the
interesting or eccentric devices that had been thrown up
along the way, videogames, as with the strain of
Western art from the Renaissance up until the shock of
photography, were hell-bent on refining their powers of
illusionistic deception.
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Wireframe 3D was a nice start, but now it’s old hat.
Real tanks don’t look like that. In two dimensions, you
join the dots; in three dimensions, you join the lines. It
was time to color in the surfaces, and in the early 1990s
game types such as aircraft combat simulators, driving
games and more tank games began to do this, while
polygonal animated human forms first appeared in
videogames with the martial arts game Virtua Fighter.
Remember: a polygon (“many sides”) is any flat shape
drawn with straight lines. A triangle, a square, an
icosahedron—they are all polygons. Easy to draw.
Easy, with a powerful chip, to draw an awful lot of
The bloody, rotting zombies in House of the Dead 2
(see fig. 11) are constructed from many differently
shaded and shaped triangles, which foreshorten and
morph when the figure moves exactly according to the
rules of scientific perspective. The play of virtual light31
off these baroque constructions gives them the
appearance of solid objects in space in a way that flat
graphic drawings (sprites) never accomplished. Shading
of light and dark on a flat, static surface (for instance,
in a painting) is sufficient to suggest depth
31 Another coinage by William Gibson, in his novel of that name (New
York: Bantam Books, 1994).
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and form, but videogames have the added challenge
that they move, and 3D videogames allow objects to be
seen from more than one angle. So the demonic form is
defined as a mathematical solid, and then the
computing engine can calculate all the shading and
foreshortening automatically.
Fig. 11. House of the Dead 2: be afraid of geometry (‰ Sega
The fact that solid forms can be described by simple
geometry (geometry literally means “measuring the
world”) is an idea as old as Western civilization. In
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the Timaeus, Plato’s eponymous speaker reasons that
the entire universe is made up of simple geometrical
shapes that can be represented by the first four
numbers: one is a point, two is a line, three is a triangle
and four is the simplest non-spherical solid, a triangular
pyramid. Numerological essays in cabbalism spring
from the same idea, and from medieval times onward
religious thinkers hoped that applying geometrical
analysis to the universe would enable them, in Stephen
Hawking’s retrospectively apt phrase, “to know the
mind of God.” In the thirteenth century, Roger Bacon
praised the religious power of the developing tradition
of “geometric figuring” in painting; making the figures
in religious scenes as lifelike as possible, he argued,
could induce in the pious a sense of actually witnessing
the events depicted.
Artists began to experiment with geometrical
analyses of that most important form, the human body.
Engravings by artists such as DÜrer and SchÖn show
how an understanding of corporeal proportion is aided
by reducing the body to simple geometrical building
blocks. But this method was not just a device or a
trick. The Dutch artist Crispyn van der Passe, for
instance, produced in 1643 a large encyclopedia of
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geometric figurings for such common subjects as stags
and birds, and argued that the fact that all animals are
reducible to simple Euclidean forms is attributable to
divine Providence. The geometrical method revealed to
the artists a deep, Timaean truth about the nature of the
universe: as Ernst Gombrich describes it, “The regular
schema which we call an abstraction was therefore
‘found’ by the artist in nature. It belongs to the laws of
its being.”
On the one hand, then, polygonal videogames are
using a very old tradition of illusionistic construction;
on the other hand, they have revolutionized it. Because
these polygons move. Every videogame, you see,
constructs not only a space but a space-time. All 3D
games are in this sense four-dimensional. And now the
polygons become animated—literally, given a soul. A
machine soul. Virtua Fighter 2 looks as though the
figures in SchÖn’s etching have suddenly come to life,
participating in an epic ballet of crunching tibia. The
pious geometrical idealism of the ancients has been lost
along the way, replaced by the banally unphilosophical
late twentieth-century idealism of the perfect body:
fighting men with horrifically overdeveloped trapezoid
muscles; fighting women with long legs, wasp waists
and unfeasibly pert breasts.
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But though human beings do not actually look like
this, they do move like this, and the tangible solidity of
one leg sweeping in front of another, of a fist slamming
into a chest, is a magic wrought by Plato’s four
Just as Timaeus argues further that the four
numbers (or atoms) that make up the cosmos
correspond to the four elements in ancient Greek
cosmogony (earth, wind, fire and water), so modern
polygons can be made to draw every kind of substance
on the videogame screen: rocky outcrops, sure, but also
lakes, blazing torches, grass, even snow. And games no
longer have the chunky, android look of those in the
polygonal vanguard, like Virtua Fighter 2. Usefully, the
more sides you can afford to devote to a polygon—
which can also be thought of as drawing a polygon with
more and more basic tri-angles—the more curved it
looks (because the straight lines connecting each point
are so short).
The more polygons a processor can draw on the
screen at any one time, therefore, the more rounded and
“organic” will seem the environments and the
characters within them, as in markedly more “realistic”looking games such as Zelda 64, Tomb Raider: The
Last Revelation or Quake III: Arena. And
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polygons’ very ubiquity will lead to their immolation.
Sony’s PlayStation2 draws about seventy million
polygons per second, which is roughly equivalent to the
total number of pixels on the screen.32 Hardware is thus
getting very close to being able to provide so many
polygons that to all intents and purposes they will soon
vanish, collapsing back into the original cosmic
building blocks. They will become, in effect, the
modest, invis-ible atoms of videogame reality.
The user illusion
But even with modern videogames’ zillions of
polygons—and their weird mathematical progeny:
voxels, non-uniform rational B-splines and other
computational flora33—they still need to make use of
tricks and misdirections borrowed from painting in
order to achieve the dream of fooling the player into
believing in an imaginary world.
These are tricks that persuade us we are looking
into the screen or canvas, rather than just looking at it.
32 The number of polygons drawn per second is a theoretical maximum, of
course, ignoring shading and lighting effects, and we are assuming a screen
resolution of a million pixels at a frame rate of 60 fps.
33 Voxels is short for “volumetric pixels”—tiny graphic building blocks
that are already three-dimensional; B-splines are curved surfaces described
not by polygonal approximations, but by clumps of polynomial equations.
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In the real world, we perceive depth because we have
two eyes: each receives a slightly different perspective
on the scene and our brain blends them into a
stereoscopic image. But a flat representation such as
that in paintings or videogames can still offer a lot of
information about depth, partly through scientific
perspective, and partly through other “indirect” means,
taking advantage of the fact that in binocular vision at
distances of more than about fifty feet, we do not
perceive depth directly anyway. The fact that we
routinely rely on cues other than the direct perception
of depth is easy to demonstrate if you close one eye and
look at people a hundred yards away. You don’t
immediately think they are midgets.
Videogames use many of the same tricks that
painters have used over the centuries. One hoary old
device much used in the Renaissance was a
checkerboard-patterned floor of alternating light and
dark squares receding “into” the painting’s background.
This is exactly the same trompe-l’oeil that crops up to
enhance the sense of movement in games like WipEout
As well as scientific perspective, there are artistic
traditions of overlapping contours, aerial perspective,
dispensation of light and shade and interpretation of
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relative size. Most of these are self-explanatory, apart
from the term “aerial perspective.” This was coined by
Leonardo da Vinci; it has nothing to do with geometry
but describes the effect of distance upon color. Because
light of different wavelengths is scattered in different
ratios by traveling through the atmosphere, distant
objects appear blue (bright distant objects, on the other
hand, appear red, because more light from the blue end
of the spectrum is lost—hence the spectacular colors of
sunsets). It is also, familiarly, the case that distant
objects do not appear so sharply defined in outline.
Once videogames, then, had learned to render
distant mountain ranges, castles, bridges and so on in a
bluish fuzz, as is done so expertly in Goldeneye, the
illusion of distance within the game-world was
immediately enhanced. Sony’s PlayStation2 console
now automatically computes such blurrings if desired,
to provide a spectacular illusion of “depth of field,”
allowing the videogame designer to introduce many
pleasing effects of focus.
Fuzzy blue things are less processor-hungry than
sharp multicolored things, too. With finite processing
resources, videogames also have the option of
shrouding the playing area in fog so that the player’s
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range of vision (and thus what the computer has to
draw) is markedly limited. Objects or monsters can
loom out of the mist with stylish effect, passing
smoothly from blued-out fuzz to sharp delineation.
Often, fog and general darkness make an effective
means to heighten tension in horror-related gameplay,
for instance in Silent Hill (see fig. 12), a good example
of how technical limitations can be turned to positive
aesthetic effect.
Some technical limitations, however, run deeper.
The mode of scientific perspective, whether in
videogames or traditional art, inevitably involves some
choices and compromises about how to display visual
information. One of the well-attested problems of
representation in scientific perspective is that of
marginal distortion. Projective geometry speaks of a
“picture plane” in front of the viewer. Imagine it as a
window looking onto a garden.34 Light rays from
objects are said to subtend angles at the eye: this simply
denotes how many degrees of our visual field they take
up. But objects also have “plane projections,” which is
their apparent size on the picture plane—the
34 The term “perspective” itself actually comes from the Latin for “to look
through”—to look through something like a transparent picture plane, or
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size you would draw the snoozing cat on the garden
wall if you traced her outline on the window.
Now usually, any object B that subtends a larger
view angle than object A has a correspondingly larger
plane projection. This is common artistic sense: it looks
bigger, so you draw it bigger. But there are certain
cases where view angle and plane projection do not
tally. The simplest instance is a drawing of a sphere
that is to one side of our vision. It subtends a smaller
view angle than a sphere directly in front of us, but it
has a larger plane projection. According to true
perspective, therefore, it should have an elliptical, not a
circular, outline. This is how we see, but it would “look
wrong” to draw it thus. (Consider how odd a
photograph looks taken with a “fish-eye” lens, even
though it represents our field of vision more accurately
than standard equipment.) Renaissance painters already
knew that these sorts of compromises had to be made.
A book on the subject argued that “il ne faut pas
dessiner n’y peinder com[m]e l’oeil voit.”35
35 “One should not draw or paint exactly as the eye sees.” Bosse, TraitÉ des
pratiques gÉometrales et perspectives (1665).
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Fig. 12. Silent Hill: fog and snow heighten the tension (‰ 1999
In general, painting avoids the confusions of
marginal distortion by two methods: combining several
slightly different viewpoints (especially in large
canvases), or keeping the angle of vision relatively
narrow. The reason such discrepancies occur is that in
real life we never actually keep our viewpoint “fixed”
in one place for any great period of time; our eyes dart
and flit over the scene in a series of saccades, building
up an overarching picture out of fragments. If we were
to concentrate attention on our sidelined sphere by
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looking directly at it for a fraction of a second, we
would confirm that its outline really is round and not
Videogames presented in a first-person viewpoint
thus far have failed to overcome these problems, and
their hyperbolic claims to a sort of “realism” must
therefore be qualified. Perspectival limitations are far
more salient and noticeable in first-person shooters,
which unlike most paintings are predicated on fast,
aggressive responses. To avoid marginal distortions, for
instance, videogames, like paintings, keep the angle of
vision artificially narrow. But this has the side effect of
removing from the player’s arsenal one of his most
valuable real-life abilities in a hunting or evasion
situation: that is, to apprehend things, especially sudden
movement, with peripheral vision. Furthermore, the
clumsy apparatus with which the gameplayer has to
wrestle in order merely to look in different directions—
moving a mouse or joystick—can never compete in
terms of speed or intuitiveness with our natural, almost
unwilled eye movements. As the field of view in a
Quake-style videogame is artificially restricted
vertically as well as horizontally, it takes a conscious
decision and a mechanical fiddle just to glance down at
the floor directly in front of you, to
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make sure you are not going to tread in some fatal ooze,
break a trip wire or fall down a satirical pit.
While videogames are still played out on flat
television screens or monitors, therefore, and while the
interface remains so doggedly mechanical, a critical
level of realism will never be achieved, and the
experience of playing Quake and its siblings will
always be more like remote-controlling a robot with
tunnel vision rather than being there yourself. Of
course, remote-controlling a robot (or a dune buggy, or
an orange marsupial) can be fun and interesting in
itself, but this is a large obstacle to greater immersion
of the player in the virtual world. Only coin-op arcade
games such as Sega’s fabulous Ferrari 335 Challenge
(1999) have the resources to address this problem by
using three large screens, with the two outside ones
angled towards the player, thus giving an excellent
illusion of wide-angle vision.
The third way
One creative and novel way, however, in which
videogames have expanded the three-dimensional
horizons and given the player a feeling of having more
“room” to move around, is with the so-called
“thirdperson” 3D style. Most famously exemplified by the
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Tomb Raider games (see fig. 13), this is a perspectival
construction in which the player can see the character
under control, and the representational viewpoint itself
is a completely disembodied one.
Disembodied? I mean that the view we are given
corresponds to no actual pair of eyes in the gameworld.
The point of view from which we see Lara Croft is
constantly moving, swooping, creeping up behind her
and giddily soaring above, even diving below the
putative floor level. We are spying on Lara even when
she is alone in the caves. The player can choose to
zoom in to a point just behind her shoulder, nearly
sharing her point of view, in order to guide her more
accurately across a chasm, but she remains oblivious.
Tomb Raider plays a lovely joke in one level, indeed,
which features a figure who imitates in detail all of
Lara’s movements. You assume it’s an enemy, and try
to shoot while dodging, panic-stricken, around the
room, until suddenly it clicks. Lara is standing in front
of a giant mirror. And of course only she is reflected,
because the pair of eyes through which you are
watching her in the digital world is invisible.
The important aspect of Tomb Raider’s
representational style, in fact, is that the modus
operandi has been borrowed not from painting but
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from the cinema: the player’s point of view is explicitly
defined, as we saw, as that of a “camera,” whose
movements can often be controlled as if the player were
a phantom movie director, floating about on an
invisible crane.
The external view of the player’s character,
although putatively less “realistic,” is very often more
desirable in gameplay terms than the fashionable
firstperson view. Just as old-school blasters like
Asteroids or Defender are only playable games in two
dimensions, because the player is given an overview of
the action surrounding his ship, so Tomb Raider
enables the player to navigate far more easily and
intuitively around the playing areas, because she can
see immediately how close Lara is to a side wall, or just
how far away that nasty spiked ditch is, in order to
navigate its edge safely.
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Fig. 13. Tomb Raider 3: the third-person perspective—we watch
Lara watching her surroundings (here, an imaginary London
wharf) (‰ and ™ 1998 Core Design Limited; all rights reserved)
Brave new worlds
This brief history of the construction of space in
videogames has suggested two things. One is that
videogames have to some degree repeated histories of
representation in art, on jittery, caffeine-fueled
fastforward. But it is immediately apparent that so far,
they have only reached a surprisingly early stage in
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that development, for by the eighteenth century in
painting the classical ideal of beauty based on some
cosmic mathematical order was already being
challenged, and the shortcomings of perspective were
already being identified. Videogame scenery, being an
artifact of computers, is clearly still in thrall to the god
of mathematics. Of the myriad post-perspectival ways
of seeing such as impressionism or cubism, there is as
yet no sign in the apprentice draughtsmanship of
One can imagine, for instance, a far more
ambitious game along the lines of Tomb Raider, in
which adventures in different times and places would
be rendered in the appropriate style. Tomb raiding
among the freshly built pyramids would draw the
world in the statuesquely side-on, information-stuffed
mode of ancient Egyptian art; Lara’s exploits in early
twentieth-century Paris would present objects as
fabulous collages of their shapes apprehended under
different viewing angles; Machiavellian derring-do at
the court of the Medicis would most likely occur in
doomy chiaroscuro, with something disturbingly
offkey about the relationship between foreground and
background; and if Lara were shrunk to subatomic
size, she could journey among the full eleven
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dimensions that we are currently assured constitute
There is no question that such a game could be
built; it is a question of whether there exists the vision
to build it—and, of course, whether anyone would
want to play it. Such a mixture of styles in our
hypothetical game, of course, would—and this is the
second thing we have learned—necessitate a mixture
of different sorts of gameplay. The Egyptian level
might be a sophisticated melding of role-playing with
platform genres, whereas the cubist level would imply
more of an abstract puzzle game. And this is one of the
main ways in which videogame representation differs
from that in painting. No artist would now deliberately
draw in the inaccurate perspective of the thirteenth
century, a mode of representation that has really been
superseded and replaced by a correct mode of
endeavor. But as we have seen, videogames may still
use isometric perspective, or wireframe 3D, or flat
scrolling, depending on the type of gameplay
experience they wish to offer. In this way, videogames
are fortunate in that their entire artistic history in terms
of spatial representation is, as yet, still available in the
present. Two-dimensional videogames live on, for
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example, in software for the Gameboy, the most
successful videogame system ever made.
The choice of spatial mode, of course, which
includes the choice even of whether or how far to be
representational at all (Doom versus Tetris), is bound
up intimately with the question of what kind of game
the designers intend to make. One result of the
increasing detail and color available with newer
technologies is that this decision is becoming
increasingly weighted towards the representational:
videogames are becoming ever more creatively iconic.
A development studio these days first builds a
world, then populates it with characters. So who are
these virtual people, and what do they want from us?
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Dress code
Chiba City: a sprawling, industrial town in the humid,
rainy Japanese spring, where downbeat pockets of
hardware shops, Pachinko parlors and lean-to noodle
shacks are carved up by multilane highways. Cars don’t
stop to admire the view; they are always going
somewhere else. Usually to the south, to Makuhari,
Japan’s own vision of the future now. Makuhari is a
coastal district reclaimed from the sea and built from
scratch within a decade: lowering steel-and-glass
skyscrapers, webs of swirling concrete walkways, and
acres of space on ground level—liminal expanses of
perfectly clean and geometrically patterned paving that
in Los Angeles would be instantly carved up into
parking lots, but which here have precisely no function
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except a symbolic one: to emphasize and celebrate the
area’s gigantism of scale.
Makuhari, in its odd flatness of texture, its
constellation of rosy aircraft-warning lights winking
from the buildings at night, looks just like a city out of
a videogame. It is a shrine to techno-optimism.
Walking around, you feel that for all its perfection it is
still somehow provisional, that Makuhari is in fact
waiting for the foot-dragging future to arrive before it
can flower in its full sci-fi glory. It was this district of
Chiba that led William Gibson, in his Sprawl novels, to
posit the city as his physical setting for the tales of
corporate cyber-rapacity coexisting uneasily with a
radical hacker underground.
Fittingly, Makuhari is also the location for the
biannual videogame industry festival, the Tokyo Game
Show. For more than twenty years, Japan has been the
leading center of videogame development in the world,
both technologically and artistically. So the Tokyo
Game Show is the calendar’s most important event. A
lot of what’s big in Japan now will trickle down into
Western gaming paradigms in a year or two. And the
Japanese have a very particular approach to the design
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of character in videogames. So I’m going to brave the
crush and see for myself.
Inside Makuhari Messe, the vast national exhibition
center (whose undulating roof gives it the appearance
of eight hi-tech railway stations shoved together), more
than a hundred and sixty thousand Japanese men,
women and children have come over the two public
days of the exhibition in March 1999 to see and play
the newest videogames, the ones that will be launched
in the next six months. Each hardware or software
company has its own stand in the enormous, roaring
halls, all competing with their neighbors to attract the
gamers’ attention with gigantic neon signs, hundredstrong ranks of TV monitors with consoles lined up
underneath them, constant blasts of game sound effects
and music, and professional software “spokespeople”:
glamorous Japanese women dressed in skin-tight PVC,
silver miniskirts or Lycra bikinis, who smile, hand out
leaflets and pose for batteries of photographers. (The
show presents an award to “the most excellent
companion lady.”)
Just as in Los Angeles at the E3 show, the big
companies advertise themselves with their videogame
mascots—the stars of their top games. But whereas
Sony, for instance, contents itself in America with
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huge inflatables of Spyro the Dragon and Crash
Bandicoot, in Japan it offers a live stage show, with a
rock band fronted by performers in the cuddly, furry
costumes of Um Jammer Lammy and Parappa the
Rapper. These two forms of entertainment marketing
have quite different functions: Sony’s American
inflatables point backward inevitably, merely
illustratively, toward the games from which they are
taken; the prancing figures in Japan, however, imply
that game characters have a continuing inner life
In fact, game characters are everywhere. For the
Tokyo Game Show also features a contest for visitors:
come dressed as your favorite videogame idol. Young
Japanese men and women wander round as black-clad
soldiers (many bandanna’d Solid Snakes this year after
the huge success of Metal Gear Solid), scary-masked
orcs from dungeon RPGs, or blond S&M princesses
with fishnet stockings and leather harnesses. These
game fans pay costume obeisance to their virtual heroes
and heroines with a lack of self-consciousness that is
remarkable to Western eyes. Game characters are also
available everywhere in the form of Action Man–style
figurines, or on collectors’ cards. They feature in
posters, on T-shirts; in Japan, a videogame
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character can be an idol as much as a pop star or an
actor in the West. One of the major criteria, therefore,
for a game’s success in Japan is that it contains good
Here, by the way, is another important difference
between videogames and films. The star of a movie is
chosen from a pre-existing pool of actors; you can dress
them up in black Prada, shave their hair or teach them
kung-fu (ideally all three), but at bottom you know
what you’re getting. The star of a videogame, though,
at least of that type of videogame that incorporates
characters at all, is invented: built completely from the
ground up. A false idol indeed. Yet in another way a
hyperreal one: for whereas a novelist, who also invents
characters, will normally only need (or desire) to
provide a few salient features of a person’s appearance
and let the reader’s imagination do the rest, a
individuated, given a complete, solid visual form.
Virtual megalocephaly
Of course this is also what happens in comic strips. In
Japan, videogames have very strong aesthetic and
commercial links with manga (comic books) and
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anime (animated cartoon films)—the massive Japanese
toy and videogame corporation Bandai, for instance, is
a major sponsor of animated programming. Whole
books have been written about “Japanimation” alone.
But the most pertinent aspect of these comic forms for
our purposes is their peculiar style of character
drawing, which has a very strong influence on Japanese
videogames. Anime in particular makes use of a bizarre,
so-called deformed style for its people: they have huge
heads and eyes, and tiny torsos.
In the early days of videogames, technological
considerations more or less forced designers into
exactly the same style. The most influential early game
to feature a fully humanoid, animated “character” was
Shigeru Miyamoto’s Donkey Kong, with its
eradefining mustachioed hero, later to be christened
Mario. Because of the low resolution offered by
videogame systems back then, character designers
only had a limited amount of pixels—the little squares
of light that make up the visual image—to play with.
Miyamoto gave Jumpman (as he was then) a hat,
simply because the technology couldn’t enable
animated hair; he wore dungarees just to differentiate
his red arms from his blue body and legs. As
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Miyamoto says: “Mario was born of rational design in
the days of immature technology.”
More generally, both with Mario and with later
characters, such considerations meant that, since the
face and eyes are the richest physical loci of
“personality”—we concentrate on them in real life
when talking to people; we commend portraits when
they get the “look” and expression right—it was natural
to devote more resources and more space to them over
the more purely functional parts of the physique.
megalocephalic: with big heads and short bodies. This
was also useful in terms of rich gameplay because most
games of the era that featured “characters” were twodimensional platformers (or side-scrolling characterbased shoot-’em-ups such as Metroid). So a squat body
for the main character allowed more vertical “room” to
play with in the screen area—and as we observed in the
last chapter, the type and amount of space available
heavily influences gameplay possibilities.
What is interesting, however, is that this deformed
style persists even in modern videogames, where it is
perfectly possible with increased graphic muscle to
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produce proportionally more realistic avatars of human
characters. When Japanese fans got their first look at
Final Fantasy VIII there was palpable outrage, because
it seemed the characters had been “Westernized”: no
longer the cute, deformed people of FFVII but
longerlimbed and more “adult”-looking.
This is a widely held aesthetic preference among
Japanese gamers; in fact, it can be traced back to
physical distortions of the human form in Japanese
woodblock prints of the Edo period (1603–1868).
Jeremy Smith, managing director of British developers
Core Design, confides that feedback from the Japanese
audience suggested that they wanted Lara Croft, virtual
idol extraordinaire of the Tomb Raider series and the
most high-profile icon of Western gaming, to be more
“mangafied”—that is, for her body to conform more to
“deformed” standards. But Lara remained herself—
still deformed, of course, but in a somewhat more
subtle, and stereotypically Western, chesty-andwaspwaisted fashion. By contrast, the most successful
Western games by far in Japan at the time of writing
are the Crash Bandicoot series. Crash is a cartoonish,
wide-eyed, spiky-haired orange marsupial with an
enormous head and toothy grin. He is already
“deformed,” and fits in nicely.
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But what is it about the deformed aesthetic that
makes it so desirable? To most Western eyes, such
characters look merely childlike and childish: “cutesy.”
But remember that unrealism in videogames need not
be a handicap; it can be a positive, deliberate pleasure.
The Japanese preference for “deformed” physiques, in
this case, is a logical extension of this idea to the
human form itself. Unearthliness is part of the charm.
This idea in turn explains another peculiarly
Japanese phenomenon: that of virtual “girlfriends” and
“dating” videogames, in which the (almost always
male) player tries to woo a deformed anime-style
female character with massively enhanced breasts,
eyes and legs. Several of these games, which in
general do not cross over into the West at all, were on
display in Makuhari, including one schoolday-romance
RPG named Little Lovers: She So Game; the
company’s stand was decorated with large display
boards on which were pinned life-size schoolgirl and
sailor uniforms. Writer Robert Hamilton has supposed
that young Japanese men, to go by the weighting of
magazine sales (those sorts of glossy fanzines that
Hamilton nicely terms “devotional” literature) actually
prefer deformed anime and videogame idols to human
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media stars for this reason: desire that can never in
principle be reciprocated is thoroughly safe and free of
any possible disappointment.
This phenomenon is known in Japan by the term of
“twodimensional fetish,” though it more generally
covers devotion to any form of manga, anime or
threedimensional videogame characters. An interesting
symptom of this preference can be seen in the reception
of the famous Japanese “virtual idol” Kyoko Date, a
thoroughly digital pop singer who was created in 1997
by software engineers collaborating with Japan’s
leading modeling agency, Horipro. It sounded like a
great idea. But Date’s first CD failed to meet sales
expectations. Why? Because she was not deformed; she
was overly realistic. Kyoko Date was built piecemeal
from existing humans: a singing voice from one star, a
talking voice from another actress, motion-captured
dance routines and a combination of facial features
mapped from photographs of famous models. Date thus
actually looked too human.
The limitations of motion-capture animations
(applying computerized sensors to the body of a human
performer and then applying them to the videogame
character) in a dynamic gameplay context
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are that they are too overdetermined and prescripted
(just like preset “combo” moves in beat-’em-ups, and
just like prescripted “narrative” interactions in story
games). With Kyoko Date, we see further that motion
capture is also aesthetically impoverishing, as it limits
the achievable virtual movements and gestures to those
that are physically possible in real life. But if all you
are getting is “realistic” movement, far better to watch
an actual human dancer. Humans will always be much
better at that sort of thing. And it is just not what
videogames—or computer representation in general—
are best at doing.
Gender genres
The phenomenon of nijikon fetchi raises questions
about gender in videogames. Here, too, there are
instructive comparisons to be made between Japan, the
epicenter of videogame creativity, and Europe or
America. It seems that Japanese developers create more
games that women like to play. Demographics are to
some extent determined by aesthetics.
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Statistical insights into videogaming in Japan are
richly furnished by the 1997 CESA36 Games White
Paper. It reports that attendance at the 1997 Tokyo
Game Show was 82 percent male (while very heavily
male-oriented, then, this still means nearly a fifth of
attendees were female), while the median age of
attendees was 25 to 29, and the most common
occupation was that of “office worker.” (Videogames,
then, are not just for kids in Japan any more than they
are in Britain or the United States.) Meanwhile, the
extent to which Japan is leading the West in terms of
videogames’ status as a mainstream entertainment
medium is shown by a poll of 6,000 people, of whom
more than a third (35 percent) currently played
videogames. Another fifth used to play them and
probably will start again in the future, while an eighth
had “never played before, but would like to try
depending on software.” Less than a third of the
population (31.7 percent) responded that they had
“never played before and had no wish to do so.”
Now, Japanese women who are interested in
videogames have notably different preferences than the
men. When asked to rank their favorite titles, more
36 Japan’s industry body, the Computer Entertainment Software
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than three times as many women as men nominated the
PokÉmon (“Pocket Monster”) series (12.7 percent
versus 3.9 percent). These games, unleashed upon the
British and American market in the 1999 Christmas
season, are cartoonish virtual bestiaries, in which
lovable monsters may be reared, played with and
battled against each other. Generically, they are more
like God games (in the sense that they are “process
toys”) than action games. On the other hand, ten times
as many men as women enjoyed the horse-racing
simulation Derby Stallion games (8.6 percent versus
0.8 percent), which are straight-ahead recreations of
(televised) horse racing, complete with virtual betting.
Women also preferred Crash Bandicoot, the Super
Mario games, Tetris, Parappa the Rapper, IQ (a puzzle
game) and Donkey Kong. Men, on the other hand,
preferred RPGs such as Dragon Quest, driving game
Gran Turismo and beat-’em-up Tekken (the last two
being nominated by no women at all). One must be
wary about easy inferences from such results: you
could argue that women prefer nurturing-style games
rather than violent ones, but there is a highly vocal
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“Game Grrlz” movement in America that proves that
women can frag37 with the best of them.
What we can infer so far is just that these Japanese
women simply have different aesthetic tastes: their
preferred videogames are in general more quirky or
brain-taxing than the straight-ahead genre preferences
(driving, fighting, dungeon games) of the men. But
notice also that, apart from abstract puzzle games such
as Tetris and IQ, all those nominated by women feature
good characters: Crash, Mario, Parappa the singing
dog, or personable imaginary beasts. These women’s
preferred games are also notable for having relatively
simple initial skill-set requirements: Tetris, especially,
can be picked up in a matter of seconds. But of course,
simple controls and rules do not preclude rich and
complex gameplay, regardless of the player’s gender.
Now, Tekken 3 and Gran Turismo are wonderful
games in their own right, and plenty of women like
them. One cannot denigrate their visceral fascination
just because it seems to appeal, in general, more to
37 In multiplayer first-person shoot-’em-ups such as Quake III or HalfLife: Team Fortress, a player does not “kill” an opponent but “frags” him.
The term derives from the Vietnam war practice of mutinous soldiers
“accidentally” killing their superior officers with fragmentation grenades.
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men. But Brenda Laurel of Purple Moon Software, an
American development studio that produces
videogames aimed at young females, does exactly this:
“Girls’ objection to computer games isn’t what you’d
expect. It’s not that they’re too violent, it’s that they’re
too boring. They’re extremely bored by them.” Are
they? Not according to Game Grrl Nikki Douglas, who
retorts: “What exactly is boring about creative strategy
and 3D virtual environments? . . . I’ll tell you what
boring is—it was waiting for those little cakes to come
out of the Easy-Bake oven.”38
There is probably some kernel of truth in the claim
that, since until recently almost all videogame
designers have been men, the products will have
appealed more to men than to women; just as,
conversely, what is known in the publishing trade as
“women’s fiction,” written by women, sells more to
women than to men. Yet even here it is impossible to
factor out the undoubtedly huge effect of marketing—
“women’s fiction” is targeted at women; “men’s
videogames” are targeted at men (with often
38 The traditional gender debate in videogames is fought out at great length
in the collection of articles edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins,
From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games.
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depressingly adolescent, sexist advertising)39—from
any posited “innate” preferences. Now that many more
women are involved in the videogame design process
worldwide, we may see in the near future that this fact,
allied with better marketing, will erase it completely.
According to some American statistics, in fact, the
perceived “gap” has already vanished. In 1999 in the
United States, nearly 43 percent of gamers were female.
Nearly half of online gamers are female. This in
particular suggests that the social aspect of online
gaming appeals particularly to women users. Nolan
Bushnell suggested to me that “the ‘game’ for women
is in fact the chat rooms. As a percentage of connected
people women dominate the conversation of the
Internet.” That might miss the bigger picture of
videogame usage among women, but it does tally with
the online statistics.
Yet it still seems as though many women are
dissatisfied with the available games. “Despite the
growing numbers of female gamers, the gaming
39 Nintendo’s British advertisement for the greatest videogame ever made,
Zelda 64, ran on television during Christmas 1998. Its slogan was: “Are you
going to get the girl, or play like one?” In a just world, the agency
“creatives” who came up with this moronism would be forced to play
Tekken all day with my sister, and suffer a comprehensive thrashing every
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industry as a whole is not meeting their needs and not
taking their interests and preferences into account.
Given the enormous buying power that women have
and will continue to have, this is a shortsighted
mistake,” according to one writer.40
So what kinds of games do women prefer? The
Japanese women polled preferred games with good
characters—the lovable personalities of Crash or
Parappa. But since many men also liked these games,
we can really infer nothing about the difference
between men and women. The informational arrow is
pointing the other way: it tells us about the commercial
success of certain aesthetic decisions made by game
designers themselves. A game with good characters
could appeal to everyone; but a game with characters
that are bad (boring, unlikeable, stereotyped) won’t on
this evidence appeal to women any more than it does to
So what of future developments? By far the most
radical suggestion is that those women polled by CESA
simply seem to have some higher—and at present
unfulfillable—expectations. This is borne out by the
survey section entitled “The Image of Desired
40 Doctor K, of the Website for female videogamers,
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Home Video Game Software,” in which respondents
were asked what kind of games they would like to see.
Girls of 7 to 12, for example, would like “a chatting
game,” while 16- to 18-year-olds envisage “a game in
which a user creates various stories and can be a
leading role.” As with so much else, the potential
success of both types of posited game of course
depends on massive advances in computer artificial
intelligence. (These Japanese women, it seems, would
also prefer to use skills they already possess—say,
those of conversation—in a videogame context, rather
than learn a complex and hermetic set of rules that
applies to one game, or one genre only.)
But dissatisfaction with current videogame abilities
isn’t monopolized by women. Male gamers, too, always
want the next game to be better than the last one, to be
doing something that was technologically unimaginable
six months ago. This often means that they appear to be
happy with a faster, prettier driving game. But is that
really what they want, or is it just what the developers
feed them?
The only thing we can be sure of for the moment is,
reassuringly, that quality will out—that “gender”
differences are dissolved in the face of a truly great
game, such as Mario 64 or Final Fantasy VII (the latter
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was ranked overall favorite by equal proportions of
men and women CESA respondents). Videogame
developers in the future will appeal to more men and to
more women only as long as their games mature
Character building
Let us return to one clear aesthetic preference of the
female (and many of the male) CESA respondents: for
videogames which have good characters. What exactly
does this mean, and why are good characters desirable
in a game? How does a false idol induce real worship?
It is a commercial fact that successful game characters
really do shift units, especially those, like Mario, that
pop up in a whole series of different games over the
years. Already by 1990, an American survey
determined that the virtual Italian plumber was
recognized by more American children than Mickey
Mouse. By 1995, Mario games had sold a total of 120
million copies worldwide. A star character in a
videogame also enables spin-off merchandising: PacMan duvet covers and television series; Lara Croft
utility-wear; Solid Snake figurines.
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A really successful character is not just a
moneymaker for software developers, either: as we’ve
seen, it enables hardware companies to sell consoles.
Witness the fact that Nintendo’s N64 machine was
delayed for a whole year while the finishing touches
were put to the game Super Mario 64. Good characters
become extremely valuable “properties” in the industry.
Sega’s Megadrive took off on the back of Sonic the
Hedgehog, and the massive financial success of British
publisher Eidos is largely thanks to Lara Croft.
The first videogame “character” of all was PacMan (1980). Before this epoch-making game, the
player controlled spaceships, gun turrets or other
mechanical devices. Suddenly, though, the player of
Pac-Man controlled a being: an animated, eating thing.
The game’s designer, Toru Iwatani, says that he got the
idea for Pac-Man’s form after eating a slice of pizza,
and seeing the shape that was left. Then: “I designed
Pac-Man to be the simplest character possible, without
any features such as eyes or limbs. Rather than defining
the image of Pac-Man for the player, I wanted to leave
that to each player’s imagination.”
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Fig. 14. Lara Croft: a beautiful abstraction (‰ and ™ Core
Design Limited; all rights reserved)
Now at first sight there is a world of difference
between Pac-Man and a modern videogame character
such as Lara Croft (see fig. 14). That is certainly true if
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you regard them as traditional static pictures. But as we
must keep reminding ourselves, videogames are a
kinetic art form: many of their pleasures can only be
realized through time. And on a very basic level, PacMan and Lara do in fact share one important attraction.
If you swing the joystick to move Pac-Man around his
maze, he opens and shuts his mouth automatically
while on the move. If you press a button to make Lara
walk forward, she walks in a fluid, hip-swinging
motion that is the result of hundreds of frames of
painstaking digital animation.
These are both examples (one ancient, one modern)
of how characters give us videogaming pleasure:
through a joyously exaggerated sense of control, or
amplification of input. All you do is hold down a
button, and you get to see this wonderfully complex,
rich behavior as a result. This is one very basic
attraction of all types of interactivity, and it also seems
to be a near-universal pleasure among humans in the
modern industrialized world. Why do people enjoy
driving cars? Amplification of input: you just lower
your foot and suddenly you are moving at exhilarating
This kind of attractiveness is true of all good
characters in modern videogaming: a few simple
controls result in absorbing, complex movements.
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Witness the beautiful bounces and skids of Mario in
Mario 64, or the graceful, arcing somersaults and
handstands of Lara in Tomb Raider III. Good
characters are good largely by virtue of having a wide
range of physical abilities, and by having those physical
abilities particularly well animated. Just as we can often
be surprised in the flesh by the beauty of a person
whom we have previously seen only in photographs—
because part of a human being’s attractiveness lies in
the choreography of facial is of much less visual
interest when frozen in time.
For a start, characters such as Crash Bandicoot or
Sonic (see fig. 15) obviously borrow very heavily from
the cartoon styles of Warner Bros and others: Sonic
was allegedly created (after a honcho at Sega ordered
that someone design them a character to compete with
Nintendo’s Mario) by a deliberate crossing of Felix the
Cat with Mickey Mouse, while Crash obeys the cartoon
tradition of animals that look nothing like their real-life
counterparts. Both Crash and Sonic have big heads,
saucer eyes, cheeky grins and small bodies. In this
sense they are deformed, Japanese-style; yet such a cute
stylization is also used in Western cartoons. Perhaps
they are attractive because their large heads and
limitless curiosity remind us of children.
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Fig. 15. Sonic the Hedgehog: cat and mouse (from Sonic
Adventure, ‰ Sega 1999)
characters”—such as Lara Croft, Jin Kazama from
Tekken 3, or Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid—
work (on this purely static, visual dimension) in a
slightly different way, in that they borrow from
cinematic conventions of costume and coolness. It is
almost certainly no coincidence that Metal Gear
Solid’s cigarette-loving, husky-voiced hero shares one
of his names with Kurt Russell’s character in Escape
from New York, Snake Pliskin. Jin Kazama in Tekken
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3 is an idealized amalgam of body-building action
grunts such as Schwarzenegger and martial arts movie
A good videogame character is one that the player,
because of a fulfilled combination of dynamic and
iconic criteria, likes—just as we like cartoon characters
such as Sylvester the Cat or Cartman. But since the
character is under our control, if we like him (or her)
we must also feel somehow protective, and anxious lest
we cause the character harm through our own manual
inadequacy. And so a good character, as well as being
aesthetically pleasing, constitutes one very strong
motivation for playing the videogame well: you want
Mario to overcome his surreal obstacles; you want Lara
to escape from those pesky dogs; you want Sophitia to
hack Rock to bits. Jeremy Smith of Core Design
remembers how Tomb Raider nearly featured a man:
The original script and graphics that were done, it just was
Indiana Jones, and I said, “Christ, you can’t do that—
we’ll be sued from here to Timbuktu!” And they said,
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right. We’ll work on it.” And
then literally two weeks later we had another project
meeting and there was this babe there. I said, “It’s a
woman—what are you doing?” and they said “No, it’s
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gonna really work.” Well, at that point, it really didn’t make
any difference. It was only when they really started to
develop Lara—she was animated and her hair was moving—
it was like, “Wow, you could actually quite relate to this!”
One apotheosis of this sort of emotional manipulation is
in the classic puzzle game Lemmings, in which you
must guide hundreds of stupid, suicidal little furry
creatures home, reacting quickly to stop them falling
off high ledges or being sliced in two by imaginatively
sadistic machines. The lemmings are only about fifteen
pixels high, but the way their hair is bouncily animated
and their naive faith in a safe world mean you’ve got to
save them.
This protectiveness functions the same way whether
the character is abstract and cartoony or humanlike and
filmic. And of course we must still insist that the latter
type of videogame character is not supposed to be
“realistic” any more than a deformed anime character
is. Part of the very attraction is a certain glossy
blankness—what Smith enthuses over as “that
computer look.” As videogame graphics become ever
more sophisticated, the designers of the next generation
of Tomb Raider games on PlayStation2 will
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surely be careful never to let Lara become too
individuated. If she were to look photorealistic, too
much like an actual individual woman, what
seductiveness she possesses would thereby be
destroyed. Smith agrees:
We feel that we can make Lara significantly different to the
way she is now, without making her sort of real-life, by only
going up to say twelve to fourteen hundred polygons. You
don’t need to go any higher than that— because you’ll
probably lose some of that feel for her, for how she is now.
With PlayStation2 technology we’ll be able to smooth her
off, without changing the aesthetics that work. We can give
her great facial expressions, and we’ll be spending a lot of
time on clothing technology and working out the physics of
clothes—a cloak, a shirtsleeve . . .
But she’ll never be thoroughly realistic. For Lara Croft
is an abstraction, an animated conglomeration of sexual
and attitudinal signs (breasts, hotpants, shades, thigh
holsters) whose very blankness encourages the (male or
female) player’s psychological projection and is exactly
why she has enjoyed such remarkable success as a
cultural icon. A good videogame character
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like Lara Croft or Mario is, in these ways,
Some say life’s the thing . . .
. . . but I prefer playing videogames. Time to dive
once again into the bleep-ridden throngs of Makuhari,
because it’s not just in terms of character design that
the Japanese industry is instructive. We can also learn
from the esoteric flora and fauna of its videogame
biosphere that never make it to the West. Talking about
them one night after the show in a local sushi bar,
Japanese student Gavin Rees offers this observation:
“The Japanese do not make the distinction between
‘form’ and ‘content’ that we do in the West.”
How so? Teruichi Aono, a professional Shogi (a
board game also known as “Japanese chess”) player,
has written about the Japanese art of flower-arranging
that “the feeling is not so much that this flower or that
is in itself beautiful, but that a world of elegant beauty
is to be found, for example, in the skillful gathering and
arranging of flowers and pampas grass.” In the tea
ceremony, too, the rules for which it can take ten years
to learn, the point is not so much the content (the actual
drink) as the form (the highly traditionalized methods
of preparing it): “The actions performed in
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carrying out the ceremony are as intricate as they are
because the point is to feel the beauty involved in each
and every movement.”
So, the point is not the flowers themselves; the
point is not the tea. Form is its own content. And the
Japanese words that describe such an aesthetic—ma
(timing) and aida (balance)—are also used of forms of
play such as Sumo and judo wrestling.
Within the adult age group, both sexes of
respondents to the CESA survey nominate game ideas
that illustrate the highly idiosyncratic Japanese
approach to concepts of simulation. Videogame
“simulations” in the West, as we saw in Chapter 2, are
generally highly complex games of combat flight or
Grand Prix driving. They simulate fast, dynamic
processes. In Japan, however, “simulation” is a much
more inclusive, and at first sight wildly eccentric,
genre. At the 1999 Tokyo Game Show, videogame
companies were offering new products in the wildly
popular genres of fishing simulations (you wind a
plastic rod connected to the console and catch virtual
fish), gardening simulations (you water virtual plants)
and train-driving simulations (you can drive a train
round an accurately modeled 3D representation of the
Yamanote line on Tokyo’s subway system).
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And the remit of videogame “simulations” in Japan
is sure to expand. Adult Japanese women, for example,
want “a simulation game of being a housewife, giving
experience of leading a happy married life including
housework, having/raising children, sex”; “a simulation
of buying a house”; “a game in which the user raises a
human baby”; “a job simulation game”; “a game in
which the user can date actors/singers”; “a simulation
game of overseas travel”; “a game of cooking in which
the user finds ingredients, cooks and becomes a master
chef”; or “a climbing game in which the user tries to
reach the summit. On the way rivers, valleys, birds and
little animals appear.”
Now, this looks a little weird, to be sure; but just as
with the deformed anime tradition, we must be careful
not to imagine an unbridgeable cultural chasm where
none exists. Again, in fact, this phenomenon of
burgeoning “simulation” genres is a logical progression
of facets in Western videogaming, albeit one powered
by a characteristically Japanese conceptual tradition.
Most Japanese people live in cramped
accommodation in sprawling cities. The idea of
escaping to a rural idyll and lazily casting off by a
babbling stream is largely an unattainable fantasy,
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except for the wealthy. Yet in a culture where the form
of an activity is held in such high esteem for its own
sake, being able to recreate that form in a videogame
context is, it seems, a decisively valuable pleasure.
This is not so different from a Western driving
game. Most of us will never be able to hurl a Dodge
Viper at two hundred miles an hour through the Tokyo
suburbs. But we can play Gran Turismo, and as the
form of the videogame becomes an ever more accurate
analogue to the form of the real activity (with our
provisos about playability), that is a better and better
consolation. The gallimaufry of Japanese simulation
games are attractive because they can provide the
dynamic form of an activity even though the content
(the physical paraphernalia of that activity: actual fish,
or a real garden) are missing.
Now, of course, irrespective of their varying
approaches to character design or formal realism,
Japanese videogames are still, fundamentally, games.
And Japanese people like to play as much as anyone
else. One of their biggest leisure pastimes, in fact, has
much to tell us next.
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Tiny silver balls
After the luminous hi-tech orgy of Makuhari’s
videogame exhibition, let’s stop off at a Pachinko
parlor in Akihabara, or “Electric Town,” the Tokyo
district that constitutes a paradise on earth for devotees
of denki seihin, or consumer electronics. In the West,
we have slot machines built around spinning wheels
inscribed with cherries and numbers. In Japan they
have Pachinko, a simple yet intriguing game played
with tiny silver balls. It appeared in Japan in the 1920s,
and is in some ways a forerunner of videogames
This particular arcade in Akihabara, one of about
eighteen thousand in Japan as a whole, is nearly full,
over its four floors (nearly four hundred machines), of
Pachinko aficionados: power-suited, black-clad and
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stylish businesswomen on their lunch hour, lean elderly
men in tatty suits dropping cigarette ash into the
machines’ integral ashtrays. Lined up in endless rows
like workers on a factory conveyor belt, the players are
nevertheless all alone, gazing intently at the machines
in front of them. The air is electric with a thunderous
clacking: the result of thousands upon thousands of
silver balls hitting each other in a mesmerizing dance.
The name Pachinko is supposedly derived from
pachi-pachi, a Japanese term describing the clicking of
small objects or the crackling of fire. The game is set
up vertically: behind a covering pane of glass, hundreds
of small pins are set perpendicularly into a board. When
the knob is turned, a stream of tiny silvercolored steel
balls shoots out of a funnel at the lower left-hand
corner, spraying up to the top and thence downwards,
where they bounce off the pins (thus making the
clattering noise). Lower down the board are a few
special slots; if a ball bounces off the pins in the right
way and falls into one of these, it sets off a
computerized slot-machine-style set of three “wheels.”
If these wheels come to rest at a desired combination,
the player wins something. What is the prize? Uh, more
tiny silver balls. They gush out of the bottom of
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the machine into a big plastic basket. From there they
can be scooped back into the machine for more plays,
after the initial hundred have been used up.
Now if you amass a great many balls, and you have
the self-discipline not to shove them straight back in the
machine, you can go to the back of the shop and
exchange them for real stuff, like a toaster or a
microwave oven. In fact, most Pachinko parlors operate
a shady back room where balls can be converted into
cash. But this is, strictly speaking, illegal, for in Japan
Pachinko is not officially regarded as a “gambling”
The final monetary exchange is cleverly disguised,
mediated by the tiny silver balls. But this deferral of the
transaction is potentially endless, as a player will often
reuse all the balls he has won and end up with nothing
physical to show for the session—in which case
nothing has been “won” at all save an unquantifiable
gameplaying pleasure. The transaction—the verifiable,
quantifiable content, from an accountant’s point of
view—is secondary to the experience of the form, the
pleasure of playing the machine exquisitely well.
Pachinko is a primarily aesthetic experience.
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With Western slot machines, the bottom line is how
much money the thing spews out at the end. With
pinball, with which Pachinko obviously has a lot in
common mechanically, the object of the game is to
amass a different kind of currency—the social capital
(in French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s terminology)
of the arcade or bar: a high score. (Remember, the first
successful arcade game was sited next to a pinball
machine in a bar.) But Pachinko is purer than either of
these alternatives. Players do not eye each other’s piles
of balls. They are fixated on their own machines,
seemingly hypnotized.
This hypnotic effect of Pachinko is in part caused
by the startling beauty of the showers of silver balls
bouncing around the board. If you remember studying
Brownian motion under a microscope at school—the
jiggling, dodgem-like movement of tiny particles
bouncing off others—the Pachinko balls offer the same
kind of random-seeming fascination. In fact, neither
Brownian motion nor that of Pachinko balls is random;
they are both governed by physical laws that are, at
least in principle, deterministic. But they are
unpredictable, given the impossibility of measuring
accurately each system’s initial conditions (they exhibit
chaotic behavior).
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Some Pachinko experts roam the halls with a gaze
so intuitively attuned to the game that they can pick out
machines whose pins are slightly bent from the constant
battering of balls. These, they know, will pay out more
often. But to minimize this advantage, parlor operators
go around at closing time with a hammer, knocking all
the bent pins back into line. So the Pachinko system
can never be rationally mastered.
A lot of videogames rely in part on exactly the same
teasing unpredictability as Pachinko. It is thoroughly
deterministic, but a feeling of randomness is generated
by our imperfect knowledge. “We may have written the
game, but we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
You’re never sure what’s coming next, which is partly
why you want to try again.
Pachinko further prefigures another deep pleasure
of videogames in its method of control. The player
holds a single, very sensitive knob; as it is turned
clockwise the tiny silver balls are shot out from the
funnel at increasing speed. The challenge for the player
is to manipulate the control in order to find the optimal
ball speed—the rate at which the greatest number of
balls falls into the target slots. Unlike a slot machine,
then, where you merely pull an arm or hit a button and
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randomness with a continuous control over one
important variable of the system. So do videogames.
That one variable is the behavior of the player’s own
character (animal, humanoid or mechanical), battling in
an otherwise unpredictable virtual world. As the
Pachinko control is analogue, furthermore, the tiniest
variation in its position can produce large effects in the
chaotic system. And this is comparable to the “deep
controls” that Richard Darling enthuses over in games
like Super Mario Bros.
Thirdly, and again as with videogames, Pachinko
assaults the player’s senses with the balls’ clacking,
constant electronic music and a dazing miscellany of
colored, blinking lights and computerized animations.
You play Pachinko for twenty minutes and you come
away empty-handed—yet you know you’ve had some
weird kind of fun. And it was Pachinko machines that
were Taito’s original business before they created
Space Invaders.
Power tools
So far we have seen that videogames have
some things in common with films, with
paintings or with stories, without ever being
quite the same sort of phenomenon. But the
example of Pachinko should remind us that
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videogames are also part of a different lineage. The
arcade, which today is normally a fluorescently lit
space crammed with the latest monster videogame
cabinets and their ever more inventive control
motorized snowboards, electronic drumkits, big plastic
horses—has changed little from a sociological point of
view in around a hundred years.
Back in the late nineteenth century, penny arcades
also lured in a cross-section of visitors from all walks
of life, especially in America, where they boasted
coinoperated phonograph machines, candy dispensers,
kinetoscopes and even X-ray machines (the latter were
phased out as public amusements after it was shown
that repeated use led to death, by what we now know as
radiation poisoning). The next generation of
technological fads was led by the mutoscope, a
quasicinematic device that was, however, controlled by
a mechanical crank, so that the viewer was able to
choose the speed at which the film was played, to stop
it or even to send it spinning backward.
Videogames are clearly part of a project that began
more than a century ago, and whose aim was to
domesticate the machine. Automatic textile-processing
technology, for example, had only seventy years
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previously been causing an unimaginable upheaval in
the lives of millions, forcing people out of work and
instigating the formation of resistance groups such as
the Luddites.41 The lesson was quickly learned. By the
1890s, the fruits of applied science were deliberately
offered to the public in a markedly different way: not as
labor-replacing devices, but simply as entertainments.
Progress, the arcades argued, could be fun.
High technology today is thoroughly domesticized.
The process is complete. Many living rooms are
furnished with a television, video recorder and hi-fi
system—not to mention, in twenty million European
homes, a PlayStation, whose very name continues the
proselytizing argument: it is the antithesis of a
workstation, a place where one taps seriously away at a
beige PC on spreadsheets or word-processing software.
A PlayStation puts the kind of computational power
that was the stuff of science fiction just a few decades
ago to the sole purpose of entertaining the user. Not
only can it be argued that videogames played a
significant part in quelling the fear of technology, they
have made technology our friend, our playmate.
41 For an excellent history, see Kirkpatrick Sale, Rebels against the Future.
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In this, videogames are again part of a larger
tradition: this time, that of the technological
prostheticization of play in general. Tennis, for
example, has been transformed over the past few
decades by material racquet technologies and
stringdampening. Serious chess players routinely use
computer analysis and million-game CD-ROM
databases to prepare for matches, or to work on
correspondence games. Golfers may avail themselves
of carbon-fiber clubs and balls coated with space-age
Kevlar, so that they fly more truly through the air. The
whole running shoe industry is predicated on a promise
that an extra air pocket, say, will somehow make you
run faster. And serious running is now itself in part a
game of numbers made possible only by timing devices
that count in the thousandths of a second.
Role-playing videogames began as a technological
prostheticization of the Dungeons & Dragons board
game, with the computer taking over the onerous
duties of numerical calculation. Many videogames
have arisen in this way, building on preexisting game
formats. Time Crisis, for instance, the lightgun game,
is at heart nothing more than a technologically
enhanced version of fairground duck-shooting with
airgun pellets, except that whereas the latter retains
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some pretense of monetary exchange—you might shoot
enough ducks and win a cuddly toy—Time Crisis
finishes the job begun by Pachinko, and offers nothing
but purely sensual and psychological rewards for your
cash. Another lightgun game, Point Blank, explicitly
acknowledges this heritage by including a number of
fairground-style shooting ranges to play at.
Fairground games in general, which are tests of
skill packaged in a fizzingly son et lumiÈre
environment, are obviously another set of precursors to
modern videogames. So, too, are fairground rides, in a
different way, for they offer a very convincing illusion
of danger: on a rollercoaster, you feel you must be
plummeting to your death, but you know it is safe.
Shigeru Miyamoto has said he is constantly playing on
his audience’s “desire to realize something exhilarating
but impossible in real life.”
A good example of this is Gran Turismo, which we
touched on at the end of the last chapter. Now, not only
will we rarely have the chance to race a Dodge Viper
around Tokyo at two hundred miles an hour, but it
would be extremely dangerous to do so. Doing the
same thing in a videogame, however (practicing the
same form) ensures that if we crash, we do not die or
get burned to death, but only lose the race and live to
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try again. (The relative safety of high-speed collisions,
moreover, turns most racing videogames further into
digital versions of the fairground dodgems.) So the
rollercoaster and the videogame both offer the
pleasurable, adrenaline-surging experience of danger,
with none of the risk.
Other technologies have enhanced (or at least changed)
games and sports, and videogames have enhanced (or at
least built upon) the basic concepts of board games and
fairground attractions. But though you can play chess
with bits of mud, or soccer with scrunched-up
newspaper and a few sweaters, you cannot play a
modern videogame except by means of a machine.
It can be argued that all art forms are dependent on
a certain level of technology. Writing in English, for
instance, cannot take place without an alphabet, which
is itself literally a technology (the word comes from the
Greek meaning “knowledge of a skill”). But in the
modern sense of technology as a physical device or
gadget, videogames clearly belong in the lineage that
was started only relatively recently, with photography,
in which the execution of the artwork (or form of
entertainment) is impossible without certain complex
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Videogames’ special virtue of interactivity, though,
vastly increases this technological dependence until it
attains a quality of symbiosis. You are perforce a happy
accomplice. For though you can appreciate a
photograph or watch a film quite happily without being
able to operate a camera or movie projector, you cannot
play a videogame without using the technology
Now as far as we can tell, human beings have been
playing games for a very long time. We have so far
looked back a mere century and considered
videogames’ place in a technological history. But one
would expect that some or other aspect of play is
represented in game forms throughout civilized time.
Veni, vidi, lusi
The earliest games that we know of from ancient
records are of two basic kinds: contests of, say,
spearthrowing through rolling hoops, and board games
of chance. The first is clearly socially useful, as a
hunter society does well to the extent that accurate
spearthrowing ensures a plentiful supply of food for the
community. In modern industrial civilization, such
aptitudes are no longer essential for survival, but
humans for some reason still derive pleasure from
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refining them. They are exactly those skills exercised
by modern target videogames such as Time Crisis 2.
Games of chance, meanwhile, seem to have
originated from a belief that divine will could be
glimpsed through seemingly random machinations; the
I Ching, for example, is a book of wisdom in which
hexagrams are consulted according to a random
sequence of twig manipulations. But most “games of
chance” are not totally aleatory: a player in an ancient
game such as backgammon or dominoes must still use
skill to decide which piece to play next, or where to put
the counter. Over time, these simple forms of game
seem to have evolved gradually so as to make more
long-term cognitive demands of the player. Skill is
transmuted into strategy.
“In the history of civilization,” writes game
historian Brian Sutton-Smith, “games of strategy seem
to have emerged when societies increased in
complexity to such an extent that there was a need for
diplomacy and strategic warfare.” He describes one of
the earliest examples: mancala, or wari, which was an
ancient Egyptian strategy game. Each player controls a
number of counters on the board, and the game
involves using numerical and strategic judgment to
capture the opponent’s pieces. Mancala is clearly a
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direct forerunner of the twentieth-century board game
Risk, and in turn, technologically prostheticized and
expanded, of real-time strategy videogames such as
Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun.
Here is an account of the “judicial duel” in
medieval English law:
Though sometimes fought to the bitter end, the judicial duel
shows a tendency to assume the features of play. A certain
formality is essential to it. The fact that it can be executed by
hired fighters is itself an indication of its ritual character, for
a ritual act will allow of performance by a substitute. . . .
Also, the regulations concerning the choice of weapons and
the peculiar handicaps designed to give equal chances to
unequal antagonists—as when a man fighting a woman has to
stand in a pit up to his waist—are the regulations and
handicaps appropriate to armed play. In the later Middle
Ages, it would seem, the judicial duel generally ended
without much harm done.42
This process, whereby combat is sublimated into a
play form, leads all the way to modern beat-’em-up
videogames such as Tekken Tag Tournament or Soul
Calibur, where the abstraction is complete. Here, too,
42 This description is taken from the cultural history of play by Johann
Huizinga, Homo Ludens.
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the fighting is performed on the player’s behalf by a
digital “substitute”; here, too, unequally skilled human
players may have a sporting match by tweaking the
videogame’s built-in “handicap” device. Not only has
bloody violence been transformed into a choreography
of light, but the animus between contestants that gave
rise to the judicial trial is now but a folk memory
underlying cheerful competitiveness. So the physical
and jurisprudential content has leaked out over the
years, but the form endures.
The very fact that such forms still induce pleasure
when played as videogames today seems to
demonstrate that, though they initially grew out of
practical concerns, ancient games could never have
been wholly functional exercises in the first place. In
other words, whatever other purpose they served,
games must always in part simply have been fun.
Even such apparently purist, abstract videogames as
Tetris have some similarities with older forms of play.
Tetris itself is from one angle a dynamic jigsaw, in its
demands of shape-matching; its designer, Alexei
Pajitnov, on the other hand, has said that his original
formal inspiration was pentominoes, a family of
puzzles involving twelve differently shaped blocks,
each made up of five squares, from which the player
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must construct larger shapes—except the videogame
challenge is again a dynamic one, introducing time
pressure on the player.
And children have always made up their own
“exploration games,” playing, for instance, in a
deserted house and imbuing it with magical qualities.
Now the technological prosthesis afforded by a
videogame such as Tomb Raider or Zelda 64 allows
such activity to be far more complex and cognitively
challenging, so that the gamer really can, in Walter
Benjamin’s phrase, “calmly and adventurously go
traveling.” Again, Shigeru Miyamoto has said that he
draws his inspiration from childhood memories of
exploring the Kansai countryside around his home,
finding caves and hidden paths through the woods.
History also tells us that seeing people at play has
often angered those in power. In Saint-Omer in 1168,
gameplayers were pilloried; in Basel in 1386, a
backgammon player who had ignored an injunction to
avoid the game had his eyes put out; the same
punishment was common in fifteenth-century
Amsterdam; and in Germany players might have limbs
judicially amputated or be executed by drowning.43
43 For more on the bloody history of gameplayers’ persecution, see Alain
and FrÉdÉric Le Diberder, L’Univers des jeux vidÉo.
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Martin Amis astutely pointed out in 1982 that the
burgeoning criticism of videogames even then was
simply a repeat of “the heated debates about snooker
and pool earlier in the century.”
Games are not serious, runs this argument, they are
somehow intellectually degrading. Play, anthropologist
Johann Huizinga happily concedes, is at base
“irrational.” Though certain games might require a very
high-level exercise of reason (chess), there seems to be
no rational excuse for playing in the first place. One is
simply spellbound. But games, rather than being a
wasteful offshoot, are central to the formation of
culture. Huizinga believes that play underpins all forms
of ritual, and even religion itself. Ancient Greek
mythology, for example, has a tradition of
“theromorphia”—imagining people as beasts, like Zeus
as a swan—and Huizinga argues that this can best be
understood in terms of the play attitude. (This is, by the
way, another play tradition that finds its way into
modern videogames, for instance in the beat-’emup
game Bloody Roar 2, where the humanoid fighters turn
into monsters in order to inflict ever more ridiculous
damage upon each other.)
Huizinga’s overarching contention in Homo Ludens
is that play is indeed essential to civilized
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society. His final, polemical chapter holds that the
modern world (he was writing in 1938) is anomic and
impoverished precisely because games have been torn
from their organic place at the heart of community and
neatly cordoned off into such spheres as that of
professional sports. If this is true, we should not be
surprised that at the beginning of the third millennium,
the eternal human need for play has sprouted once more
in radical, electronic form, and will very soon constitute
the world’s largest entertainment industry.
This might even be a cause for optimism.
Videogames allow for, are often specifically built for, a
form of social play activity. Indeed, a great many
gamers, including me, find videogaming at its most
pleasurable in such a context. At its smallest level,
social videogaming involves two, three or four friends
racing cars against each other or beating each other up
through colorful digital surrogates on the screen. The
videogame console is mediating and providing the
visual forms for such contests, but the pleasure is
largely a social one. Richard Darling of Codemasters
agrees. “One of the most enjoyable times that people
have when they’re playing games tends to be good
multiplayer games—like Super Bomberman and Micro
Machines,” he says. “There’s so much more fun in
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beating your friends and competing with your friends
than doing the same thing with computer-controlled
This is similar to the pleasure of playing doubles in
tennis, or playing a rubber of bridge; perhaps it is
closer, however, to that of board games, which have
always been advertised as social tools, fun for friends
and family. Indeed videogames might be seen in this
way as the logical next step from board games. The
history of the board game sees a gradual moving away
from the physical apparatus of the board, and an
increased focus of attention on the players themselves,
from the totally board-dependent games like chess and
checkers, to games such as Monopoly or Risk where a
lot of the action (alliance-forming and back-stabbing)
takes place off the board, to Trivial Pursuit, where the
board does little more than keep track of the score.
Videogames extrapolate from this trend ad infinitum,
because there is no physical stuff being moved around
at all, just patterns of photons.
But the social aspect of board games and certain
sports is multiplied innumerable times in the
burgeoning phenomenon of online videogaming. Now
there is a possibility of social play that is far greater
than at any time before in human history. Users can
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connect games such as Quake III, Half-Life or Starcraft
to an Internet server and play in real time against
hundreds or thousands of other people all over the
globe. Sega’s Dreamcast, of course, now incorporates a
modem to facilitate precisely this activity.
Richard Darling sees immense possibilities for this
phenomenon in the future, especially when it is widely
available to more people than can afford thousanddollar
With Dreamcast and PlayStation2, you’ll be able to put the
disc in, turn it on and choose multiplayer, automatic
connection to the network. Everything will be easy to choose
and set up, and you can just play against other people. And
although they’re other people who you won’t know initially,
it won’t take long before online communities emerge where
there are other ways of communicating—online chat maybe,
or voice discussions back and forth.
Or maybe, if it gets mass-market enough, the fact that
you’re connected online doesn’t mean you have to be
playing with people in South Africa, the United States,
Zimbabwe or whatever—you could potentially log onto a
Touring Cars multiplayer site and choose to play against
people in your hometown. It might be that there are
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enough people for you to arrange with friends at work to all
log on at eight o’clock in the evening and play selectively,
just against each other. So it doesn’t have to be the way
Internet communication is portrayed in the media, with
people who are rather sad and lonely communicating with
strangers on other continents.
Videogames, clearly, are embedded in a deep and
long tradition of play, and they borrow formally from
many other games. Yet each borrowing is accompanied
by a radical transmutation. From dominoes to
pentominoes to Tetris; from spearthrowing to Time
Crisis; from whist parties to thirty thousand people
logged onto the Internet playing a science fiction RPG:
the videogame format takes something old and makes
of it something startlingly new. But what kind of fun do
videogames offer that is uniquely their own?
Get into the groove
There must be a reason so many of the people I know
who enjoy videogames describe racing a good lap in
Colin McRae Rally or clearing waves in Defender as a
“Zen” experience. This is understood to be shorthand
for a kind of high-speed meditation, an intense
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absorption in which the dynamic form of successful
play becomes beautiful and satisfying. How exactly
does such an experience come about?
One highly influential attempt at a logical
interpretation of “fun” has been made by psychologist
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, with his concept of “flow.”
Csikszentmihalyi was interested in the fact that
musicians, rock climbers, chess players and other
people engaged in very complex tasks reported an
experience of ecstasy or bliss, losing track of time and
losing the sense of self. He decided that, although on
the face of it each activity was markedly different, all
his subjects must be having the same sort of experience,
which he termed “flow.” In this state, “action follows
upon action according to an internal logic that seems to
need no conscious intervention by the actor.” And
“there is little distinction between self and environment,
between stimulus and response, or between past,
present and future.”44
Now this sounds like fun. It sounds a lot like the
“Zen” experience of playing a good videogame.
Interestingly, Csikszentmihalyi notes that flow
44 Quoted in SatÔ Ikuya’s fascinating history of bosozoku, or motorcycle
gangs in Japan, who also apparently experience “flow” during their races:
Kamikaze Biker: Parody and Anomy in Affluent Japan
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experiences are attained when there is a perceived
match between the demands of the activity and the
subject’s skills. Now why else would many videogames
such as Metal Gear Solid let you change the difficulty
level? Clearly it is boring to play a game that is too
easy, and frustrating to play a game that is too hard.
The same is true of, say, tennis or chess: playing
someone who is far less competent than you is not
much fun, as it’s too easy to win (you don’t need to
play to the height of your abilities); playing someone
far better than you is not much fun either, because you
just get stomped on (you are made painfully aware of
the inadequacy of your abilities). So pleasure seems
subjectively to be optimal when the demands of the
game and your skill levels are closely matched.
In a non-dangerous activity, I think the game’s
demands ought always to be pitched slightly higher
than the player’s skills. The only way to improve one’s
chess, for example, is regularly to play slightly stronger
opponents. Because an important component of
pursuing a flow activity over time is the simple
pleasure of getting better. A pianist will attempt pieces
that are just beyond the current level of her technique,
and by practicing them she will improve her technique
to match their demands.
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Pleasure increases up to a point according to
difficulty. So it seems very likely that one crucial
component of videogaming pleasure is in fact a certain
level of anxiety. This sounds counterintuitive but is
supported by simple experiments that report increased
heart rate and adrenaline levels among videogame
users. And my own experience is that even when
demands and skill are generally matched, there are
periods during the game when I am aware of a
temporary, small mismatch between them—the game is
asking slightly more of my skill than I feel confident of
being able to deliver, and a large part of the game’s
pleasure lies in overcoming these regular challenges.
Now what about the “feelings of complete control”
that are said to accompany a flow experience? I think
there is, again, something wrong with this way of
putting it. We have said that videogames provide a
particular pleasure of control, especially when they
offer rich controls whose interaction allows for a great
deal of variation, and when the controls result in
amplification of input. How does this compare with the
case of playing a piece of music at the piano? Here, too,
the interaction of controls (keys and pedals) is a “deep”
one, offering a potentially infinite array of sonorities;
here, too, amplification of input is at work,
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in that small movements of the fingers result in
beautiful music.
But musicians know that there is another
phenomenon at work, which is also appropriate to a
discussion of videogame playing: muscle memory.
When a pianist attempts a new piece, most of her
attention is focused consciously on playing the right
notes according to what is printed on the manuscript
page, and working out precise fingerings for
particularly difficult passages. But there is a point at
which these visual instructions are no longer needed,
when the player has so thoroughly learned the music
that she does not consciously think about where to put
her hands next. People also call this “getting the music
under your fingers.” It is only now, when the
mechanics of playing have been assimilated, that the
player can concentrate on performing the music.
The point is that the pianist begins really to play the
music, and thereby enters into a “flow” state, at
precisely the stage when she is no longer consciously
controlling the individual movements of fingers. It is as
if the fingers themselves know what to do. That is what
we mean by “muscle memory.” The same thing
happens when you drive a car or touch-type. But this is
not a mysterious process for which we need to invoke
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flow or anything else: cognitive scientists have shown
that practicing complex sequences of finger movements
actually rewires neuronal connections in the brain until
they become automatic. A reduction in selfconsciousness is naturally pursuant upon the
observation that my critical “self” is no longer
controlling my mechanical finger movements, so that I
feel to that extent absorbed into the music itself. And
exactly the same process operates in videogames.
So here are two important observations about
videogame pleasure. Firstly, when you are really “in the
groove” of a well-designed, fast-moving action game
such as Robotron, Gran Turismo 2000 or Time Crisis 2,
one of the reasons you feel so fluidly involved is that
your muscle memory has taken over the mechanical
business of operating buttons, joysticks, trigger or foot
pedals. This clearly has important implications for
videogame designers. A videogame with a clunky or
overcomplex control system, such as G-Police—or,
even worse, RC Stunt Copter45—is not as much fun to
most players precisely to the extent that
45 A good candidate for the title of most pointlessly difficult videogame of
the decade, this “simulation” of a radio-controlled helicopter boasts such
counterintuitive and oversensitive controls that even seasoned videogame
critics switched off in sheer frustration.
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it is so much harder to get past the initial mechanical
Secondly, the optimal match of demands and skills
that we looked at earlier is the other factor that
contributes materially to the pleasurable loss of
selfconsciousness, because if the brain is having to
process a lot of information very quickly to keep up
with the videogame’s challenges, it is clearly going to
demote other considerations, such as keeping track of
clock time or noticing that a foot has gone numb, right
to the back burner until the challenges have been
Videogames share deeply embedded aspects with
many other sorts of games through history, yet they
also share two components of pleasure with other
common activities, such as piano playing, that are not
usually considered “games” at all. (The videogame
combines aspects of play and performance that nudge it
in one sense nearer the family of sport. There are now
regular world videogaming championships at
46 Now that we have established this highly physical aspect to videogaming
pleasure, by the way, it provides another nail in the coffin of the “interactive
storytelling” dream. Nolan Bushnell, the father of videogaming, made this
incisive point to me: “The big problem with interactive storytelling is a
basic conflict. When telling a story one wants the listener to abandon his
body and space and be swept along in a new place, time or world. When
you ask a person to make a decision, you push that person back into his own
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which contestants from all over the world compete for
prizes of hundreds of thousands of dollars.) But now we
have uncovered some sources of videogame pleasure, it
remains to be seen just how that pleasure is
manipulated. How, in other words, does the machine
play the man?
You win again
Videogames give you their full attention. They don’t
ignore you or say they’re busy; they concentrate with
rock-solid focus on what you “say” to them through the
mechanical interface. (Like psychotherapists, only at a
smaller cost and with more quantifiable fun— Eliza, as
we have seen, did actually take the role of a therapist in
a text-based “conversation” with the player.) The game
is extremely interested in you.
Videogames also exemplify perfectly a general
aspect of play: the temporary perfection, unattainable in
the physical world, of absolute order. Nolan Bushnell
says much the same thing: “There is a completely
controllable and understandable universe that is
predictable. Much more controllable than real life.” A
videogame obeys a certain set of predictable rules of
action, even if half the fun is finding out their
unpredictable effects in particular situations. Martin
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Amis quotes the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov,
invoking both the above motivations: “Kids like the
computer because it plays back . . . it’s a pal, a friend,
but it doesn’t get mad, it doesn’t say ‘I won’t play,’ and
it doesn’t break the rules.”
Considerations such as these may bring the player
to the table, but what keeps him playing? Well,
psychologists have applied the term “reinforcement” to
denote the fact that, in general, any behavior that is
rewarded will be repeated in anticipation of more
reward. “The rat gets crunchy food, while the
videogame player gets higher scores and free games,”
explain the authors of Mind at Play, an early book on
videogame psychology. But such rewards must be
balanced. Videogames deliberately provide only partial
reinforcement, because their rewards (attaining the next
level; getting a new gadget, car or weapon to play with)
are only intermittent; the gamer keeps hoping another
one is just around the corner. In fact, this is another
way of discussing the demand/skill match we talked
about earlier. If a game provides continuous
reinforcement, then it is too easy and boring. If, on the
other hand, it is too hard, there will be no initial
reinforcement and thus no reason to keep playing.
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How do videogame designers achieve such a
delicate balance? Such considerations are very
important to Richard Darling. He argues that what
makes an action game (driving, sports or shooting) fun
is precisely this: “The player’s efforts being rewarded
by achievements.” It’s not so simple, however; Darling
And those achievements need to appear to be worthwhile to
the players, they need to be visible and valuable. Of course,
people’s perceptions of what’s needed to make a game fun
have been stretching and stretching as games have got better
and better. A long time ago you had Space Invaders, where
basically you move from one level to the next level and
you’re very excited because you’ve achieved the next level.
In fact, the next level was exactly the same as the last one but
a little bit harder, but you’re still very pleased: your score’s
gone up, you’ve moved to level two, and the same thing
happened when you moved to level three, four and five. That
had a simple reward system whereby you achieved a certain
goal in the game and reached a discrete target and you got
rewarded by a score and a level change.
In principle it’s the same now, it’s just that people’s
expectations are much greater than just wanting the score
to be ticking up. If you move from one level to the next
you want a new experience, new gameplay features, new
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things to be cropping up. So really our goal is to make sure
that there’s enough there to start off with so that people find
our game exciting and interesting, but then the more they
play the more they achieve, and they can’t constantly be
getting new rewards for all those achievements.
This is what the psychologists call “partial
reinforcement.” Yet presumably the videogame still has
to keep something back to reward successful play?
It’s always a big argument in game design, yeah, because the
problem is, you see, when you release a game like that you
get some people phoning up or writing in saying, “Why
didn’t I have the Lister Storm [a model of racecar in
Codemasters’ TOCA 2] from the beginning? I’ve paid my
money for the game and I can’t drive a Lister Storm!” You
know, you need to do X, Y and Z before you’re going to get
the Lister Storm, or the Jaguar XJ220. And they feel
frustrated, so there is some pressure to open the game up and
say, “Look, you choose which car you like, race on
whichever track you like,” and make the whole game
available from when you turn it on. But if you did that a lot of
people wouldn’t actually have any desire to drive the Lister
Storm because there’s no great progression in getting there.
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In other words, there would be no great incentive to
play the game and to get better at it.
But the videogame must not be too difficult: there
must be some initial reinforcement for the player to
want to keep going. Darling agrees: “You need to be
given rewards in a short enough timespan in order to
encourage you to carry on and improve yourself.”
Sailing between these two perils is no easy business.
It’s a very difficult balance to strike. The way we’ve started
to go in recent games is to have selectable levels of
difficulty—but you still need to hold back rewards, I think, so
that certain rewards are only available if you’ve chosen the
expert level of difficulty. But at least somebody who’s
choosing the standard level can actually feel they’ve
completed the game.
There are more cunning methods of doing it which we
have tried in some games, which is to actually make the game
adapt to how good you are. So, for example, in a racing game
if you’re driving along and you crash, and the pack goes
ahead of you, you won’t necessarily notice if they all slow
down a bit so you get a chance to catch up to them, and you
feel like you’re still in the game— whereas a good player
wouldn’t have crashed in the first place, and so the cars
wouldn’t have slowed down, so you can have a competitive
time either way. But it’s very difficult to keep it fair. For
example, a good strategy to beat a game like that might be to
deliberately hold back
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and stay at the back of the pack so all the computer cars slow
down, and then on the last straight just put your foot down
and cruise past them and win. You’ve got to be very careful
with the logic of what’s happening to make sure that a better
driver will always do better.
One problem that videogame designers are very
aware of is the wide spectrum of gameplaying skill
among their potential customers. But, with careful
programming of difficulty settings and reward
distribution, they can make a product that is optimally
challenging and satisfying to all. Darling regrets, for
instance, that TOCA 2 probably appealed only to the
upper 50 percent of gameplayers in skill terms, and that
a “novice” who had just bought a PlayStation and tried
to play the game would have quickly become frustrated
and disillusioned. Obviously, it makes good
commercial sense for his team to be working on this
problem with the next installment in the series:
“Anybody’s achievement should be rewarded even if
it’s a hopeless achievement compared to an expert.” To
be sure, this is a happy form of democracy.
This peculiar motivational system of pleasurable
rewards is something that sets videogames apart from
any other kind of game we know. If you get better at
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Trivial Pursuit, Risk, tennis, dominoes, chess or
football, your increased sense of power and selfrespect
is the only reward on offer. The game remains the
same. (The transaction of capital in the coin-op arcade
game seems to be a positive if still strictly extrinsic
phenomenon. The psychologist authors of Mind at
Play, Geoffrey and Elizabeth Loftus, wrote that paying
money for a videogame actually increases the pleasure
one derives from it. This is due to “cognitive
dissonance”: faced with incompatible beliefs, the brain
acts so as to reduce the conflict. Videogames take your
money and give you nothing tangible in return . . . they
must really be fun!)
But whereas chess or football remains the same
kind of game no matter how good you are, modern
videogames, as Richard Darling points out, change as
you get better. Attaining a new level in Tomb Raider III
means having a whole new virtual world to explore,
moving from India to the rain-soaked rooftops of
London. Collect enough coins in Ape Escape and you
can play an entirely new mini-game on skis. Many
videogames even keep something back after you have
finished them, in order to encourage you to play the
game again, only this time under new rules. Metal Gear
Solid, for example, rewards the player with a
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“stealth” suit, so that you can have enormous fun
playing through the environments as an invisible,
death-dealing hero. Beat-’em-ups such as Tekken 3 or
Soul Calibur, meanwhile, cleverly spread rewards
between their two-player modes (two humans fighting
each other’s digital surrogates—the genre’s raison
d’Être)—and their solo modes (player versus machine),
in that success in the latter unlocks new characters that
can be pitted against each other in the social context.
Videogames in this sense are meta-games: the
manipulation and achievement of such visual, dynamic
and cybernetic rewards is another, higher-level game in
itself. A well-designed videogame, such as Zelda 64,
can approach the condition of a work of art simply by
virtue of the way such rich, protean transformations in
the game’s very structure are linked together for the
gameplayer’s pleasure. The ways in which you can see
more stuff and do more stuff are a joy, a reward in
themselves. Perhaps they mirror the process of the rich
and speedy acquisition of skills and experiences that we
all went through as small children.
This idea suggests another course of action as we
plunge deeper into the videogame metropolis. Along
the way, we have measured the city’s space, heard its
stories and read its history. We have seen how we
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interact with videogames. So what exactly are the nuts
and bolts of this process? When we talk to videogames
and they talk to us, what language is this conversation
By its signs shall you know a city.
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A jaundiced figure floats across the screen. He is
constantly searching for things to eat. We are looking at
a neo-Marxist parable of late capitalism. He is the pure
consumer. With his obsessively gaping maw, he clearly
wants only one thing: to feel whole, at peace with
himself. He perhaps surmises that if he eats enough—in
other words, buys enough industrially produced
goods—he will attain this state of perfect selfhood,
perfect roundness. But it can never happen. He is
doomed forever to metaphysical emptiness. It is a tragic
fable in primary colors.
You may well have played this game: it’s called
Pac-Man. Videogames, like anything else, can be read
in many different ways. A videogame may not be a
“text,” but it is true that videogames talk to the player
in a special sort of language, one that the experienced
user knows by heart. And this isn’t a verbal language,
it’s a graphic one. Videogames talk to us with signs.
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It is one of the fascinations of videogames as a
form, indeed, that they constitute a kaleidoscopic,
prestissimo exercise in semiotics, which is the
everchanging interaction of signs. More than
advertising or the Internet, videogames, in their
immense speed and complexity, have to that extent
become the most sophisticated systems of
communication of meaning that the culture has yet
seen. Now if that sounds like an overstatement,
videogame action does not have overarching “meaning”
in the way a novel or a film does; it is untranslatable,
like music. Our scrutiny should instead be focused on
the fast-moving low-level “meanings” that enable us to
understand the videogame system.
We have seen how videogames distort reality for
their own purposes, creating in the process a world of
deliberate unrealism. But how does it hang together?
And how does it speak to the player?
I am what I eat
Consider the playing screen of Pac-Man (see fig. 16).
What do we see? A maze-like structure of tubular
walls, the paths lined with dots of two distinct sizes;
four jelly-like blobs with what look like wide eyes; a
disk with a slice taken out of it. Above the maze are a
line of text and two sets of numbers; below it are more
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disks and what looks like a brace of cherries. Now,
considering this image solely as a picture, why do some
paths in the maze have dots while others are empty?
Why is there one disk inside the maze and others,
slightly smaller, outside it? And what has all this to do
with fruit? It is confusing, arcane. The game screen is
inscrutable when approached as simple representation;
it demands to be read as a symbolic system.
Take that little disk. That is Pac-Man himself, the
character under the player’s control. He doesn’t look
like a man, he looks like something you’d stick on the
rim of your glass of gin and tonic. (Toru Iwatani in fact,
as we learned, was inspired by partially eaten pizza.)
Nevertheless, the crude yellow shape is agreed to stand
for Pac-Man. It is therefore a symbol. A symbol is a
sign whose meaning is determined by social
convention, like a number, a theater ticket or the word
“starling.” Charles Sanders Peirce, besides leading a
notoriously libertine life, also found time to invent most
of modern semiotics. He defined a symbol thus:
“Symbols, or general signs . . . have become associated
with their meanings by usage. Such are most words,
and phrases, and speeches, and books, and libraries.”
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Fig. 16. Pac-Man: a parable of late capitalism, and a complex
web of signs (‰ 1980 Namco Ltd; all rights reserved)
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But we know that an important part of any
videogame character is its dynamic form, and, sure
enough, Pac-Man’s animation lets him partake of
another kind of sign. As he moves around, the missing
“slice of pizza” expands and contracts, resembling a
schematic mouth in profile. It actually looks like a
mouth that is opening and closing. In this way, PacMan is also to some extent an icon. Peirce defines an
icon thus: “Likenesses, or icons . . . serve to convey
ideas of the things they represent simply by imitating
The third type of sign that we need to know about is
the index. Imagine if Pac-Man’s maze were a schematic
map of an actual maze. In that case, it would be an
index—basically, a pointer sign. In Peirce’s terms:
“Indications, or indices . . . show something about
things, on account of their being physically connected
with them. Such is a guidepost, which points down the
road to be taken, or a relative pronoun, which is placed
just after the name of the thing intended to be denoted.”
Pac-Man is both a symbol and, to a lesser extent,
an icon. That’s not unusual: in fact, many if not most
signs are actually combinations in varying ratios of
two or all three of these basic types. A map, for
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instance, is an index, in that it shares in and points to
deep structural features of the landscape it describes,
but it is also an icon, in that it simply looks like the
terrain as seen from the air. The illuminated first letter
of a medieval manuscript is both a symbol, in that it
functions as a component of language, and an icon, in
that it is an illustration. An Egyptian hieroglyph is an
icon, in that it is a pictogram, but it is also a symbol, in
that it has an agreed meaning.
So, Pac-Man is a symbol. “His form,” the
character’s creator has noted, “simply represents the
personification of eating.” And indeed, Pac-Man is a
game about eating. The dots littering his world are so
perfectly symbolic as not to represent any object. They
are there to be munched; that’s all.
While we’re on the subject of eating, note that
the very theme of the game is at once infantile and
politically loaded. It has been argued that Pac-Man
was the first arcade game to be a substantial success
with female gamers precisely because of this
philosophy of consumption: eating is figured not as
something to be wary of, but something to be
celebrated, something (literally) empowering.
However, it seems equally reasonable from this
distance to read Pac-Man—a game from a country,
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Japan, that at the time was just beginning to claim a
role as a global financial power—as a satire on a
different kind of consumption: late-twentieth-century
capitalism. Hence our parable at the start of the chapter.
For Pac-Man, consumption cannot end; no conceivable
quantity of dots is enough. He will continue to search
them out and eat them until he dies.
What about those jellyfish with eyes? They are
symbols, but they are also more iconic than Pac-Man
himself, in that their eyes are relatively well-defined.
Pac-Man has no eyes at all, but the jellyfish blobs,
which are according to the game actually “ghosts,”
have eyeballs with mobile pupils. Now, the ghosts are
actually some of the most semiotically advanced items
in the game—partaking of all three modes of sign—
because their eyes also function indexically. Where the
eyes are looking is where the ghost is going to go next.
The eyes “point”; they work as an index. This is a
particularly important sign for the player to be able to
read, as for most of the game she must avoid contact
with the roaming ghosts on pain of death. (Pac-Man’s
death animation, by the way, slots admirably into our
political theory of the game: his mouth opens wider and
wider, passing the horizontal and continuing, until
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there is nothing left of him at all. In his mania of
consumption, he has eaten himself.)
What about Pac-Man’s little cousins below the
playing area? By videogame convention, these
represent the number of lives he has in reserve. While
the Pac-Man in play is almost entirely symbolic,
therefore, the smaller ones function both symbolically
and indexically. As a group, they constitute an index of
“how many,” in the same way as counting beans. This
is an indexical function, remember, because the number
of yellow disks is congruent with, or “points to,” the
number of tries a player has left. There is a similar mix
in the large dots (one might even call them blobs) near
the corners of the maze. Like their smaller brothers,
they are symbolic (of pure, abstract food), but their
increased size also functions indexically. They are
bigger in circumference, and hence they are bigger in
utility—better for you. Pac-Man earns ten points every
time he eats a regular dot, but fifty upon eating a blob.
The blobs have a further function: as power-ups.
When Pac-Man eats a blob, he may for a short while
turn and chase the ghosts that have thus far been
pursuing him. We can now say that in semiotic terms,
power-ups actually function as second-order signs—
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signs about signs. The blob itself is an agreed symbol
for “power-up” according to Pac-Man’s game design,
but the power-up itself has no independent existence.
Funnily enough, this is one context in which a phrase
from postmodern theory is particularly appropriate: a
power-up is a “floating signifier.” The power-up’s
meaning consists entirely in a change of the potential
relations between the rest of the signs in the game over
a predefined period of time.
This sounds forbiddingly abstract, but it is a very
familiar paradigm in film, especially in science fiction
cinema. For example, during the finale of the film
Aliens, Ripley gets into a mechanical exoskeleton in the
ship’s loading bay in order to fight the beast more
effectively. She has acquired a power-up. Now the
relations of force between the heroine and her foe are
redefined. But the difference is that in Pac-Man, the
power-up is not an external tool or weapon but merely
an idea, a temporary enhancement of the character’s
own essence.
A power-up can also be a simple gift of more time:
an extra life. Now, Pac-Man gives you an extra life if
you reach a score of 10,000. So at certain times,
anything edible on the screen could become a powerup
if it pushed your score over the magical figure.
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Look at the cherries below the playing area, for
instance. They seem iconic (like fruit), but in fact they
are indices: they indicate that shortly some cherries will
appear temporarily in the middle of the screen. If PacMan eats those, they earn him 100 points, or ten times
the value of a single dot. Now imagine that your score
is 9,900, there are only three dots left in the maze, and
there is a cherry sign below it. Rather than complete the
level by eating the dots—worth a measly 30 points—
you would be better advised to wait for the cherries to
appear in the center, because they will then operate
symbolically as a power-up, giving you an extra life. In
that situation the cherries signaling below the maze
would be a third-order sign. They would be (deep
breath) an index denoting the future appearance of a
symbol about other symbols.
Now, all right, hang on. Pac-Man is a videogame,
no? It’s not rocket science. It has chirpy music, bright
colors. You trundle around the maze eating dots and
getting your own back on the ghosts. It is fun. It would
be lunacy to suggest that someone playing Pac-Man is
consciously doing all this semiotic calculus.
But this analysis does help in two ways. First, it
demonstrates that videogames are complex systems
rather than just simple toys. Secondly, and more
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importantly, it does in fact explain at one level what it
means to play a videogame. Because it helps to
reconstruct something the player is doing
automatically—there can be no doubt that to play the
game well she must understand how all the signs on the
game screen interact, in just the ways we have
described. Human beings are very good at reading
complex systems of signs without having to describe to
themselves what they are doing.
Now Pac-Man is twenty years old. We have seen
how videogames have progressed since those days. We
might expect, then, as videogames have increasingly
enjoyed the power to build ever more convincing cities
of the unreal, that their systems of semiotics, being the
bricks and mortar of those edifices, have themselves
become ever more complex and interesting. At first
sight, though, it seems as if that isn’t necessarily true.
Deep in conversation
From the playful web of signs in Pac-Man, modern
videogames seem to have, in their increasing powers
of graphical photorealism, become ever more
pervasively iconic. Compare Pac-Man with the
player’s characters in Soul Calibur (see fig. 17);
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whereas Pac-Man is abstract, largely symbolic, Voldo
(left) is a triumph of iconic or pictorial representation.
Now what does this do for the player’s sense of
involvement with the game? The unique feature of
videogames, after all, in terms of the structure of their
consumption as a medium of mass entertainment, is
that we are not merely spectators but participants. And
we participate by identifying with “our” character on
screen. A gameplayer whose ship has just exploded
does not say ruefully, “The ship just exploded”; he
says, “I died.” So might it be true that we cannot
“relate” to characters who are pictorially too well
defined? J. C. Herz thinks so: “Characters in Mortal
Kombat have fingers and stubble. You watch them.
Pac-Man has one black dot for an eye, and you become
We might interpret this claim by suggesting that a
game concentrating on the interplay of symbols is a
richer experience than one involving mostly icons. A
game of Snap, for instance, consists entirely of
comparing icons (the pictures on the playing cards),
whereas a game of chess is symbol manipulation in
excelsis. The requirement of the player to treat game
objects not merely as pictures but as symbols represents
a greater cognitive challenge.
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Fig. 17. Soul Calibur: fabulously iconic fighting (‰ 1998, 1999
Namco Ltd; all rights reserved)
This is not to say, of course, that iconic arts such as
photography and cinema do not stimulate the
imagination at all. Of course they do (or can). But there
is a difference in the faculty exercised. Looking at a
photograph, one may invent a story around the scene,
give the subjects inner lives and histories. The same
thing operates in cinema, where we are required to
reconstruct stories that have been fragmented through
cuts and flashbacks, or to deduce the thought
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processes of a character by reading an actor’s face. This
process is hermeneutic: it is about interpretation.
But the imagination that videogames require of the
player is a different process: it is pragmatic. It can be
subdivided into two parts: “imagining into” and
“imagining how.” “Imagining how” because at every
moment this operation precedes the dynamic challenge
of being able to predict how one’s actions will affect
the system, and therefore what course of action is
optimal; “imagining into” because one needs to
understand the rules of the semiotic system presented,
and act as if those rules, and not the rules of the real
world, applied to oneself. The requirement is to project
the active (rather than just the spectating)
consciousness into the semiotic realm. The videogame
player is absorbed by the system: for the duration of the
game, he lives among signs (another way of describing
the dissolution of self-consciousness in the videogame
The person playing Pac-Man, then, may be said in a
sense to be having a conversation with the system on its
own terms. Just as human conversation involves a twoway transfer of and reaction to symbols (words), so a
symbolically rich videogame, or other symbolic games
like chess, shares the same structural basis,
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exercising the pragmatic imagination. And indeed, we
can say that a videogame is better as its symbolic
conversation becomes more interesting.
The aesthetic importance of symbols to videogames
is played on in the commercial sphere too, in marketing
imagery. The four “action” buttons on the right of the
PlayStation control pad are identified purely by abstract
symbols: circle, square, triangle and X. These symbols
have become so closely identified with the PlayStation
and PlayStation2 hardware that Sony can release
advertisements that identify themselves as such only by
having the four symbols somewhere on the page. One
particularly inventive image, “Lovely Buttons” (press
advertisement, 1999), simply shows a young man and
woman in tight Tshirts, staring with blank sexual
confidence into camera. Upon closer inspection, what
appear to be their protuberant nipples are actually tiny,
solid PlayStation symbols poking through the fabric.
The advertisement carries no other information, textual
or otherwise, to identify the brand as Sony. The
symbols are all.
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Time, gentlemen, please
Remember that a videogame is not a static “text”; it is a
dynamic form. And since videogames operate through
time, another constituent of good symbolic
conversation is obviously going to be its rhythm, or
how the symbols combine over time.
The importance of rhythm is exemplified most
nakedly in a style of videogame that was hugely
popular at the 1999 Tokyo Game Show, which relies
completely on it, combining a handful of symbols with
complex temporal interaction. As we saw earlier,
combinations of four arrows floating down the screen;
when they reach the bottom line, the player must step
on the corresponding arrows of a sensory floormat
beneath the feet, in time to the banging techno music
from the loudspeakers. Hundreds of young Japanese
men and women were lining up to show off their skills
at this game, practicing their moves groovily in line.
The best of them combined the moves required by the
game with their own creative gestures and twirls.
Beatmania, meanwhile, consists of five large
buttons (styled like half an octave of a piano keyboard)
and a mock DJ turntable; similarly, various
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combinations of these must be manipulated in time with
their corresponding symbols floating down the screen.
Other “rhythm games,” as they are known, include
Parappa the Rapper, in which the player must help a
paper-thin rapping dog undergo musical training from
an onion; Guitar Freaks, playing on the Japanese
penchant for heavy metal by requiring the user to strum
a simplified rock ax; and Drummania, in which the
player sits on a stool and hits electronic drum pads in
time with symbols.
All these games show funny, colorful digital
animations on their screens: pulsating cartoon embryos
for a rave track; anime heroes performing six-string
heroics—but these icons are completely irrelevant to
the gameplay. But even these simple games boast a
unique structure of semiotic interaction. Notice, for
instance, that the symbols on the screen in Dance
Dance Revolution are also functioning indexically,
because they are pointing to the symbols that need to be
stepped on by the player, and the symbols themselves
(arrows pointing in four directions) are quite special in
that they are utterly content-free—they do not stand for
anything else in the context of the game.
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Dance Dance Revolution and Beatmania are very
literal applications of videogame rhythm. But rhythm is
also important in games that are not explicitly
predicated on musical interaction. Giving the keynote
speech at the 1999 Game Developers’ Conference in
San Jose, Shigeru Miyamoto emphasized this point
exactly: “I feel that those directors who have been able
to incorporate rhythm . . . in their games have been
successful.” We can break this idea down into three
First, nearly all action games rely on the player’s
basic ability to use tactical timing, by which I mean
pressing a certain button to produce an action at exactly
the right time. Many old platform games such as
Miyamoto’s own Super Mario Bros, for instance,
demand great accuracy in jumping and in controlling
your character’s skids so he doesn’t fall off platforms.
A racing game such as Sega Rally demands tactical
timing in manipulating the joypad or wheel so that the
player’s car rounds a corner in a controlled skid. A
beat-’em-up such as Soul Calibur rewards tactical
timing if we begin our attacking move just at the
moment when our opponent is in a vulnerable stance.
demands of highspeed reaction: in this
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the sudden appearance of grenades flying toward us in
Time Crisis 2, and we “duck” by lifting our foot off a
pedal before they hit. The expansive exploration game
Shenmue, meanwhile, utilizes a “Quick-Time Event”
system for certain periods of gameplay, which in
contrast to the game’s breathtaking visual
sophistication is a revealingly crude instance of symbol
manipulation through time. This occurs, for instance,
when the hero is pursuing another character down a
crowded Hong Kong market street. At regular intervals
a symbol corresponding to one of the console buttons
will flash on the screen; if the player fails to hit the
corresponding control very quickly, his character will
trip over a cart of tomatoes and thus lose his quarry.
As the period of time in question expands from
tenths of a second to whole seconds, tactical timing
bleeds slowly into a second component of videogame
rhythm: strategic timing. A classic example of this is in
the shoot-’em-up Defender. The player’s basic weapon
is a laser. To shoot down alien craft and swoop to
rescue falling humans is a question of tactical timing.
But you also have a limited supply of “smart bombs,”
which instantly destroy everything in the screen area.
Now as you only have three of these precious devices
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to start with, you must use them to your best advantage,
in the situations where they will be most effective. That
is strategic timing. The fact that destroying things earns
you more points, and at certain scores you win another
smart bomb or an extra life, makes a correct calculation
even more potentially rewarding. As Martin Amis puts
it: “The score is actually part of the game, and the
shape of many a ticklish gamble is determined by
whether your score is, say, 20,980 or 29,980.”
Strategic timing is also required by the beautifully
balanced beat-’em-up game Bushido Blade 2. Unlike
most of its genre, this game incorporates one-hit kills:
understandably, a well-aimed sledgehammer blow to
your opponent’s head will result in a pretty shower of
blood and his instantaneous collapse. Two-player bouts
of this game, then, are great fun because there is so
much tension involved, and strategy determines which
of three stances you hold your weapon in, and where in
the three-dimensional arena you choose to fight.
Strategic timing is also needed in more seriousminded
driving games such as F1 World Grand Prix 2, where
you must decide when to pull in your tired car for a pitstop. And strategic timing is obviously crucial in the
genre of God games or process toys, where fast
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reactions are subordinated to the intelligent deployment
of resources over time.
The third way in which time and rhythm operate in
videogames is at a high structural level, where I’ll call
it “tempo.”47 This describes, for instance, the ebb and
flow of anxiety and satisfaction through the
gameplaying experience. As games have become more
complex and longer experiences, tempo plays an ever
more important role in their pleasure. A game of
Robotron or Defender, for example, induces a
reasonably constant high level of stress for the ten or
twenty minutes that it lasts. However, Tomb Raider III
or Zelda 64, which can be played without restarting for
hours on end, need to afford the player some breathing
space at intervals, where there is no immediate danger,
just as much as they need to invoke moments of
extreme anxiety. This concept also involves Richard
Darling’s comments in the last chapter about the
distribution of rewards throughout a videogame. They
can’t be constant (continuous reinforcement gets
boring); they can’t be spaced out too far (not enough
reinforcement). And neither rewards nor periods of
relative relaxation must be spaced regularly, or they
47 I am not using this word in its technical musical sense, where a closer
analogy might be “rubato.”
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become predictable, and the element of pleasurable
surprise is lost.
A videogame designer must therefore consider the
large-scale distribution of such aspects of his game and
organize them to the best effect—then it will have good
tempo. A brilliant example of this aspect of design is
Resident Evil. Perhaps the greatest reason for the
game’s success is its virtuosic tempo: periods of
wandering through deserted environments with a
gnawing sense of unease are interrupted by startling
high-adrenaline events, such as a vicious dog monster
crashing through a window (see fig. 18). Tempo in this
game relies on creative alternations of suspense (not
giving you what you expect, holding back) and shock
(giving you what you don’t expect). As with its visual
style, Resident Evil’s tempo is also drawn from a movie
template. The tempo of Alien, for example, works in
exactly the same way: periods of nervous movement
through the Nostromo’s service ducts punctuated by
sudden, horrific appearances of the slimy xenomorph.
One final comment we can make on the timing of
videogames’ symbolic interactions is that just as games
have graphic resolution—the number of little dots or
pixels on the screen from which the image is
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Fig. 18. Resident Evil: a shocking moment (‰ 1997 Capcom)
built up—they also have temporal resolution, which
describes the fluidity or otherwise of the image’s
movement through time. Now if a videogame suffers
from “jerky” animation, in that there are too few frames
to the second, the player’s absorption into the
temporally based semiotic conversation will be injured;
it is analogous to having a conversation with a friend
who pauses briefly after every word he utters. Even
worse, in a high-speed driving or flying game, a low
temporal resolution is just not giving the player enough
information to make apt decisions. If you only
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see the road in snapshots every twenty yards, you
cannot drive very accurately.
However powerful a computer processor, its
resources will always be finite, so there will always be
a trade-off between temporal resolution and graphical
resolution. You can have very richly defined pictures
that move jerkily, or slightly less detailed ones that
move smoothly. Quake III: Arena, for example, is a
beautiful example of how very high temporal resolution
really sucks the player in. So frame rate should never
be sacrificed to visual detail.
Say something else
Modern videogames adore the icon. They draw ever
more beautifully detailed worlds and characters. But
they are not necessarily any less semiotically complex
than Pac-Man, once you get behind the pictures. Nearly
all signs are mixtures of the semiotic modes. In an
iconic game such as Tomb Raider, it becomes clear that
game objects such as doors and keys, while being good
three-dimensional “pictures” of their referents, actually
operate mostly as symbols. For they are not granted
“realistic” physical attributes. As noted earlier in the
book, a wooden door may not be blown up by a rocketlauncher, and a key may not be filed down to fit
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a different lock. A Tomb Raider door, therefore,
operates as a symbol for “exit” or “threshold,” a means
of policing movement between predefined spaces, and a
key operates symbolically a little like a minor powerup,
a second-order sign denoting “ability to use door.”
There are also clearly artificial symbolic
conventions in the gameplay of the Tomb Raider world:
for instance, if a stone block is a slightly different shade
of brown or gray from its neighbors, that tonal contrast
is operating as a symbol for “pushable”—the player
knows that Lara is able to push the block out of the way
in order to climb up onto it, or to uncover a hidden
passage. The “medikits” that Lara finds scattered
around, meanwhile, are iconic in that they look like
little leather bags with a red cross painted on them—but
their function is purely symbolic. We are not meant to
imagine that Lara really sews up her bullet wounds
with the contents; they are conventional power-ups,
restoring Lara’s health in the time-honored, blatantly
artificial manner. For all its heightened graphic
naturalism, then, the mechanics of the game still
operate, just as in Pac-Man, as a symbolic system. The
“realistic” skin hides a semiotic cyborg.
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The virtue of Tomb Raider is that, although the
variety of symbolic interaction that it offers to the
player—manipulating keys, doors and switches—is
quite rudimentary and uninteresting, the way the player
is required to interact with such symbols in the three
dimensions of space is what makes the game a
pleasurable challenge. Lara is a very nicely designed
videogame character, as we have seen, because of the
somersaulting, running, climbing—she is capable of,
and these acrobatic moves must be strung together with
exquisite tactical timing to move her around the
environments in which she operates.
But a game such as Zelda 64, historically a
contemporary of Tomb Raider III, is even more
entertaining, because it combines requirements of
spatial navigation and tactical timing with a far greater
semiotic richness, which consists in the much wider
variety of sign combinations and the cognitive
challenges they pose to the player. In the Forest Temple
of Zelda 64, for example, a good deal of complex fun is
had with the nature of an icon itself.
The environment is a crumbling old country house,
full of dark nooks and shadows. Gilt-edged paintings of
ghosts hang on the walls. The paintings are icons
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within the gameworld. But the ghosts inside suddenly
come to life with a demonic chuckle. The player
realizes that he must shoot them with an arrow before
the painting turns blank and the ghost flees to the
painting behind him. So the pure icon has suddenly
become a symbol to be fought.
A different part of the same Temple, meanwhile,
sees the player facing another ghost portrait. Suddenly
six stone blocks fall from the ceiling; each side of each
block is painted with a different section of the ghost
portrait hanging on the wall. The player’s task is to
move the blocks around within a strict time limit so that
their arrangement recreates the painting, at which point
the ghost is drawn into the open to be fought. So the
painting, which as before starts out as a pure icon, then
becomes an index, pointing at the desired arrangement
of the blocks on the floor. And finally it becomes a
symbol again, as the ghost turns into a real enemy. The
fact that all this sophisticated semiotic play happens in
a matter of seconds provides an enriching experience
beyond simple puzzles of space and movement.
The masterful semiotic playground that is Zelda 64
also expands the language available to the player by
means of its titular ocarina, a clay pipe that emits
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melodies according to which button on the controller is
pressed, keyboard-style. Once you have learned certain
melodies, you may cause day to turn to night, or invoke
rain, or talk to your friend in the forest. The game helps
the player by showing the tune on a stave, in traditional
symbolic musical language, and also indexically
showing, or pointing to, the particular button-symbols
that will cause each note to sound. And the melodies
work symbolically as a whole, in that they are just
summarily agreed to be certain causal mechanisms in
the gameworld.
This idea of a magical musical “language” is
immensely intriguing. The Pied Piper of Hamelin, of
course, had the same gift, as did Orpheus, charming the
dolphins with his lyre—it is a recurring theme in
folktale and myth. Zelda 64, in fact, only scrapes the
surface of its possibilities, as the effective melodies are
already written into the game. But there is no reason
why future videogames may not, with very clever
programming, develop this idea, and have the
environment react organically to musical themes that
the player makes up.
The ocarina is an example, at base, of a power-up.
Many power-ups, like this one, take the form of
physical objects in the gameworld—gadgets—but
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functionally they remain the same sort of animal as the
large blobs in Pac-Man: they are second-order signs
effecting changes in the possible symbolic relationships
of the game. The ocarina works in this way by
expanding the player’s symbolic language. Another
Zelda 64 gadget, for instance, the hookshot (a sort of
retractable grappling hook), enables the player to reach
previously inaccessible areas by swinging up.
Now in general one wants to say, “The more
gadgets the better.” The more ways in which a player is
required to learn how to use a new gadget and thus
expand her semiotic conversation with the game, the
longer the game will be refreshing and surprising,
delivering a sense of childlike discovery. The brilliant
yet underrated Ape Escape (see fig. 19) is furnished
with many such exceptionally imaginative gadgets: a
monkey radar, which when waved in the direction of a
rogue simian flashes and hoots, enabling the player to
examine his prey close-up; a hula hoop, which when
spun round the waist enables the player’s character to
run extremely fast; a rotor, which when spun enables
you to float up to previously inaccessible areas. But
Ape Escape’s crowning achievement is the
radiocontrolled car, which—bizarrely at first—offers
exactly the same experience as working a real radio-
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controlled car. When you are first given this gadget,
you just play with it, as you would with a real one. The
form is identical. Herein lies one secret of the
videogame’s enormous potential: it is the universal toy.
(Indeed, 1999’s RC Stunt Copter is a videogame
simulation of playing with a real radio-controlled
helicopter, while No ClichÉ’s Toy Commander lets you
play with something like fifty different types—toy
planes, tanks, race cars and so on—spread over an
imaginary house.)
But wait a minute: Ape Escape’s radio-controlled
car, after all, doesn’t really exist. It is racing round a
virtual world, and an anime-styled orange-haired
punkboy is holding the car’s controller box on screen.
That’s alienation without the pain. In fact, the tangible
connection between the controls in your physical hands
and the action of the little toy on screen is a clever
semiotic trick that fools you into ever-increasing
absorption into the cartoon world. A similar trick is
worked by the videogame paradigm of the sniper rifle,
introduced by MDK (1997), perfected by Goldeneye
(1997) and then cropping up everywhere—for example
in Metal Gear Solid (1999) and Perfect Dark (2000).
This gadget zooms in on an area and lets you view it in
close-up, usually for the purpose of delivering
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Fig. 19. Ape Escape: monkeying around in the ice age (‰ 1999
Sony Computer Entertainment)
an exquisite head shot to a bad guy. A virtual
environment that reveals more detail when viewed
telescopically is naturally more convincing than one
which only works on one informational scale.
The exception to the rule that more gadgets are
better is the bad case of the single-use object, which we
came across earlier. The single-use object—for
instance, a jewel that must be fitted into a crevice but is
then forgotten about—is basically a rudimentary
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power-up, but as we saw it’s also a special case of the
dreaded “functional incoherence.” By contrast, Metal
Gear Solid superbly combines a large number of
gadgets with a delicious freedom as to how they are
used and reused in various situations. You may use a
simple cardboard box to hide in, or to get yourself
transported unwittingly by the enemy in a truck. When
you meet your sharp-shooting nemesis, Sniper Wolf,
for the second time, you can choose to battle her with
the sniper rifle, or throw gallantry to the wind and fire
off some Nikita guided missiles instead. If your aim is
shaky, you can pop a tranquilizer, or smoke a cigarette.
If you need to make some alarm beams visible, you can
smoke a cigarette or use your infrared goggles— and so
A great game, we can say for the moment, will
probably have one or both of the two semiotic virtues
identified. The first is to set challenges that involve
complex, rich interactions of signs. And the second is
continually to expand the player’s own vocabulary, to
present the gift of freedom in negotiating those semiotic
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Information overlord
Now as signs are basically vehicles of meaning,48 a
videogame will, for its own part in the conversation,
need to erect highly efficient, semiotic systems as it
tries to present ever greater quantities of raw
information to the player. That information can be
broken up into different signs in different areas of the
Consider the screen of G-Police (see fig. 20). It
shows a perspective construction of solid-looking
buildings, roads, cars and other aircraft. In visual terms,
this highly iconic construction is far closer to the film
Blade Runner than it is to the videogame Pac- Man. But
arrayed around the edges of the screen are ghostly,
transparent figures that constitute a knotty system of
signs that the player must read and react to in order to
play the game competently. These figures are the
game’s “HUD,” or head-up display, which recreates an
actual military technology whereby instrument readings
are projected on to the cockpit window directly ahead
of the pilot so that he doesn’t have to look away for
48 Or actually, on readings such as the Saussurean one, constitute meaning
by virtue of their arrangement
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Fig. 20. G-Police: the information superhighway (‰ 1997 Sony
Computer Entertainment)
Look at the screen. Top right is a number
surrounded by a segmented, shaded ring. The number, a
symbol, denotes the “health” of your gunship: when it
reaches zero, the craft is destroyed. Similarly, the
words at bottom right are symbols for the available
weapons. But most of the gameplayer’s information is
also provided indexically: the shaded parts around the
health number vanish in strict ratio to the decreasing
number, with an overlaid symbolic order of rainbow
color, whereby green denotes maximum health,
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gradually turning to red for minimum. The shaded
brackets at either side of screen center, meanwhile, are
indices: at left for craft speed (colored above the middle
for forward speed, below the middle for reverse); and at
right for engine thrust. Again color is overlaid
symbolically, with a bright yellow for high forward
velocities or accelerations, red for low ones, descending
into blue and purple for reverse.
The signs at bottom left, meanwhile, furnish
symbols (numbers) for altitude, but again provide the
same information indexically, as an arrow pointing to
subdivisions of a meter that rises and falls. Top center
is the player’s radar, which works as a triumvirate of all
three semiotic modes: symbolically, because each
(green or red) dot is agreed to stand for a civilian or
enemy craft; indexically, because the red triangle
“points to” the next mission objective; and iconically,
because the whole arrangement is a simplified “picture”
of local space.
If it remains largely true that the interplay of
symbols constitutes the richness of the gameplay
itself,49 there is a complementary truth that indices
49 Although some videogames—in particular racing games like Ridge
Racer Type 4—can happily demote symbolism to a rather incidental
property, if they provide enough interest solely with icons (beautiful
scenery), indices (road signs and rev counters) and rhythm.
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enjoy a greater importance in the business of providing
feedback to the player on the basis of which he can
determine his next action. It is more intuitively and
speedily understandable to “read” an indexical shape
such as the remaining health segments than to read the
numerical symbol, especially since the index provides,
as the number does not, an instantly comprehensible
representation of current health or speed as a ratio of
the possible maximum. The reason is exactly the same
as why your car’s dashboard features an indexical
speedometer: an arrow pointing to a certain point on a
circular dial. A bald numerical display, such as that
used by the odometer, is simply not instantaneous
enough in its communication of critical data.
G-Police provides a polyphonic display of signs,
and so, as already noted, it is a shame that its control
system is too complex for fluid execution of the
player’s wishes. The badly designed language that the
player is given erects a barrier between him and the
world of the game.
Even in games that are less stuffed with
quantitative information than G-Police and its
simulation-style comrades, indices are still of great
help in telling the player how to organize symbolic
interactions. The best example is in exploration games
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that provide a map of the current environment. In Zelda
64, the player must find a map: it is an object in the
gameworld that functions as a power-up. Once
acquired, it can be viewed to help you find your way to
new areas: it is graphically designed so as to look like a
real parchment map (it’s an icon); it “points to” the
salient structural features of the environment (it’s an
index); and it is marked with symbols that are agreed to
stand for various crucial features: a treasure chest, the
monster’s lair. But here the player must switch between
the map “screen” and the gameworld. By contrast, the
dinosaur-hunting first-person shooter Turok 2
intelligently enables the level map to be overlaid on to
the iconically constructed environment, as if it were a
transparency; thus, the player is reading all possible
modes of sign at once.
Videogames have become so clever at displaying
information in imaginative yet instantly intuitive ways
that they have started to exhibit a kind of aesthetic
techno-nostalgia. They are so far ahead of the race,
compared to the dull and workmanlike interfaces of
“serious” software or most Internet pages, that they can
fool around and have a bit of visual fun. This is most
obvious in the panoply of support screens— option
screens to set the player’s preferences, to
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choose game modes or to save and load game data or
preplay mission briefings—all the prerequisites to play
(which Shigeru Miyamoto calls a game’s “labor”) that
surround the action at the heart of even the simplest
modern game.
G-Police 2: Weapons of Justice (1999), for
example, is full of glowing green grids that sketch out a
virtual graph paper background to screens full of
weapon and mission information; text spells itself out
letter by letter accompanied by rapid high-pitched
beeping. Control panels are given a metallic, quasisolid
sheen by the old effect of bas-relief, which renders the
illusion of raised and hollowed surfaces with simple
lines of highlight and shadow. The effect of all this is
deliberately retrogressive, harking back to an early
1980s era when such visual asceticism was in fact the
technological cutting edge, for instance in the moody
green-and-gray bas-relief of the brilliant shoot- ’em-up
Uridium for the Commodore 64. The modern Omega
Boost, too, plays with screens full of crude, dancing
alphanumeric characters, green wireframe data screens
and deliberately fuzzy, old-school voice synthesis in its
mission clips.
It is clear that videogames must differentiate
themselves from the interfaces of “serious” software:
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no one wants to come home, turn on a game and feel
like they’re still working at the office PC.50 But the
particular aesthetic phenomenon of techno-nostalgia is
also working a very clever, stealthy trick. Just as
Hamlet’s deliberately archaic play-within-a-play
enhances the audience’s suspension of disbelief, in that
the surrounding onstage action looks by comparison far
more “real,” so the blatantly archaic technological
design in some parts of the videogame make the
cutting-edge visuals in the thick of the action seem
even more novel and exciting.
Drawing you in
Modern videogames, as we have seen, glory in their
graphic richness: spacecraft with scarred hulls, fighters
with stubble, trees with individually swaying branches.
But this does not necessarily reduce the player’s
involvement in the game. What spoils “identification”
is simply a lack of symbolic richness to suck you in. If
a game with a beautiful graphic iconic construction also
enjoys symbolic richness—as in Zelda 64—it is a
50 This is also the reason that, videogame journalists and hardcore system
fetishists aside, PC-based videogames are far less popular than
consolebased ones—quite apart from the fact that the latter hardware is five
times cheaper.
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good game. Conversely, a game built entirely from
abstract visual symbols can be a bad game if those
symbols do not interact in interesting ways. Tic-TacToe, played by arranging the abstract symbols X and O,
is a boring game for exactly this reason, as well as the
more general competitive reason that it is always a
draw. Beatmania, however, combines a mere four
symbols in compelling rhythmic ways and so is a good
But a good videogame character—a well-designed
and attractive icon such as Sonic or Lara—can vastly
increase our enjoyment of the game. So how can these
two apparently contradictory claims be reconciled—on
the one hand, that iconicism is irrelevant to gameplay;
and on the other hand, that beautiful icons increase our
Well, the hermeneutic (in videogames, mostly
iconic) and pragmatic (mostly symbolic) imaginations
are not mutually exclusive. For instance, when reading
a detective novel (hermeneutic), you are very likely to
try to figure out how (pragmatic) the hero should
proceed in his case. And the same is true of modern
videogames. They just require more sophistication on
our part to “read” them properly: hermeneutic
imagination for the gorgeous pictorialism, as well as
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pragmatic imagination for the symbolic interaction. The
semiotic demands of videogames are becoming greater
all round.
One irregular videogamer, an habituÉe of Pac-Man
and Tetris, told me on playing Tomb Raider for the first
time: “I found I was looking at Lara rather than
worrying what was going on in the game.” This is
revealing: iconic modern games certainly hit you first
with their pictures. But that’s no bad thing, because if
you like the icons, you are more likely to want to get to
grips with the symbols. Good videogame characters
please us visually and thus function as our motivation
for continuing the struggle. They catch our interest
simply because we like them, and would prefer to see
them succeed.
In this way they are playing on our hermeneutic
imagination—but of course we also need to exercise
our pragmatic imagination when controlling them in
order to help them overcome their problems. And here
again we notice the desirable limits of videogame
“reality.” Remember that there is a limit on how
purely, accurately iconic we want videogame
characters to be: Lara Croft must always remain no
woman in particular, for that is her charm. And we
don’t really want in a videogame to kill and mutilate
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very “real”-looking people; for the game to remain
innocent, visceral fun, they must remain partial
symbols, retain that “computer look.”
Modern videogames are in this way more seductive
than ever, as thanks to their visual enhancement they
challenge us doubly. The same gameplayer who
couldn’t help just watching Lara for a while also mused
that she found it more disturbing when Lara died than
when Pac-Man died, because she saw the character
drown in a “realistic” fashion. Modern games have the
potential, as yet largely unfulfilled, to deliver a richer
overall experience to the player.
The history of videogames’ iconic powers, their
increasing ability to draw a pretty world, has opened up
new potential for semiotic richness. But good graphics
cannot work alone: what matters in modern gameplay
terms is the interaction of all three types of sign. A
gorgeous game with nothing interesting to do is just a
bad piece of software.
As videogames deliver richer visual experiences, it
seems, ever more people will be willing to pick them
up and play. A good modern exploration game such as
Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation (Lara’s last outing
on the original PlayStation) depends very heavily in
this way on its iconic attractiveness. Jeremy Smith of
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Core enthuses over the possibilities offered by the next
technological standard:
There are far more things you can do with Lara’s hair, and
with her clothing . . . The leaves that you’re going past or the
vines are all moving and animating, and there may be water
dripping off them on to a pool which is making a ripple
effect. PlayStation2 can do this camerablurring where you
can home in on the central character and the view-distance at
the back is blurred. Can you imagine the possibilities that
that’s going to open up? It’s going to give you a depth of
field that’s so huge it’s just like opening up a whole new door
into gaming. Games are gonna have great depth—depth and
atmosphere. Superb!
It certainly looks as though the more able a game is to
draw an atmospheric, beautiful world—as in the frankly
stunning Shenmue—the more willing the player will be
to shuffle off his or her chthonic shackles and swim
happily into that world, where he or she can then get to
grips with its symbolic play.
What have we decided? That underneath the flashy
graphics, cinematic cut-scenes, real-time physics,
mythological back stories and everything else, a
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videogame at bottom is still a highly artificial,
purposely designed semiotic engine. And its purpose is
not to simulate real life, but to offer the gift of playing a
game. When we are at play, whether in front of a
videogame screen, in a chess cafÉ, at the bowling alley
or in the park, we are citizens of an invisible city, built
of signs.
We should not find that so surprising, because man,
after all, is the symbolic animal. And this is exactly
what videogames celebrate, challenge and feed. It’s no
dumb accident that they appeared: once the technology
was lying around, they simply had to happen. As Nolan
Bushnell, the father of commercial videogaming, puts it
dryly, videogames arose out of a natural wish to “make
computers do fun things.” In this sense, they are an
historically inevitable evolution of the play drive. To
play a videogame is only human.
To win, of course, is divine.
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God’s gift
In the beginning, heaven and earth were married. Gaia
(earth) and Uranus (the heavens) then gave birth to the
Titans, the twelve gods of earliest times. They had
dominion over all the cosmos. The youngest Titan,
Kronos, married his sister Rhea, but he knew that he
was fated to be supplanted by one of his children. In
order to protect himself, he hit upon the strategy of
eating them all, one by one, as they were born.
However, when the last child, Zeus, fought his way
from the womb, Rhea, sick of her wasted efforts, tricked
her husband and gave him a stone to eat instead, hiding
Zeus away in Crete. When Zeus grew up, he forced
Kronos to disgorge the stone along with
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all his other eaten children. The Titanomachy ensued: a
ten-year war between Zeus and his siblings on one side
and the rest of the Titans on the other that shook the
universe to its foundations.
There was one Titan battling on Zeus’s side:
Prometheus. His name means “he who thinks ahead.”
His insistence on using guile rather than brute force
was laughed off by his fellow Titans, and so
Prometheus abandoned them to their fate and made his
ingenuity available to Zeus’s faction. Thanks to
Prometheus’s strategic talent, Zeus won. He and his
brothers and sisters took their thrones on Mount
Olympus. The rest of the Titans, defeated, were
consigned to the hell of Tartarus, while Prometheus’s
half-brother Atlas was forced to hold up the sky for all
Prometheus, alone of his kind now free, created
men out of clay. Zeus, ever ready to pull the ladder up
after himself, was afraid that men in turn might seek to
challenge his kingly position, and called for them to be
utterly wiped out. The Titan, however, loved his
creations so dearly that he stole a spark from the forge
of Hephaestus and carried it down to men, hidden in a
stalk of fennel. Pyrotechnia, the art of fire, the source
of all knowledge, was now man’s. Prometheus
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continued to improve the brutish lives of his creations
by teaching them writing, astronomy, agriculture,
sailing, medicine, mining and the interpretation of
dreams. He also fooled Zeus into accepting the worst
portion of meat from sacrificed animals: gristly bone
was the gods’ due, while men kept the edible flesh.
For these and other indiscretions, however,
Prometheus was punished. The malignant Zeus had him
chained to a rock, where a monstrous eagle gobbled at
his exposed liver every day for thirty thousand years. In
the Athenian drama usually attributed to Aeschylus,
Prometheus Bound, the immortally pain-racked hero
sums up his story: “I gave a gift to mortals, and in that
giving yoked myself to fate—to this! I filled a hollow
reed with fire, stolen from heaven. I gave it to mortals.
It sparked them, taught them cunning, filled their need.
For that, now, I pay this price, chained, staked, wide
open to the sky.”
After an age of suffering, Prometheus was finally
freed when Hercules shot the eagle-monster with his
bow. From the surviving fragments of Aeschylus’s
sequel, it appears that Prometheus and Zeus were then
to enjoy something of a reconciliation. More than two
thousand years later, however, Shelley rewrote the
ending in Prometheus Unbound, where Prometheus,
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the champion now of human imagination and sexuality,
defeats the tyrannical god and casts him forever into
the abyss. For the moment, man’s inheritance is safe.
For what had Prometheus done in the first place?
He had given humans a power-up.
Burn this
The gift of fire. Like most children, I used to find
battery-powered flashlights fascinating toys. I’d
smuggle a flashlight into bed and turn it on after lights
out, beaming whirling patterns onto the ceiling for what
seemed like hours. The quality of light just before the
batteries ran out was my favorite: a barely visible
golden specter, loopingly scrawling its message in a
hieroglyphic tongue. It was a mystery. The fiery glow
of a tungsten filament powered by a couple of chunks
of lead and acid somehow translated into this sensuous
The ancient Chinese, we are told, first invented
fireworks—made fire a plaything. For centuries,
fireeaters traveled with circuses, making dragonish art
from the destructive gift. To this day they give a
thrillingly organic flavor even to such celebrations of
technology-dependent entertainment as Manumission,
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the Babylonian techno palace on Ibiza. Lately,
electricity has become the preferred fire—eminently
biddable and plastic—of the moderns. Electric light
freed us from the tyranny of the dark, hastening the
march of technology. The movies came along and
“broke our prisons asunder”: reality was recorded and
recreated anywhere, through light.
Then there was television: a tumultuous inferno of
electrons, arcanely marshaled and beaming more reality
into each lucky home. Through the gift of fire in its
latest incarnation, everyone was to have their horizons
expanded, their minds cultivated, their hopes nurtured.
That didn’t last. The fire became not an illuminating
flame but a cauterizing one, dulling the nerves. You can
shout at the television, but it will just keep on pumping
out its moronizing radiation. You can switch channels.
You can switch it off.
And now videogames—the television screen
reclaimed for our control. What potential—if
television replaced the log fire or the wireless as a
focus of domestic attention, the videogame reengineers
the television’s relentless blaze as a colorful zone of
play, a new world to explore, a rich and strange place
to pit your wits against the dazzling inventions of
others. The pixels dance to your tune. You’re not
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watching, you’re doing. And when videogames are at
their best, what you’re doing is something vastly more
creatively challenging than watching a docusoap or a
quiz show. Your reasoning, reflexes and imagination
are tested to exhilarating limits. That hunk of molded
plastic, that PlayStation or Dreamcast, is a magic box
that allows you to play with fire. A Prometheus engine.
Bad company
Fire is not necessarily an unqualified good. It can burn.
Back in 1982, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett
Koop declared that videogames were evil entities that
produced “aberrations in childhood behavior.” Then,
videogames were abstract pixellated contests of timing
and skill, but now they offer superbly detailed
animations of blood and gore while you shoot an
opponent’s head off in Kingpin or mow down
pedestrians in your car in Carmageddon. The latter
game was grudgingly granted the equivalent of an NC17 rating in 1997 by the British Board of Film
Classification, on the condition that the victims’ blood
was changed in color from red (too human) to green
(acceptably zombie).
People are worried by such exultantly bad-taste
imagery. Such scientific investigation as has been done
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into the possible negative effects of videogames is so
far inconclusive. Patricia Greenfield’s 1984 study,
Media and the Mind of the Child, concluded that there
was no such evidence, but then videogames were not
nearly so graphically detailed as they are now. In more
recent times, arguments that videogame playing
temporarily increases aggression in children51 are
countered by other studies claiming evidence for the
“catharsis” hypothesis—that videogames provide a safe
and beneficial outlet for aggressive feelings in a nondestructive context,52 or that they contribute positively
to a child’s cognitive development.53 The jury’s still
Despite the absence of scientific consensus, there is
a rising level of moral concern that parallels the outcry
over “video nasties” in the 1980s. Questions were
asked in the British Parliament on the 1993 release of
51 These arguments are given a witty and readable overview by Mark
Griffiths in “Video Games and Children’s Behavior” in Elusive Links.
52 This is the view, for instance, of G. I. Kestenbaum & L. Weinstein in
“Personality, Psychopathology, and Developmental Issues in Male
Adolescent Video Game Use,” in Journal of the American Academy of
Child Psychiatry 24, pp. 325–37 (cited by Griffiths, op. cit.).
53 Marsha Kinder writes in Playing with Power in Movies, Television and
Video Games (p. 115) that she has observed her son playing videogames
and argues that they enrich his development: “I have noticed that the better
Victor becomes at videogames, the more interested and skillful he is at
drawing cartoons.”
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Mortal Kombat. Grand Theft Auto (1997), a game
in which the player steals cars, runs over lines of Hare
Krishnas and shoots cops, was described by the British
Police Federation as “sick, deluded and beneath
contempt,” and in the summer of 1999 a member of
Parliament wrote to the prime minister asking if
anything could be done to limit sales of the
horrorthemed game Silent Hill, whose story centers on
the disappearance and torture of a young girl.
In the United States, the increasing number of
school massacres is leading many to blame
videogames directly for childhood violence. In spring
1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two Columbine
High School teenagers in Littleton, Colorado, shot
twelve students and a teacher before committing
suicide. The media quickly reported that they were
avid players of videogames Doom and Duke Nukem.
The previous year, fourteen-year-old Michael Carneal
had killed three students and injured five others at his
school in West Paducah, Kentucky. After the Littleton
incident, the parents of those three murdered children
filed a $130 million lawsuit against twenty-four
videogame and Internet companies. The plaintiffs
claimed that Doom, apparently one of Carneal’s
favorite games, “trained Carneal to point and shoot a
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gun in a fashion making him an...effective killer
without teaching him any of the constraints or
responsibilities needed to inhibit such a killing
capacity.” The suit was summarily dismissed in May
2000 by a federal court judge, but the scapegoating of
videogames continues.
Now it is true that videogames have had a
technologies of killing. Remember the glowing
neoplatonism of Battlezone? It was a thing of
beauty, but it also became quite grimily implicated
in real-life destruction. Atari was commissioned to
build an enhanced version of Battlezone for the
American Defense Department’s Advanced
Research Project Agency (DARPA), as a simulator
for real tank drivers. This was only the start of a
videogames and the military. American warplane
company Lockheed-Martin invested in the
accelerating their development. The U.S. Marines
have made their recruits practice Doom, as the
game’s codesigner Jon Romero acknowledged:
“Soldiers played Doom to feel like they were in a
war situation, where you have oneshot kills.” The
U.S. Navy now uses a custom hack of Microsoft’s
Flight Simulator to help pilots learn to fly
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a T-34C Turbo Mentor, the aircraft used for primary
flight training.
But what does it mean to say that a videogame can
train you to kill? I think it means rather less than critics
want it to. When I was in school, my favorite sport was
fencing. I was trained to wield my preferred weapon, a
saber, with great speed and precision. The swords we
used were blunted, and we all wore protective clothing
and face-masks. But I was perfectly equipped, if I so
chose, to sharpen my blade and use it to hack limbs off
my classmates with a few swashbuckling moves. There
is no doubt that my potential capability to kill was
enhanced by my fencing activities. But that had no
causal, motivational effect of the type that is implied by
the idea of “training.”
Similarly with videogames. In Time Crisis, for
instance, the player wields a plastic gun that responds
very accurately to light—you aim the gun at the screen
and shoot the enemy. A person who is very good at
Time Crisis will probably be a good shot with a real
gun. But no convincing explanation is available as to
why such an otherwise well-balanced individual would
want to make the move from play to murder. The
soldiers who practice teamwork with Doom are not
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motivated to kill by their experience of playing that
game; they are ordered to do so by their superiors.
Fencing, of course, is a sport whose kinetic form is
derived from a long, bloodthirsty history of actual
sword fighting, combat and duels. But we class it as a
morally neutral sport because its content is nonviolent:
the risk of injury is very low (far lower than with
boxing), and the intent of the fencer is not to kill or
maim but simply to win. The same is true of
videogames. When I am playing Time Crisis 2 or
Perfect Dark, my intent is not to kill. For there is
nothing to kill; there are only patterns of light on the
screen. Similarly, the consequences of my actions have
no moral content either, because no one dies.
So to blame videogames directly for childhood
violence is absurd, unless one is prepared also to
legislate against laser tag, paintball, martial arts and
even bodybuilding—in fact, every type of recreation
that could theoretically increase one’s ability to kill
another human being but has no direct causal
connection with murderous activity.
On the other hand, videogames may be one of a
complex of causal factors, any one of which in
isolation does not produce a killer but which in
combination become lethal. Clearly, for instance,
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videogames might be said to have an influence on
reallife violence in the same way that films or any other
media do—by having a particular style that may be
imitated. The Columbine murderers are thought to have
dressed in black trench coats in emulation of Keanu
Reeves in The Matrix. It is possible that Michael
Carneal killed his schoolmates deliberately in the
manner of a Doom deathmatch. But it would be wrong
to conclude that those teenagers would not have killed
if they hadn’t seen that film or played that game. It
seems far more likely that they would simply have
picked another wardrobe statement off the rack from
television or the cinema.
Modern media, including videogames, offer a vast
library of imagery. But the intent to commit violence in
the first place is not caused by that imagery; most of the
time, stylistic imitation is safely indulged in a play
form, such as when children of past generations
pretended to reenact scenes from their favorite cowboy
shows. Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange does
not argue that Beethoven and bowler hats cause
murder; they merely provide a convenient style to wrap
around Alex’s sadistic fantasies. Famously, Stanley
Kubrick withdrew his film of that novel after reports of
“copycat” crimes. But if you are going to
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kill, you can find stylistic inspiration anywhere: in a
detective novel, a film, a painting by Hieronymus
Bosch, a heavy-metal album or a videogame. They
won’t, however, implant the murderous desire in the
first place.
A videogame can even be seen as positively
valuable if it enables the formal imitation of dangerous
or criminal activities in a safe and consequence-free
environment. Sam Houser, president of Rockstar
Games, which published Grand Theft Auto 2 in 1999,
quotes the New York Police Department as happily
approving of the joyriding and cop-killing in his
notorious product: “We’d rather they did it in your
game than on the street.”
And yet, precisely because of their huge
commercial and cultural successes, videogames cannot
be immune from ethical considerations. We have, after
all, been discussing them as art.54 So let’s return to one
of our primary themes: our old friend, the reality of the
unreal world.
54 “Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.” Wittgenstein, Tractatus
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In a dance of fire are new worlds born. At British
videogame developers Core Design, they have a
special, home-grown software tool designed exactly for
the purpose of building new worlds: it’s called, not
inappropriately, Worldbuild II. After the artists have
drawn hundreds of pencil sketches of imaginary
landscapes, the topographical features of each area are
fed directly into the computer. Acetate plans go up on
the walls. Now begins the process of making it an
explorable environment.
As in many things, ontogeny (the development of
an individual) recapitulates or mirrors phylogeny (the
evolution of a type). At its early stages, the human fetus
bears certain physiological resemblances to our fishy
ancestors. And in the early stages of gestation of a
modern virtual world, it resembles the cutting-edge
arcade games of two decades ago: the pure, abstract
geometry of Battlezone. The digitally created “land” is
a wireframe model made up of hundreds or thousands
of polygons; the worldbuilder simply has to drag
individual bits up or down with the mouse to create the
shapes of what will become molehills, mountains,
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valleys and rivulets. Block by block, the ground is
raised and lowered; edges are smoothed off.
Only then, when the landscape is shaped in three
dimensions, do the artists start to color it in, choosing
from a palette of colors and textures (endless pages of
sun-bleached grass, clover patches, subtly different
shades of rock) that are simply painted on to the
wireframe model. Meanwhile, other artists have been
fashioning animals out of their digital version of the
Promethean clay. A cow is fashioned from a
geometrical skeleton, painstakingly animated through
hundreds of frames, and then “skinned”—not flayed,
but given a skin, a colorful cartoon cowhide that is
wrapped over the wireframe model. Now the
worldbuilder simply chooses the incantatory menu
option “Place Object”: the cow is sucked out of its
virtual womb, fully formed, and dropped into the field.
With no apparent signs of confusion or disorientation,
the bovine simply starts padding around the grass,
enjoying a nonexistent sun. Inside the game: life, of a
A world can’t be built in isolation. Every facet of
the videogame development process is organically
interrelated with the requirements of the others. For this
game, an artist explains, “The early levels are all
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meadows and open spaces to get the player comfortable
with the character.” The terrain is designed expressly to
optimize gameplay.
One theory of how the universe came to exist is a
provocative idea called the Strong Anthropic Principle,
which suggests that the universe is designed exactly the
way it is, with the forces of nature and relative charges
of fundamental particles balanced exactly this way, for
the sole purpose of allowing intelligent life forms such
as ourselves to observe it. We are the whole point of
creation. In videogames, the Strong Anthropic Principle
is not speculation but fact. As Lara Croft’s creator has
explained: “The whole Tomb Raider world is utterly
dependent on Lara’s size and animations. The distance
she can jump, reach, run forward and fall are set
variables. In this way, her world is designed for her to
exist in.”
How strangely comforting. We are everywhere
alienated from nature in the real world, but for a time
we can feel oddly at home in this unreal universe,
where our strengths can always overcome our
difficulties. We prefer the fantasy because it is fair.
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The final frontier
This is a particular kind of utopianist terraforming,
where a person’s capabilities are never insufficient. But
what about the purely visual imagination of videogame
worlds? Whereas the Battlezone universe was in its day
shockingly new, today’s environments are much more
instantly recognizable. They draw on only a few basic
templates. There is the blasted, neonlit Blade Runner
cityscape; the dank metal corridors with exposed
piping, steam vents and unpredictable lighting are
straight from Alien; steel catwalks and pools of orange
molten metal ring that Terminator bell. Cute,
unthreatening worlds in primary colors come straight
from animated cartoons—hardly surprising, then, that
there is an exodus of talent from traditional animation
into the videogame industry.
There is a certain amount of interbreeding among
these types, of course. Just as we saw earlier that many
games opt for interfaces of a deliberately
technonostalgic design, so the very environments in
games like Quake III, Turok: Rage Wars, Tomb Raider
III or Unreal mix hi-tech steel and electric light with
architecture of a deliberately archaic grandeur: vaulted
stone archways and sweeping staircases. In this way
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they aim for an effect of vertiginous scale such as that
created so masterfully by Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s
etchings of nightmare dungeons in his Carceri
d’invenzione (see fig. 21), which had an enormous
influence on the aesthetics of Romanticism and, later,
In this way, such videogames are part of a long
tradition of imaginary architecture. But they are still
some way behind in inventiveness, because part of
Piranesi’s visualized nightmare is that the fabric of
space itself is warped: the perspective is deliberately
ambiguous, worryingly off-key. As Ernst Gombrich
asks in Art and Illusion: “The rope hanging from the
pulley—where does it lead? How is the drawbridge tied
up? What is the angle of the bannister near the lower
edge?” The artist used his illusionistic craft to create a
gnawing sense of unease in the viewer. In videogames
so far, on the other hand, everything is fanatically,
obsessively “true” in three dimensions. There is no
room for interesting fuzziness or spatial ambiguity.
The spatial aesthetics of videogames are still stuck in
the conservative line of the eighteenth century, because
geometrically, it seems, truth is easier than interesting
fiction. Yet why should a game not let the player wander
around Piranesi’s own dungeons? Of course,
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such skewed spaces would initially be very confusing
to the gameplayer, but by building in a sufficient degree
of intuitive predictability in other aspects—the way,
say, that inertia or gravity works—the game could still
present an enjoyable challenge without becoming
thoroughly alienating. It would anyway be impossible
to construct a world that was thoroughly different in
every way from the real one.55
Or why should a videogame not let us move
through Escherian space, with its baffling perspectival
contradictions? Escher’s prints depend for their power
on a single point of view, deliberately chosen to
maximize the illusion. With a moving point of view
such as a videogame provides, designers would need to
write very clever algorithms to adjust the illusion
according to every movement of the player so that the
house of cards did not fall.
This wouldn’t be easy. But designers ought to have
the courage to play with the very fabric of their
unreality, to create ever newer kinds of space rather
than settling permanently on scientific perspective—
itself, as we have seen, a tissue of illusionistic
55 “It is obvious that an imagined world, however different it may be from
the real one, must have something—a form—in common with it.”
Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
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Fig. 21. Piranesi’s Carceri d’invenzione: a dungeon master’s
perspective on the unreal (Rosenwald Collection; photograph ‰
1999 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington)
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In an ideal world
But a good illusion must be cogent. The fabulous,
unreal world that we are given to play with must seem
to be perfectly real on its own terms. A strange new
world is a thing of awe, but of course there is also a
certain pleasure to be had from playing in recognizable
environments. Tomb Raider II famously included a
“Venice” level, in which Lara pilots a speedboat and
spectacularly crashes through the windows of an arched
walkway above the water—although it wasn’t modeled
on a real part of Venice. TOCA 2, however, lets you
drive sporty sedans around accurate models of British
racing circuits like Brands Hatch or Silverstone.
Metropolis Street Racer (2000), following the lead set
by Driver but exploiting the greater graphical muscle of
the Dreamcast system, goes even further by
synthesizing information from street maps, thousands
of photographs and hundreds of hours of video in order
to let the player drive around faithful recreations of
one-and-a-half-square-mile sections of actual cities: the
Shibuya district of Tokyo, central San Francisco, and
tourist London. If you played this game a lot, and then
went for a spin in the real Shibuya, you’d know your
way around. It’s that good.
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Such videogames at the moment, however, fall
squarely into the high-velocity driving genre, and for a
good reason. Because games as yet have only made a
few faltering steps toward a necessary goal of the
future: the fully interactive environment. If you were
walking a character around that virtual Shibuya, it
would soon become apparent that all the complex parts
of a building—shop doors, drainpipes, windows—are
not real objects modeled by the program. They have no
symbolic function: they are simply pictures thrown on
to a flat surface. You could not go into a shop or shin
up the drainpipe.
Providing a fully functional rendering of such a
hugely complex environment as a real city is still
beyond current videogame abilities. Even at its
blisteringly high speed, Metropolis Street Racer cannot
give the player total freedom to drive around: there is a
set circuit, with many streets cordoned off by invisible
barriers. But it will happen eventually, even in complex
exploration games. The problem as things stand is that
certain arbitrary simplifications have to be made. All
right, say in the London levels of Tomb Raider III, you
can open that door but this other door’s just a dummy,
just painted on for atmosphere. But that’s our old
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that looks like a door, I should be able to open unless
it’s locked, or break it down if it’s made of rotting
wood; if its hinges are visible I should be able to blow
them off with a shotgun. Anything that looks like a
window, I should be able to smash, with my bare fists if
necessary. Conversely, give me a spade, and I should
be able to dig ditches or plant flowers if I’m feeling
particularly green-thumbed.
Let’s see no more spatial incoherence either. If I
can climb this wall, I should be able to climb up that
tree. If I can see a small hole, I should be able to curl up
and squeeze through it instead of banging my head on
the rocky outcrop. And forget about causal
incoherence, too. If you’re going to give me massive
weaponry to fight mutant dinosaurs in Turok 2, then it
should be open to me to shoot the angelic children I am
supposed to save. Even if that leads to drastic
punishment, it should logically be an option.
Because if I can’t do any of these things, it doesn’t
feel real. It becomes sinkingly clear that this is an
environment with artificial, illogical restrictions on my
actions. This is the problem that game designers will
have to solve in future: the more behavioral options that
are given to the player, and the more gadgetry on offer,
the harder it will be to make sure that the
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videogame environment as a whole is perfectly
If this cannot be accomplished at the moment for
recreations of large “real” environments like Tokyo,
owing to the data intensiveness problem, that in itself
should be a good reason for videogames to develop
their architectural imagination in much more creative
ways. Even when it is possible to recreate a real
environment, we still don’t want it to be too real. Sam
Houser describes the design process of skateboarding
game Thrasher: Skate and Destroy (1999) in this way:
“All the levels in the game are based on real-world
locations. The testers saw one level and said, ‘Wow,
that’s China Banks!’—which is a big place in San
Francisco which is now banned, but it’s one of the
world-famous meccas that any skateboarder knows
about.” But even so, the virtual China Banks was
deliberately not made completely accurate, because
then the gameplay would have been boring. “It’s quite
hard to take a real-world location that in skateboarding
may be good for one rail that everyone rides, but
you’ve got to make the whole level fun,” Houser
explains. So the digital China Banks features a host of
invented extra curves and ramps. It’s even better than
the real thing.
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Even games that do not try to build a recognizable,
real-world place are still rather repetitively reliant on
the same hoary old visual references. Littered around
Core’s studios during the development of Tomb Raider:
The Last Revelation, for instance, are photographic and
illustrative source books such as An Introduction to
Egyptology, from which the artists are liberally stealing
and fusing visual ideas both for the architecture of the
tombs and for Lara’s assailants, such as a huge golden
dog. The resulting environments are at once familiar
and strange (see fig. 22). There is a great deal of visual
and spatial invention in this game, but it consists of
clever combination, not of imagining a world anew
from the ground up.
Videogames should try more often to break free of
such recognizable templates, the clichÉs of the torchlit
stone tomb, the fairy dungeon, the biomechanoid
spaceship interior, the sunny meadow, the Dunederived
hi-tech desert metropolis. The abstract, voidal spaces of
early videogames were in some senses far more
interesting than the third-hand patchwork worlds of the
majority of current exploration games. But there,
modernist abstraction was a happy by-product, born of
technological necessity. As a free choice, it’s obviously
much harder to make. Some of the most
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original environments so far in modern gaming have
been seen, ironically, in some of the worst products,
those triumphs of virtual tourism over symbolic
richness Myst and Riven, whose pleasurably organic
topography extrapolates inventively from the real,
natural world.
Another straightforward conclusion: videogames
need to play to their strengths. Shigeru Miyamoto said
exactly the same thing in September 1999: “The beauty
of interactive media is it is different from other types of
media, so we need to concentrate on those differences.”
In this instance, that means recognizing that whereas
film—at least naturalistic, “live-action” film—is tied
down to real spaces, the special virtue of videogames is
precisely their limitless plasticity. And only when that
virtue is exploited more fully will videogames become
a truly unprecedented art—when their level of worldbuilding competence is matched with a comparable
level of pure invention. We want to be shocked by
novelty. We want to lose ourselves in a space that is
utterly different. We want environments that have never
been seen, never been imagined before.
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Fig. 22. Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation: Egyptian
architecture reimagined (‰ and ™ 1999 Core Design Limited;
all rights reserved)
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Virtual justice
Terry Pratchett, the videogame-loving author of the
Discworld novels (whose universe, like that of a good
videogame, is bizarre but consistent), explained to me
just why he enjoys games in these terms: “For me, it’s
the fun of exploration, and new challenges. I like the
big-screen feel of the Tomb Raider series and, for
example, Half-Life . . . I like hidden areas, secret
rooms, non-player characters who can help you. This
gives you a real sense of involvement. What impressed
me about Tomb Raider was the breadth of the scenery,
and the . . . claustrophobia, the sense that you were
really there.” And what does he want from the
videogames of the future? Simple, really. “Give me the
speargun, the revolver and the shotgun, and turn me
loose on an unknown world.” But it’s much better when
there are plenty more things to do in a videogame than
just spraying bullets around. Pratchett agrees: “That’s
what I liked about Tomb Raider—it wasn’t defined by
Yet particularly in first-person games, there is still
room for massive symbolic improvement. Interesting
steps have been made recently by games such as
Rainbow Six or Hidden and Dangerous, where the
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player’s ability to switch control between several
soldiers with different mission duties enhances the
demands of strategic timing and also, since the
environment may be seen from several different
viewpoints in rapid succession, increases the sense of
that environment’s solid existence. Games such as
Omikron: The Nomad Soul or Eden, meanwhile, create
ever more stunning Blade Runner and Judge Dredd–
style cityscapes whose furniture and surfaces are
increasingly interactive in new symbolic ways.
Currently, the third-person game—for instance
Tomb Raider, Metal Gear Solid or Zelda 64—has the
edge over the first-person game such as Quake III,
which shows a perspectival viewpoint as if you were
actually in the digital environment. Although it might
initially look as if the latter genre should be the more
involving, since the illusion is that you are really there,
it is almost always less symbolically rich. This
limitation derives directly, in fact, from the artificially
narrow view angle in such games, and also from the
observation that without stereoscopic vision (our two
eyes receiving slightly different images in real life) it is
much harder to judge depth. Therefore, symbolic
interoperation through space is severely limited.
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The fun of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter was thus
compromised by passages that required the player to
make precise jumps, platform-style—yet in a game
where you can’t see your own feet, such jumps are
impossible to judge properly. Equally, however, there
are problems in the other direction: third-person games
present the rather chancy challenge of aiming weapons
in three-dimensional space without giving the player
true line-of-sight. Tomb Raider relies on an alienating
auto-aiming system, where you just stand there hoping
to hit the enemy, while Zelda 64 enables you perhaps
too easily to “lock on” to a monster, and swings the
camera right behind the player’s character. These
examples confirm that gameplay requirements must
always take account of the particular virtues and
limitations of the chosen spatial style and
The example of precision-jumping in Turok
partakes of another formal phenomenon that needs to
be seriously questioned: unfair challenge. By this I
mean either a procedure that, as in Turok, is
maddeningly hard to perform simply because the
player is not given enough (visual and spatial)
information, or more generally a difficulty that is not
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organically related to and coherent with the rest of the
virtual world.
One good example of this, again, is in the Resident
Evil games: the quite arbitrary restriction on inventory
that we saw in Chapter 3. How much stuff you can
carry is illogically determined—a herb takes up as
much space as a shotgun—and you can only drop items
in special chests. This rule results in incredibly tedious
item-swapping and back-tracking between item
boxes—a task of absolutely no symbolic interest. It’s
like filing, or stacking supermarket shelves. Such unfair
challenges are purely the result of laziness and lack of
imagination: it’s a very easy way to make the game
harder. Similarly, many levels in Tomb Raider II were
made arbitrarily more difficult simply by dropping in
more guys with machine guns to take a pop at Lara.
Making the game harder by thinking up new and
interesting gameplay challenges is clearly a more
demanding job, but it’s going to be far more rewarding
to the player.
A more widespread example is the knotty issue of
saving games. Most modern videogames that are not
predicated upon pure adrenaline-fueled action require a
total of between twenty and sixty hours’ play to be
completed. Sensibly, the player is not expected to do
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this all in one go; the current position in the game may
be saved to disk, or to a “memory card.” But often, the
process of saving is made into another thoroughly
arbitrary hurdle. Tomb Raider III, for example, only
allows the player to save when he or she has collected
the appropriate power-up, a blue save-crystal, and they
are frustratingly few and far between.
Again, it’s an easy (for the designers) but
incoherent way to make the game more challenging.
Saving a videogame should be just like pausing a
videotape. The save-crystal (or, in Resident Evil, the
typewriter ribbon) is also an unwarranted extra rip in
the fabric of the game universe. For this power-up
doesn’t mean anything in the fictional gameworld. The
fact that I have to stop playing now because I’m going
out has nothing whatsoever to do with Lara’s universe.
After all, Lara doesn’t know who I am—she doesn’t
even acknowledge my existence. That is precisely why,
for some, she is inexhaustibly desirable.
The moral maze
Desire and fear: our twin primal responses to fire, from
the moment Prometheus first unveiled his spark to
humans’ dumbstruck eyes. Fires burn in hell, yet also
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in purgatory and in heaven;56 heretics are burned at the
stake, yet a bonfire is a means of celebration. Many
ancient cultures, such as the Zoroastrians or Assyrians,
worshiped fire as a god. Fire is the perfect
representative of the Romantic sublime: at once
beautiful and terrifying.
Videogames so far have not moved far beyond the
twin poles of attraction and repulsion—these reptilian
emotions, age-old reflexes buried deep in the brain. But
this too might change. In the future, for example,
videogames should be cleverly designed so as to make
you live with the consequences of your actions. Take
Goldeneye. The game’s mission structure is rather
artificially limited: if you accidentally (or deliberately)
allow your Russian hacker-babe sidekick Natalya to be
fatally shot, you are forced to play that mission again
and again until she emerges unscathed to join you in the
next operation. It would surely be much more
interesting, however, if the game just continued anyway
no matter what you had done, so that you had cause to
bewail your failure to protect her ever more strongly as
you struggled to reprogram the satellite yourself (this
would then be a difficult, but not
56 For example, Milton’s “Heav’nly fires” in Paradise Lost xii.256;
Shakespeare’s “the fires of heaven” in Coriolanus I.iv.39.
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impossible, task). The old-style scrolling shooter Metal
Slug already has a rudimentary version of such a
“consequences” system: if your plane is shot down, the
game doesn’t instantly stop; instead, you get captured
and have to fight your way out of prison.
This idea could eventually induce a gnawing sense
of personal guilt that is not evoked by novels or films,
where we pity or regret the fates of characters who
remain distinctly “other people.” Outcast, as we saw,
has made some steps toward this system of moral
causation, yet it simply requires the player to rebuild
his or her reputation after an act of foolish violence, so
mistakes can in effect be erased.
Enriching this idea, if attempted, will not be a
trivial design task. It would only come to work
properly if the paradigm of replayability were
abandoned, for as Alain and FrÉdÉric Le Diberder
argue, if you are able to wind back to a stage before
your error, you have not made a moral decision but
simply explored a branch of a system. So videogame
creators interested in a new moral architecture would
need to somehow create a template for action that
doesn’t stop, yet still offers the adrenaline thrill of
physical danger or swordplay and firefights. One way
to do this has been suggested by the fascinating though
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flawed Soul Reaver (1999). The player’s character is a
vampire called Raziel. When he dies, you do not start
again from the last safe point; instead, you shift into the
“spectral realm,” the same environments with a twisted,
Boschian air, where you continue playing and find
previously nonexistent pathways to new areas.
In order to increase the player’s possible emotional
involvement, moreover, non-player characters who may
be wounded or killed will need to be more fully
characterized (dynamically and iconically), so that the
player comes to care about them as ends in themselves,
rather than just selfishly regretting their demise because
it spoils the game. The Final Fantasy series of roleplaying games, while not to everyone’s taste, is
certainly at the forefront of this sort of approach, yet its
major scenes of emotional drama are still prescripted—
presented simply for the player to watch. The
inevitability of the prescripted FMV fatally draws the
sting of the emotional event, for the player knows it
could not possibly have happened otherwise, which in
principle prevents basic guilt from blossoming into the
more refined emotion of regret. We may be guilty about
things that we simply couldn’t help, but we only regret
things that could have happened differently.
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In videogames, regret is an easily vanquishable
phantom; it operates merely as a fleeting wound that
may be quickly salved. If I had timed that jump
correctly, Lara wouldn’t have been impaled on the
spikes. So I will do it again, properly this time. In 1983,
in Mind at Play, Geoffrey and Elizabeth Loftus wrote
the following about classic arcade games: “Computer
games provide the ultimate chance to eliminate regret;
all alternative worlds are available.” This is still true for
the I-died-so-I’ll-try-again paradigm, while the new
story-based games don’t even evoke true regret in the
first place.
More emotionally involving is the brilliantly
manipulative Metal Gear Solid, which slyly made me
feel guilty for killing a woman sniper by playing a
rather well-written dying scene for her and her
opponent. But notice that it makes no sense to wish
that you hadn’t killed Sniper Wolf—that is, properly to
regret your actions—because it is a task that the game
demands be fulfilled before you can progress. This
videogame balances adroitly on the twin horns of the
emotional dilemma by having the main character,
Solid Snake, bitterly decry the violent means he is
forced to deploy—which, however, are exactly the
symbolic gadgets (plastic explosive, grenades,
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machine guns, guided missiles) that one so enjoys
playing with.
Metal Gear Solid, then, toys with the player’s
emotions in largely non-interactive ways, as a film
does. The future challenge is this: if videogames choose
to try to expand their nuances of emotional impact
interactively, they will need to become irreversible; yet
that means having a game system that is able to create
an interesting and evocative story even out of really
dumb decisions by the player, a huge and perhaps
insurmountable challenge.
To begin to guess how videogames might become
more sophisticated in the future, remember what they
are already really good at. Games will never be as good
as films at telling stories visually. They’ll never be as
good as books at weaving cerebral tapestries of ideas
and human lives. But videogames are already extremely
good at providing an exhilarating blast of the animal
emotions. Fear and triumph—that is why you play a
videogame at the moment. Jeremy Smith of Core
Design points out that these fundamental pleasures can
be traced right back to the beginning of the form. “Why
did we all play that stupid tennis game that used to burn
lines on our screens?” he asks, chuckling. “Because it
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to beat your opponent or beat the computer at flicking
this ball back.” Modern games, vastly more visually
thrilling though they are, must still answer the same
need. “We play videogames because they’re fun to
play. You’re not playing it to further your education,
you’re playing it as a means of leisure,” Smith
“And the games business now over the last six or
seven years has gone from being a geeky, sad
anorakperson in their bedsit playing games, to being a
completely accepted culture of life. You can watch
videos, listen to music or play a videogame—and at the
moment I think playing videogames is top of the list.”
Ashes to ashes
The jewel in the crown of what videogames offer is the
aesthetic emotion of wonder.
A beautifully designed videogame invokes wonder
as the fine arts do, only in a uniquely kinetic way.
Because the videogame must move, it cannot offer the
lapidary balance of composition that we value in
painting; on the other hand, because it can move, it is a
way to experience architecture, and more than that to
create it, in a way with which photographs or drawings
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can never compete. If architecture is frozen music, then
a videogame is liquid architecture. Indeed, the United
Nations has funded the development of a “virtual tour”
of Notre Dame cathedral, which uses the engine (the
computer code which draws 3D environments) from the
first-person shooter videogame Unreal. And new
technology pushes this virtue further: the PlayStation2
game Dark Cloud (2000) actually allows the player to
build his or her own world, and then to explore it by
walking among the constructions. This revolutionary
type of videogame certainly provokes and feeds the
Meanwhile, of course, we may still wonder at the
spaces designed by others. Personally, I have found
some of the breathtaking environments in Tomb
Raider’s worlds—particularly in the second game,
featuring the huge rusted ship sunk into a vaulted
cavern at the bottom of the sea—to be moving in the
aesthetic as well as dynamic sense. (Notice, by the way,
that this sort of pleasure also depends on the game
enjoying a properly designed tempo—you can only
look around and smell the flowers, as it were, when
there is no immediate threat in the game.)
Such videogames at their best build awe-inspiring
spaces from immaterial light. They are cathedrals of
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fire. Now, it is true that the great cathedrals of Europe,
at Rome, Chartres or Cologne, purposively evoke
wonder not as a purely aesthetic end in itself, but as a
means to lead the spectator to humble contemplation of
his or her impotence in the face of the grandeur of God.
Videogames, on the other hand, represent the latest
stage in the secularization of wonder that has been
abroad since the fine arts were divorced from religion
and aesthetics was invented. Some people deplore this
development;57 others argue intriguingly that wonder
has always been equally a secular instinct, providing
the motivation for empirical scientific investigation.58
Wonder has always been a spur to action, whether
creative or pious. Our wonder at the alien potency of
fire once led us to invent a beautiful story about a
renegade god whose gift to men brought him tortuous
retribution. In a later age, wonder at the fiery vault of
the heavens led us to refine and systematize the science
of astronomy. There is no reason in principle
57 See the baleful jeremiads of Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s
Guide to Modern Culture (South Bend, Indiana: Saint Augustine’s Press,
58 This is the argument of Philip Fisher’s fascinating Wonder, the Rainbow,
and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1999).
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why the wonder induced by videogames should not
enjoy a similar motivational power. Early videogame
designers were inspired by imagery from comics, films
and paintings. Now that videogames enjoy a general
popularity and pervasiveness easily comparable to
those media, we should be prepared to discover that,
just as Percy Bysshe Shelley was moved by wonder to
write odes to the forces of nature, so future videogames
might plant seeds of inspiration in people who then
become painters, architects, animators or videogame
designers themselves.
That is the good news, the utopian possible future.
But here is the bad news, the embryonic dystopia: how
videogames might darken our inner lives. As an
industry, videogames will have to choose which side
they’re on. Because videogames’ powerful creative
potential incurs a weighty responsibility too. To
illustrate this, let me tell you one last little story about
the difference between reality and simulation. It is a
theme that we’ve seen in many different contexts:
physics, artistic perspective, Japanese fishing games; it
has been at the heart of some of the major arguments.
But it is not just a nice intellectual puzzle.
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Earlier, I described the way in which a videogame
such as Time Crisis enables you to simulate the form of
killing while being happily dissociated from the
morality of the acts represented, because there is no
actual killing going on. This in itself is an innocent
phenomenon with respectable sporting forebears. But in
the specific military context, it becomes a real danger.
For modern hi-tech wars are increasingly fought and
seen through videogame-type graphic systems. One has
only to think of the disturbingly gleeful American
generals of Desert Storm showing off their smartmissile videotapes, or of the television commentators
on the bombing of Belgrade cooing over grainy film
images of tracer bullets and explosions— for all the
world as if they were watching fireworks and no one
was actually dying.
Military aircraft and tanks used by NATO now
have weapons of such range that it is not at all usual to
make direct visual identification of a target; instead,
icons are tracked on computerized displays and
weapons are locked automatically. Since attacks in
Desert Storm and Serbia were fought at the greatest
distance possible in order to minimize American
casualties, these procedures directly caused numerous
widely reported instances of friendly fire: Allied tanks
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were incinerated from afar; hospitals were bombed.
Relying on pixels rather than eyes is perilous, because
computers can malfunction, and pixels can lie.
Moreover, if the modern pilot has been trained on
souped-up videogame systems, we should not be
surprised if, when he is performing exactly the same
actions in exactly the same computerized context but in
a real war zone, he fails utterly to realize that his
actions now have a very real moral content. Behind the
clean glowing lines of his computerized head-up
display is an ugly mess of fire and blood. But he’s just
playing a game.
This constitutes a lethal failure of imagination. And
it is in this way that I do think videogames must have a
type of moral responsibility. Of course, we cannot
blame videogames for the deaths of Serbian civilians,
yet videogame-seeded technologies have contributed to
the potentially alienating culture of simulation that
allowed them to be killed so easily, so cleanly. I think
the duty of videogames, therefore, is an imaginative
one—an aesthetic one.
The situation at present is not thoroughly black.
The future is in the balance. Some videogames, for
instance, have woken up to the favors they have
exchanged with war technology, and are blushing.
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Metal Gear Solid is an anti-war wargame that features a
plot about treacherous goings-on in DARPA itself—
the very defense agency that commissioned a version of
Battlezone for its tank gunners all those years ago.
Metal Gear Solid is also remarkable for its imaginative
emphasis on stealth, and at the game’s end the player is
actually awarded a higher grading the fewer guards he
or she has had to kill. Carmageddon, by contrast, which
has the player driving around city streets mowing down
pedestrians in showers of gore, is a very dull game.
And in each of these cases, the aesthetic judgement is
also an ethical one.
All this is not to say that we can’t still want
destructive fun, to blow things asunder in beautiful
showers of light. But videogames have irrevocably lost
their innocence. Gone, thankfully, are the days of the
early 1980s when a game like Custer’s Revenge could
be released for the Atari VCS console. The player
controlled a pixellated, tumescent Custer, and the aim
was to dodge arrows and rape an Indian woman by
repeatedly pressing the fire button.
A relative maturity of the type which Metal Gear
Solid displays is becoming more pervasive, evident in
watered-down form even in very simple high-speed
arcade shooting games such as Silent Scope or Time
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Crisis 2. The player in such games is always cast, not as
a violent gun-toting maniac, but as a law-enforcing
agent of national security. The fictional calculus of
letting innocent hostages die versus killing terrorists
thus in some small way palliates the violent form.
Meanwhile, the arcade racing game Thrill Drive
displays a message to the player warning that in “real
life” he or she should drive carefully and respect other
road users. Interestingly, the game that tries so hard to
be a “realistic” simulation of careering down packed
motorways at 200 mph feels the need to remind the
player that it is only a digital fantasy—it’s not real,
after all. Videogames will become more interesting
artistically if they abandon thoughts of recreating
something that looks like the “real” world and try
instead to invent utterly novel ones that work in
amazing but consistent ways—because, as we have
seen throughout this book, a “realistic” simulation is
always built on a foundation of compromise anyway.
And this will also be an ethical improvement, for one
can revel unashamed in the joy of destruction all the
more if what is being incinerated could never possibly
A hint of what might be the ruling approach in the
future is provided by the fact that the central
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processing chip in Sony’s PlayStation2 console is
called an “Emotion Engine.” This is more than just a
good marketing coinage; it also implies a more
thoughtful approach—not toward something like an
interactive novel, of course, but certainly toward
videogame software that will take more chances to
make the player stop and think. Videogames’ loss of
innocence can only be a good thing, aesthetically, as
developers increasingly try to create new ways of
seeing and playing in their imaginary worlds.
Prometheus gave man the tools of creation. In an
alternative version of the Prometheus myth, Zeus takes
his revenge on the god by persuading Hephaestus to
fashion a woman, Pandora, who lets fly the world’s
evils out of a jar. From then on, men decide to turn their
gifts against each other, by waging war. But one thing
is left in Pandora’s receptacle: hope.
Whether our digital fire is turned to destructive or
creative purposes is still up to us. Let’s say to
videogame designers: don’t bore us, don’t alienate us;
feed our sense of wonder. Videogames etch
memorable, high-speed imagery onto millions of
retinas in the industrialized nations. They are rewiring
our minds. This is both an opportunity and a danger. If
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videogames continue to plough clichÉd visual and
formal ruts, they will furnish the anomic mental
landscape of an impoverished and unimaginative future
generation, not only of artists but of people in general.
Which is why it is so important for videogames to
continue aiming at creative revolution, in any number
of wonderful and strange directions. The story of the
inner life of videogames is not just a disinterested
analysis; it’s a challenge, a gauntlet. For it is an
inevitable consequence of their extraordinary success
that videogames will shape the worlds that we all
inhabit tomorrow.
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Sony’s long-awaited PlayStation2 console, which
launched in the U.S. and Europe in late 2000, did not
represent the instant big bang that some were
expecting, and only served to demonstrate the point that
an increase in processing power does not instantly
entail better gameplay. It took until the summer 2001
launch of state-of-the-art driving game Gran Turismo 3
for PlayStation2 really to take off in sales terms. After
the death of Sega’s Dreamcast console in the spring,
when the venerable Japanese hardware giant cut its
losses and reinvented itself as exclusively a software
designer, 2001 became notable mostly for excited
anticipation of more new consoles—Microsoft’s Xbox
console, which launched in the U.S. on November 15,
2001, and Nintendo’s GameCube, which arrived three
days later. And yet, despite all the next-generation
hype, the most successful videogame phenomenon of
the new millennium was running on hardware by now
nearly twelve years old: the Game Boy.
This phenomenon was PokÉmon, the game of
nurturing and training pocket monsters that became an
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extraordinary worldwide success. Over six days in
August 2000, the PokÉmon Yellow game sold a million
copies across Europe. A survey of British teenagers
found that they were more likely to recognize Pikachu,
the cute yellow mascot of the PokÉmon franchise, than
Tony Blair, the cute pink mascot of the British
government. Worldwide, PokÉmon grossed $15 billion
over the year, and Nintendo continued to manufacture
2,000 GameBoys every hour. With their crude, twodimensional graphics, the PokÉmon games nonetheless
managed to fascinate an enormous number of people in
a way that any number of cutting-edge 3D engines
failed to do. This is entirely attributable to two virtues
of good games identified in Trigger Happy: a
sophisticated engine of semiotic play, and a collection
of welldesigned and likeable characters.
One of the few left-field successes of 2000 was a game
that, essentially, rendered the PokÉmon concept in a
more humorous, adult and pseudo-“realistic” style. The
Sims, the new work from Will Wright, the author of
SimCity, requires the player to manage a household full
of gorgeously animated people who seem to have their
own autonomous wills. They flirt, fight, clean up,
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or sulk all by themselves as the player watches. Your
job is to change their environment to their advantage
and help them succeed in the careers you choose for
them; but you can also set up deliberately fraught love
triangles and chuckle over fights in the chintzy living
The Sims, by genre a God game, computerizes
exactly the kind of voyeuristic fascination that led to
the television programs Big Brother and Temptation
Island becoming such a huge success on both sides of
the Atlantic, with the added attraction that you can
meddle directly with the environment. As an openended
process toy that attempts to simulate complex social
interactions and affords the player great freedom in her
actions, it also became very popular among women:
numerous testimonials on the internet and in
newspapers described how women who had always
previously been bored by videogames found themselves
thoroughly addicted to the management of their Sims
The Sims also, however, exemplifies the rule that
any attempted “recreation” of the social world inside a
videogame is predicated upon a set of moral and
political assumptions. In this game, consumerism is the
preferred religion: much of the gameplay centers on
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buying new things for the Sims’ house in order to
increase its inhabitants’ happiness (such as a large
mirror, which will boost their charisma, or a new oven,
which will help them cook meals for their housemates
and so become more popular), and in helping them
climb the slippery pole of a career as a politician or
scientist. More money makes a Sim happier; social
dissidents are not allowed. Once more, we reach a
stratum in videogame design where certain gameplay
possibilities have been ruled out by the assumptions
buried deep in its structure.
This will, for the forseeable future, continue to be
the case. Even in the splendidly ambitious Republic, a
forthcoming game that promises to simulate
revolutionary politics in a life-sized eastern European
city, there is a fundamental assumption, according to
one of the designers at London’s Elixir Studios, that
powerhungry. That still represents a certain angle, a
necessarily partial explanation of how the world
works, although it seems a more potentially fruitful
and provocative starting point than the Sims
philosophy. Simplification in videogame design, as
this book has insisted, is not only inevitable but
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desirable. But you must choose your simplifications
Though true artificial intelligence, as discussed in
Chapter 5, is still very much in its computational
infancy, it remains one of the key buzzwords of the
videogame industry. Every bog-standard driving game
or first-person shooter that comes along claims to have
revolutionary AI in its computer-controlled opponents.
What this still means, though, is quite the opposite: the
computerized opponents are dressed up in a kind of
artificial stupidity. Given that a silicon chip can
perform precise calculations far faster than a human
can, it ought always to beat a human player in games
requiring quick, accurate responses. So its skills have to
be ramped down in order to simulate typically human
failings, rather than ramped up in order to simulate
human cleverness.
The best videogame AI so far appeared in 2001’s
extraordinary Black and White, a God game that allows
you to nurture and teach a creature who evolves
uniquely according to your style of play: his behavior
and physical appearance come to mirror the balance of
your moral decisions through the game. One of very
few products that sought to push the envelope of
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videogame concepts, Black and White nevertheless still
comes up against the inherent problem of reversible
systems identified in Chapter 10. Although your moral
decisions have global effects in the gameworld—let
your worshippers drown, or destroy them with fireballs,
and the remaining population worships you ever more
fervently out of fear, while the environment changes to
reflect your evildoing—they are, in the end, reversible.
Start being nice, and everything will eventually be all
right again. Some gamers found, indeed, that the
designers had failed to make being an evil god
sufficiently interesting—most eventually chose the path
of good after toying with wickedness. That also
testifies, however, to the excellent iconic and dynamic
design of the little people who worship you: as in
Lemmings, they are so cute that it hurts to see them
Black and White’s amiable, soft-spoken creator,
Peter Molyneux, claimed bullishly to me that his
creature AI was “the best in the world, anywhere”—
including the university research labs that he is
regularly invited to visit. While it is still light-years
from the simulation of a communicative consciousness
inside a machine, it represents a major step on the path
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to providing a more dramatically interesting, and even
emotionally involving, virtual world.
Another innovative aspect of Black and White is in its
cybernetics: every aspect of play is controlled with the
mouse, using a highly intuitive “gestural system.” With
this, you can stroke your creature, teach him how to
play with balls, or smack him if he takes an unhealthy
interest in his own excrement.
As detailed in Chapter 3, systems of control are
crucial to the success of videogames, and such
imaginative new control engines can open up novel
gameplay possibilities. There was a certain
disappointment, then, as Nintendo unveiled the
controllers for its new GameCube system—they feature
nothing more than a now-standard set of buttons plus
two analogue sticks. More cybernetically creative was a
concept display by Sony at the September 2000 ECTS
trade fair, which featured an ordinary web-cam plugged
into a PlayStation2. Thanks to internal processing of
the web-cam’s visual image, the player could wield a
big foam sword or other object and have its movements
accurately mirrored in real time by the object’s onscreen sibling.
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While such cybernetic innovations hold out tantalizing
possibilities for the future, one aspect of videogaming
that drew ever greater interest during 2001 was
massively multiplayer action, either over wired
networks or online. Full-time gamers, such as Britain’s
Sujoy Roy, can now earn $300,000 a year by traveling
the world playing Quake III in organized tournaments.
Networked videogaming is already huge among the
PC-owning population, and with each new
nextgeneration console—PlayStation2, GameCube and
Xbox—now offering internet connectivity, it is only
going to get larger. Professional gamers’ leagues are in
place in Britain and America, as well as much of Asia.
Far-sighted individuals such as Edward Watson,
manager of The Playing Fields videogame bar in
London, see no reason why in the future such
videogames should not be officially recognized as
sports in their own right. “Take away what’s physically
happening,” Watson told me, waving his arm around
the neon-lit basement den of The Playing Fields, “and
you couldn’t tell the difference between what’s going
on here and a professional sports tournament. The
tactics that can be employed in a videogame are as
varied as those that can be employed in any game.”
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might eventually come to represent a revolutionary
democratization of the nature of sport. Laurels are no
longer determined simply by the tyranny of genes.
Women and men, able-bodied and otherwise, can
compete on a level playing field, a digital city of play
where all are equal before the games begin.
Trigger Happy was written from the assumption that it
made sense to talk about videogames in artistic terms—
not in order to argue that games already constitute a
fully fledged artform, but in order to point out the
potential for such an eventual blossoming. It is clear,
however, that so far, videogames are still struggling to
emerge from their arrested adolescence.
Over the last eighteen months there have been ever
more examples of this aesthetic stasis: the incoherent
behavior of complex systems in driving or exploration
games; the simplistic and eventually tedious semiotics
of shooting or platform-jumping, and the slavish
plagiarism of the same old cinema aesthetics—slimy
biomechanoid spaceship interiors, moodily lit
warehouses, rocky dungeons and sandy dunes.
American McGee’s Alice (2001) was one of a few
brave attempts to extend the visual vocabulary of
videogame environments—with its surreally colored,
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interestingly warped chessboard spaces—but its
combination of a first-person viewpoint with precise
platform-jumping gameplay was staggeringly inept.
Like so many games, it was great to look at but a pig to
The eagerly awaited follow-up to Goldeneye,
Perfect Dark (2000), a sci-fi first-person shooter, was
compromised as a single-player game by numerous
faults identified throughout this book. Play was
bookended by a panoply of badly written and nastily
animated narrative cut-scenes; the lazy sci-fi fetishism
of its character design, in PVC-clad heroine Joanna
Dark, was a blatant and doomed attempt to steal the
thunder of Lara Croft; incoherencies of function and
space abounded; and the game’s inadequate temporal
resolution—owing to a wrongheaded choice to
privilege visual detail over frame-rate—made it
unplayable at higher difficulty levels.
On the other hand, Warren Spector’s brilliant
firstperson game Deus Ex (2000), was a rare example
of a designer offering the player enormous creative
“nanoaugmentations,” the player can effectively choose
among various skill sets in order to allow her to play
the game in the way she prefers. Nearly anything
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seems possible: you can specialize in computers and
hacking and infiltrate the enemy installations that way,
or you can become an expert lockpicker, or a lethal
sniper, or just rock in, all guns blazing. No strategy is
privileged over another. The terms of the semiotic
conversation in Deus Ex are unusually and laudably
Among other aesthetic gems was the extraordinary
style of Jet Grind Radio (2000), Sega’s in-line skating,
graffiti-spraying game. While its detailed, Tokyo city
environments are built in standard “realistic” polygonal
fashion, the lovable teen-tearaway characters are given
heavy black outlines to resemble hand-drawn cartoon
figures. This “cel-shading” technique, as it became
known, provides a glorious fusion of traditional anime
style with high-powered computer rendering. Together
with its excellent soundtrack of Japanese hip-hop, Jet
Grind Radio had one of the most coherent design
personalities of any videogame in history.
Meanwhile Rez (2001), also developed by Sega,
was perhaps the first real work of abstract art that
videogamers experienced running on next-generation
hardware. Harking back once again to the futuristic
wireframe aesthetic of Battlezone, but this time in
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glorious detail and color, it cast the player as a
cybernetic infiltrator in a Neuromancer-style matrix of
coruscating firewalls, defense programs and virus
detectors. Success by the player effected greater
polyphonic sophistication in the real-time synthesized
soundtrack, and at the same time caused the ghostly
environment gradually to fill in its polygons and
become a solid world. The player was in this sense
encouraged to replay the aesthetic history of 3D
videogames in real-time, in a riotous blaze of semiotic
With the advent of the next generation of hardware,
videogame designers have, in principle at least, a
broader canvas to work on. But they could easily
continue to paint the same old compromised clichÉs in
prettier colors — and, as in any cultural form, most of
them probably will. The initial winter 2001 line-up of
games for Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s
GameCube, for example, was dominated by the same
old kinds of game — snowboarding, martial-arts
fighting, first-person shooters — just with prettier
graphics. Even so, there were shards of hope among the
predictable cash-ins, with the lovingly designed if
shallow ghostbusting game Luigi’s Mansion, and
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Shigeru Miyamoto’s wonderfully curious herding game
Pikmin (both on Nintendo’s GameCube), plus the longawaited release of Hideo Kojima’s extraordinary Metal
Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, which enhanced all the
anti-realistic tricks of its precursor while pushing the
visual design into a breathtakingly stylized, quasicinematic style, and expanding the player’s tactical
freedom even further.
But the relative rarity of such aesthetic invention by
the end of 2001 only served to emphasize that the
innovators and artists in this creative industry need to
find their own paths. And so this book’s challenge
remains the same. Videogames can only continue to
thrive and evolve into a truly revolutionary
entertainment medium as long as they concentrate on
what they do best: build us ever more coherent
constructions of ever more aesthetically wondrous
London, November 2001
Afterword (2004)
Extra final chapter from the 2004 US edition of Trigger Happy
Over the last four years, as the new generation of videogame hardware — Sony’s
PlayStation2, Microsoft’s Xbox, and Nintendo’s GameCube — came to maturity, there
were a handful of standout videogames. One of the most heavily anticipated was
Japanese master Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 2 (2001), and it represented an ultrarefined concept of the much-hyped though problematic “convergence” with cinema.
As we saw in Chapter 4, the marriage between Hollywood and videogames is an uneasy
relationship at best. Since this book was first published, newer examples have only
confirmed the problems. Two Tomb Raider films (2001; 2003), starring the admirable
Angelina Jolie, destroyed all the dynamic, gymnastic grace of the digital heroine in a
mash of fast-cut editing, while ropey computer-graphic special effects and insultingly bad
scripts ensured a thoroughgoing cinematic farrago, of which the second iteration was
even worse than the first. Meanwhile, Japanese videogame-makers Square spent a
reported $80 million on a movie of their long-running Final Fantasy. The new-agey
computer-animated feature that resulted, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), was so
poorly received that Square had to shut down their newly created film studio almost
By contrast, in Metal Gear Solid 2, a filmic narrative was conceived and executed within
the game’s structure itself. It boasted a great number of gameplay set-pieces that were
engineered with extraordinary inventiveness and attention to detail (for example, nearly
every surface in the gameplay environment was represented sonically as well as visually,
and Snake could alert guards by splashing noisily through puddles or clanking over gates,
as well as slip up on bird droppings), but what caught most critics’ attention was the great
number and extended length of the cinematic “cut-scenes”, which were not interactive
but didactic storytelling interludes.
Despite the still-unsatisfactory nature of this kind of mélange of watching and playing,
Metal Gear Solid 2 succeded through sheer conceptual brio. It climaxed in a riot of
hugely entertaining postmodern self-referentiality and a noble if somewhat confused
disquisition about genetics, memory and war. It seemed as though, in the scorched-earth
apocalypse of his own private cinema, Kojima was insistent upon pushing videogames to
one kind of expressionistic extreme.
Meanwhile, Rez (2001) constituted a glorious fusion of sound and vision, as the relatively
simple shoot-’em-up mechanics were married to a pseudo-interactive system that altered
the dance-music soundtrack according to your actions. (It was only pseudo-interactive
because the sound effects invoked by button-pushes were always artificially “quantised”,
ie shunted to the nearest musically relevant subdivision of the beat, in order not to create
an arhythmic cacophony.) The game’s designer, Tetsuya Mizuguchi, claimed that the
psychedelic artistic style was influenced by the Russian painter Kandinsky, but Rez’s
vision is as much influenced by the aesthetic history of videogames themselves, as a
world of blocky wireframe 3D skyscrapers gradually morphs, over the game’s five levels,
into a lushly solid representation of a green Earth, in a parable of human and machine
The arrival of true artifical intelligence predictably failed to happen, although large steps
were made by Peter Molyneux’s Black & White (2001), a game in which the player’s
teachable pet monster took on certain physical characteristics according to moral
decisions made by the player acting as the gameworld’s god, and then by Halo (2002). A
brilliantly engineered sci-fi first-person shooter, Halo placed you in a war movie, and
through the illusion that both your enemies and your comrades were intelligent, created
an extraordinary sense of involvement. In contrast to most previous games of the genre,
no battle in Halo ever went the same way twice. You blinked in disbelief at the cunning
of your enemies. You laughed when one of your men kicked a prone alien and said:
“How does it feel to be dead?”. You shouted at them to get out of the way of enemy
grenades. And when you let them die, you felt bad.
You also felt bad if you failed to help your friend in the exquisite fairytale of a game,
ICO (2002). Playing a small horned boy who meets a luminous, ghostly girl in a vast
castle, you try to help her escape, holding hands and conversing in nonsense language.
Through its jaw-droppingly gorgeous environment — beams of light penetrating
cavernous, gloomy stone interiors; bleached grass in sunny, verdant courtyards; distant
battlements of the enormous castle appearing on the horizon in a bluish haze — the game
constituted the best example yet for the emotional impact of architecture, the invocation
of aesthetic wonder.
And then, on a wave of controversy, came Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002), a
gleefully amoral gangster game that was widely criticised for its violence — you could, if
you so chose, beat up passers-by in a baseball bat. But punishment did exist in this
universe: kill innocent people and the police, shortly followed by the FBI and the army,
would hunt you down, and the player also had the option to drive ambulances and save
citizens, or merely to race cars against local hoodlums. In its fictionalisation of Miami in
the 1980s, with characters in pastel suits and a contemporary pop soundtrack on the
game’s numerous in-car radio stations, Vice City evoked tremendous period style and an
unmatched freedom to play as you pleased.
Meanwhile, a peek into a more cybernetically fluid future was offered by the eventual
release of Sony’s EyeToy in 2003. A simple web-cam device that sat on top of the TV, it
put the player’s image on the screen and allowed her to control a number of amusing
mini-games — punching tiny kung-fu fighters, washing windows, disco-dancing 1970sstyle — by waving her arms and head about. The games were rudimentary, but the device
represented a wealth of future opportunities for games to escape their dependence on a
rebarbative plastic controller festooned with buttons. More than the modest successes of
online console gaming enjoyed by the Xbox and PlayStation2, or the announcement in
May 2004 of new handheld consoles by Sony and Nintendo, the EyeToy held out
promise of a real revolution in gameplay. The ways we interact with machines are
becoming ever more intimate.
Theodor Adorno, whom we met in Chapter 1, once observed that the products of mass
entertainment secretly had much in common with work in industrial society.
“Amusement in advanced capitalism is the extension of work,” he wrote. “It is sought
after by those who wish to escape the mechanised work process, in order to be able to
face it again.” One wonders what he would have thought of today’s videogames, so many
of which themselves have continued to appear to offer little more than a “mechanised
work process”.
If games are supposed to be fun, Adorno might have asked, why do they go so far to
replicate the structure of a repetitive dead-end job? One very common idea in games, for
example, is that of “earning”. Follow the rules, achieve results, and you are rewarded
with bits of symbolic currency — credits, stars, skill points, powerful glowing orb —
which you can then exchange later in the game for new gadgets, ways of moving, or
access to previously denied areas. The only major difference between this paradigm and
that of a real-world job is that, whereas the money earned from a job enables you to buy
beer and go on holiday — that is, to do things that are extraneous to the work process —
the closed videogame system rewards you with things that only makes it supposedly
more fun or involving to continue doing your job, rather than letting you get outside it. It
is a malignly perfect style of capitalist brainwashing. Even the common idea in many
Nintendo games — for instance, in the disappointing Super Mario Sunshine (2002) of
being able to take “time off” to play a subgame of collecting fruit can be read, on this
analysis, as a cunning subterfuge to keep the masses happy: after all, they are still caught
within the system.
In the overarching economic systems of games as diverse as Super Mario Sunshine, Deus
Ex (2000), or Primal (2003), everything boils down to a matter of shopping. New skills
— whether they be new physical moves, spells, or the ability to transform into a demon
— are acquired instantaneously and thoroughly through currency exchange. The idea of
gradually nurturing and learning a skill is largely absent, although this would be
psychologically more rewarding. If I could save up and spend ten thousand dollars to
become an instant kung-fu master, that would be cool, but I wouldn’t be as proud of my
kung-fu as I would if I had acquired the ability through the normal channels of years of
hard training. Even a game as apparently sophisticated as Deus Ex — a role-playing,
first-person espionage adventure — can only offer a bland mechanical parody of
“learning”, in which the next level of ability in, say, lock-picking can only be bought, not
practised and learned for oneself.
Apart from comic early representations of menial jobs such as in 1980s arcade games
Tapper or Burger Time, some kind of military position was for a long time virtually the
only real-life job represented in videogames, apart from the venerable genre of football
management. Yet what we are seeing now is an increasing labourisation of the game
atmosphere: from the wry alternative employment market of Grand Theft Auto: Vice
City’s Mafia-dominated world, to the square-jawed life-of-driving fantasy of Toca Race
Driver (2002), games become structured around a fictional career.
Economic and political ideology was even more to the fore in The Sims (2001), for
example, a God game in which you look after little people in a house, with some of the
voyeuristic kick of a reality TV show. Rapidly becoming an extraordinarily successful
multi-tentacled franchise, it is the soap-opera version of Pokémon, and an advert for the
“American way”. Buy a Sim a large mirror and she will be happier, by virtue of being
able to gaze at her reflection. Buy him a new oven, and he’ll become more popular after
giving dinner parties. Help your Sim climb the slippery pole of a career as a politician or
scientist. This is a game in which the brutal rules of free-market capitalism are
everything. More money makes a Sim happier; social dissidents are not allowed. You
want to drop out of the rat-race, wear charity-shop tweed suits and spend your days
playing chess in the park? Sorry. Such gameplay possibilities are ruled out by the
political assumptions buried deep in the game’s structure.
It would be nice to think that the famous episode in Shenmue where you actually have to
go and get a job driving fork-lift trucks within the gameworld was an ironic
acknowledgment of the job-like nature of too many games. But perhaps it is inevitable
that, as products of decadent late capitalism, most videogames will, consciously or not,
reflect the same values. You go through a period of training, and then it’s all about
success and shopping, keeping your head down, doing what the system expects. Makebelieve jobs, as the Marxist Adorno might have concluded, are the opiate of the people.
After George W Bush announced the “war on terror” in the wake of the attacks of
September 11, 2001, there was a surge of jingoistic online gamers, on servers for games
such as the squad-based shooter Counter-Strike, dressing themselves up as digital
versions of Osama Bin Laden. And the military-entertainment complex has become more
close-knit than ever before. While commercial games such as the excellent Call of Duty
(2003) were recreating in ever more detail historical conflicts such as the second world
war, the US military itself paid for the design and free distribution of a highly realistic
commando simulation, America’s Army, the first version of which was released on July 4,
2002, and explicitly described it as a propaganda tool to show American teenagers how
exciting a career in the military might be.
The idea of showing school-age consumers exactly how accurately-modelled US-issue
weaponry works, and schooling them in commando tactics, elicited off-the-record
condemnations by some commentators close to the American military who talked to me.
Furthermore, one might wonder just how good an idea it is to code all this realistic
information into a game that is freely accessible for download. It doesn’t take much to
imagine members of Al-Qaeda — who, after all, reportedly schooled themselves on
commercial flight simulators — taking more than an academic interest.
These developments serve to emphasise that the more naturalistic videogames become in
their modes of representation and modelling of real-life phenomena, the more they will
find themselves implicated in political questions, and will need to have their ideology
interrogated. A game like Dropship (2002), for example, supposedly a near-future
combat flight simulator, blithely borrowed geopolitical capital by requiring the player to
bomb terrorist camps in the Libyan desert, and overthrow a Colombian drug-lord, thus
participating in a certain totalising idea of foreign policy without ever examining its own
assumptions. Other developers are already seeing the problem and avoiding it: the squadbased combat sequel Conflict: Desert Storm 2 (2003), for example, was set like its
predecessor during the first Gulf War, so as not to be embroiled in controversy about the
2003 war on Iraq.
But videogames are also becoming a site for a certain sort of symbolic political protest, as
in the example of artist Anne-Marie Schleiner’s Velvet-Strike (2002), which represents
what you might call aesthetic counter-terrorism. Schleiner says she was disturbed by the
post-9/11 militarism in the online gaming community, particularly by one game
modification in which Bin Laden was represented as an Arab liquor store owner in the
US, and the gamer was enjoined to enter the store and shoot the proprietor. In response,
she developed a series of provocatively pacifist graphical “spray paints” which can be
used as graffiti on Counter-Strike servers. Stealthy spraying in the midst of the macho
violence drops ironic images into the environment: gunman silhouettes form a big heart;
a teddy bear holds a rifle; two soldiers embrace in various homoerotic poses. Sprays with
provocative verbal slogans include “Hostages of Military Fantasy”, or “We Are All Iraqis
Velvet-Strike is not a game in itself but an attitude. The idea of invading online spaces
that exist for no other reason than to gratify militaristic fantasies, and then gently
defacing them with anti-war slogans, is not just funny (though funny it is), but also a
demonstration of how online gameworlds, even those of apparently simple shooters, are
already sophisticated enough to be arenas of political debate, sites of symbolic activism.
Steven Poole
London, May 2004
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In addition to the works cited below, I have found
useful several non-bylined articles and reviews in the
excellent monthly videogame magazine Edge. Arcade
and MCV magazines have also been useful sources of
industry reporting.
Adorno, Theodor, and Walter Benjamin. The Complete
Correspondence, 1928–1940. Edited by Henri
Lonitz. Translated by Nicholas Walker. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1999.
Amis, Martin. Invasion of the Space Invaders. London:
Hutchinson, 1982.
http://www.shogi.or. jp/english/ aono/sasc1.htm.
Avedon, Elliott M., and Brian Sutton-Smith. The Study
of Games. New York: Krieger Publishing
Company, 1979.
Benedikt, Michael, ed. Cyberspace: First Steps.
Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.
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Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of
Mechanical Reproduction” (1935). In Film Theory
and Criticism, edited by Mast, Cohen & Braudy.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Cassell, Justine, and Henry Jenkins, eds. From Barbie
to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games.
Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998.
Crawford, Chris. The Art of Computer Game Design. At
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of
Optimal Experience. New York: HarperCollins,
Faber, Liz. Computer Game Graphics. New York:
Watson-Guptill, 1998.
Foucault, Michel. “Des Espaces autres.” In
October 1984.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace
Books, 1994.
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Gombrich, E.ɢH. Art and Illusion: A Study in the
Psychology of Pictorial Representation. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1961.
———. The Story of Art. London: Phaidon Press,
Greenfield, Patricia. Media and the Mind of the Child:
From Print to Television, Video Games and
Computers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
Griffiths, Mark. “Video Games and Children’s
Behaviour.” T. Charlton and K. David (eds.)
Elusive Links: Television, Video Games and
Children’s Behavior. Cheltenham: Park Published
Papers, 1997.
Hamilton, Robert. “Virtual Idols and Digital Girls:
Artifice and Sexuality in Anime, Kisekae and Kyoko
Date.” In Bad Subjects 35 (1997), at
Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning
Technology.” In The Question Concerning
Technology and Other Essays, edited and translated
by William Lovitt. New York: HarperCollins, 1982.
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Herman, Leonard. Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of
Videogames. 2d. ed. Union, N. J.: Rolenta Press,
Herz, J.ɢC. Joystick Nation. Boston: Little, Brown and
Company, 1996.
Huizinga, Johann. Homo Ludens: A Study of the PlayElement in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
Hume, Nancy G. Japanese Aesthetics and Culture.
New York: State University of New York Press,
Kinder, Marsha. Playing with Power in Movies,
Television, and Video Games from Muppet Babies
to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Berkeley and Los
Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.
Krauss, Lawrence M. The Physics of Star Trek. New
York: Harperperennial Library, 1996.
Le Diberder, Alain, and FrÉdÉric Le Diberder.
L’Univers des jeux vidÉo. Paris: Editions La
DÉcouverte, 1998.
Lloyd, Maugan. “Screen Violence and Aggressive
Behavior: An Illustration of the Difficulty in
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Statistical Verification of a Possible Causal Link.”
MS thesis, Edinburgh University, 1998.
Loftus, Geoffrey R., and Elizabeth F. Loftus. Mind at
Play: The Psychology of Video Games. New York:
Basic Books, 1983.
Martinez, D. P., ed. The Worlds of Japanese Popular
Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
Parlett, David. The Oxford History of Board Games.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Peirce, C. S. The Essential Peirce: Selected
Philosophical Writings, Volume 1 (1867–1893).
Edited by Houser and Kloesel. Indianapolis:
Indiana University Press, 1992.
———. The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical
Writings, Volume 2 (1893–1913). Edited by Peirce
Edition Project. Indianapolis: Indiana University
Press, 1998.
Plato. Timaeus. Edited and translated by Desmond Lee.
London: JM Dent & Sons, 1977.
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———. Laws. Edited and translated by Thomas L.
Pangle. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folktale. Austin:
University of Texas, 1968.
Sale, Kirkpatrick. Rebels against the Future: The
Luddites and Their War on the Industrial
Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age. New
York: Perseus Press, 1996.
SatÔ, Ikuya. Kamikaze Biker: Parody and Anomy in
Affluent Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1991.
Schwarz, Frederic D. “The Patriarch of Pong.” In
Invention and Technology (autumn 1990), and at–fas.htm.
Sheff, David. Game Over: Nintendo’s Battle to
Dominate Videogames. Upland, Pennsylvania:
Diane, 1993.
Tabrizifar, AndrÉ. The Transparent Head. Cambridge:
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LogicoPhilosophicus. London: Routledge, Kegan & Paul,
Zielinski, Siegfried. Audiovisions: Cinema and
Television as Entr’actes in History. Amsterdam:
Amsterdam University Press, 1999.
Trigger Happy
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1080 Snowboarding
3D Monster Maze
Adorno, Theodor
aesthetic responsibility
application to videogames of
of Japan
of wonder
aesthetic techno-nostalgia
Age of Empires
American McGee’s Alice
Amis, Martin, as videogame analyst
amplification of input
Trigger Happy
first appearance of, 22“motion-capture” technique of
Ape Escape
cybernetic resources of
first coin-op videogame in
good reason for spending money in
nineteenth-century examples of
pleasure of investigating
videogames as new form of
artificial intelligence
borrowed from horror movies
creation through fog of
creation through sound of
creation through tempo of
Benjamin, Walter
Black and White
Blade Runner
board games
Bourdieu, Pierre
Bowie, David
Braybrook, Andrew, See also Uridium
Bushido Blade
Trigger Happy
Bushnell, Nolan
depth of field in
types of
use in sports games
games as competitors of
iconic influence of
Japanese cartoons
Castle Wolfenstein 3D
ancient games of
in evolution
in role-playing games
criteria for the attractiveness of
digitizing of
ethnic choice of
inflatable models of
non-playable (NPCs)
physical abilities of
deleterious health effects of
indispensable for spies
no use to astronauts
sublimity of
artistic comparison of with games
Trigger Happy
industry links with games of
influence of on murderers
Columbine massacre
Colony Wars
Command and Conquer
Computer Space
Core Design
cosmogony, theories of
happily roaming digital pastures
as offensive weapons
Crash Bandicoot series
Crawford, Chris
Croft, Lara
Cronenberg, David
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi
Daley Thompson’s Decathlon
Dance Dance Revolution
Dark, Joanna
Darling, Richard
data intensiveness problem
Date, Kyoko
Descartes, RenÉ
Deus Ex
Donkey Kong
Duhamel, Georges
Trigger Happy
DÜrer, Albrecht
Elixer Studios
emotion, potential for in videogames
exploration games
beauty of
iconicism of
rules for reversibility of
fairground games
Fawlty, Basil
fetish, two-dimensional
Fighting Fantasy gamebooks
Final Fantasy series
desirable gift of
limits of player’s
Game Boy
Gibson, William,
player’s role as
programmer as
of videogames
Gombrich, Erns
Trigger Happy
Gran Turismo
Grand Theft Auto
Greenfield, Patricia
Griffiths, Mark
Grim Fandango
Heidegger, Martin
Herz, J. C.
Higinbotham, William A.
Hobbit, The
House of the Dead
Houser, Sam
Hubbard, Rob
Huizinga, Johann
imagination, types of, exercised by videogames
definitions of
reasons for avoiding
interactive storytelling, See also stories
International Track & Field 2
ISS Pro Evolution
Jarvis, Eugene
Jet Grind Radio
Kinder, Marsha
Kojima, Hideo
Kutaragi, Ken
Trigger Happy
language parsing
Le Diberder, Alain & FrÉdÉric
Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (aka Zelda 64)
Little Lovers: She So Game
Luigi’s Mansion
Lunar Lander
Manic Miner
Mario, birth of
Mario 64
Marxism, cryptic message of in Pac-Man
Masclef, Olivier
The Matrix
Metal Gear Solid
Metropolis Street Racer
military, links with videogames
Minogue, Kylie, useful with fists
Missile Command
Miyamoto, Shigeru
Molyneux, Peter
games as possible influence on
programmable systems of
of virtual warfare
Mortal Kombat
muscle memory
Trigger Happy
Nabokov, Vladimir
Nietzsche, Friedrich, pummeling the joysticks
The Nomad Soul
Oedipus Rex
Omega Boost
online gaming. See Internet
Pajitnov, Alexei, inventor of Tetris
parallax effect
Peirce, C. S.
Perfect Dark
artistic limitations of
development in art and videogames of
marginal distortion in
physics, application to games of
Piranesi, Giovanni Battista, dungeon master
platform games, See also exploration games
Plato, definition of “play” by
Timaeus of
Playing Fields, The
Trigger Happy
plinth ideology
Pole Position
police, attitude to videogames of
Power Stone
in Classical mythology
as “gadgets,”
ontology of
semiotics of
various functions of
Pratchett, Terry
Prince of Persia
prostheticization of play
puzzle games
Quake series
racing games
Rainbow Six
RC Stunt Copter
Ready 2 Rumble Boxing
limit of in character design
problems of
in sound effects
real-time strategy games
Trigger Happy
Resident Evil series
Reznor, Trent
Ridge Racer series
role-playing games (RPGs)
Romero, Jon
Roy, Sujoy
Seaman: The Forbidden Pet
Sheff, David
Shelley, P. B.
Shogi (Japanese chess)
Silent Hill
Silent Scope
Sims, The
Sinclair ZX81
Sinclair ZX Spectrum
Smith, Jeremy
Smith, Matthew
Sonic Adventure
Sonic the hedgehog
Trigger Happy
Soul Blade (aka Soul Edge)
Soul Calibur, iv
Soul Reaver
sound design, See also music
Space Invaders
special relativity
Spector, Warren
sports games
Star Wars
Strong Anthropic Principle
Super Mario Bros.
Tekken series
Thrasher: Skate and Destroy
Thrill Drive
time in videogames
strategic timing
tactical timing
temporal resolution
Time Crisis series
Tomb Raider series
Topping, Paul
Turok series
Trigger Happy
unfair challenge
vector graphics
violence, nature in videogames of
Virtua Fighter
WipEout series
wireframe graphics
Wittgenstein, Ludwig, gnomic utterances of
Wolfenstein 3D
Wright, Will
Zen, and the art of videogame playing
Trigger Happy
Steven Poole
Steven Poole is a journalist and writer who has
contributed articles to the Guardian, the Independent,
and the Times Literary Supplement, and has worked as
a composer for television and short films.
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