net.wars: Playing God

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 11 October 2002

Normally, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about computer games. One of the smartest things I ever did for my own productivity was to make playing games less pleasant on my computer, switching to using the mouse left-handed and installing the games-hostile Windows NT and 2000 on all my machines. So I remain stuck somewhere toward the beginning of Quake.

Wendy M Grossman

This week, though, in a foray to the outside I found myself at LEAF listening to a couple of very thin, young male programmers (Lionhead's Rune Vendler and Alex Evans) talk with vast excitement about the work they're doing on a game that may be released sometime like 2005. With many reminders that in fact they weren't supposed to talk about some of this, and they hoped their boss didn't find out. (Hello, guys? You know you had a journalist in the audience, right?) This was right after listening to a less thin, not-as-young guy (Erik Tiemens) talk about the paintings he did for Attack of the Clones.

Seems he and two other guys spent a couple of years sitting in an attic at Skywalker ranch just churning out paintings of stuff they thought would be interesting, periodically showing them to George Lucas. Then on weekends he likes to go out and paint landscapes in oils. Heckuva life to get paid for, dontcha think?

There were a couple of interesting things about this. First is Tiemens' comment that where ten years ago (probably the last time I looked closely at digital media, animations, and special effects - interviewed the animation director of Terminator 2 at the same event, then much bigger) animation was dominated by programmers, now it's at least half artists. Which is, after all, how it should be. It was intriguing to realize how far it's all come, and that an artist can sketch a landscape, scan it in, and look at it in twilight, turn on rain, or change the colours and light sources, all more or less automatically.

Second, people have talked a lot about convergence in the last 15 years, first in terms of television and computing, and second in terms of computing and telecommunications. But as I understood the conversation, these ideas of convergence were mostly technical. The Lionhead talk seemed to me an example, of convergence of content between games and movies/TV. I've never really believed that people wanted interactive movies - and I still think that passive entertainment is always going to be a large market because people *do* like experiencing an artist's vision - but listening to the Lionhead guys talk about current trends in postproduction it suddenly seemed to me that interactive movies will be computer games, not really movies as we currently think of them. There's never been much oomph in the idea of, say, being able to choose a different ending for this week's episode of Friends

I hadn't realized the extent to which game development now draws on techniques familiar from decades of movie-making. Although, at least games programmers don't have to deal with stars' tantrums over having the wrong kind of gladioli in their trailers. One change in Lionhead's approach for the R&D they're doing now was to discard building the world to be viewed from any angle; instead, they're thinking about individual camera shots, and this, too, is far more like movies.

The big difference that remains is story. Every movie, somewhere along the line, began with a writer sweating it out alone in a room trying to come up with a story or a set of characters. In games, as Vendler and Evans said when I asked, the people sweating it out at the beginning are artists and programmers, with the writer tacking on a story much later. But if games are beginning to move towards a situation where camera angles are selected in advance, it's arguable that the trend will have to be towards writing the story in advance, too, or how can you be sure you have the right camera angles?

My guess is that those writers will be people like my 18-year-old friend Owen, whom I consulted on the subject of Lionhead's games while writing this. ("[Black and White] is something of a sub-genre of "God" games, where you essentially control a world and its inhabitants. [It's] ... an excellent bit of AI coding.") He's been playing these games since he was 10, and while most of them are rather samey first-person shoot-'em-up, it's clear that he knows as much about the different families of games and the migrations of their developers as I knew about Irish folk bands when I was only a few years older.

We tend to underestimate the potential of computer games: they're today's equivalent of comic books. (When I was a kid, my parents knew that comic books rotted the brain, and Archie was banned. TV, I could watch as much as I wanted. Go figure.) The future of passive entertainment ... well, we may find one piece of it is watching other people play games, or watching the equivalent of a recorded version of someone else's game play, for example, Steven Spielberg's Black and White, or James Cameron's Doom. Because trust me, watching an 18-year-old manage a household of eight adults in The Sims and scream with frustration because they're all refusing to wash the dishes is as good as a sitcom.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).