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Electric Dreams, Part 4: The Lost Art Of Dreaming

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Electric Dreams is a five-part series about AI, academic research and video games, and how together they’re shaping the industry. Part one on the lost future of AI is here.

The more we play games, the more we forget how much time it took us to learn the mysterious toolbox of language and skills that they require. Mostly we think of this toolbox as being full of things that enable us to do new things, like circle-strafing or that sixth sense that tells you to stuff ladders and paperclips into your pants in an adventure game, but in truth a lot of it actually controls what we think and do. If you’ve ever sat down to watch someone less familiar with games play something, you’ve probably witnessed something along these lines. They’ll do things that you instinctively know aren’t possible – trying to open doors that we know are part of the scenery, or repeating an action in an adventure game when we know it’s always going to have the same outcome. Sometimes when I play with someone new to games, they’ll ask me ‘How did you know that was the solution?’ and the answer is simply because I’ve been here before. On the surface it looks like skill, but in reality it’s a sign that we’ve learned to be obedient. A lifetime of playing games has taught us to be followers, and it is now a major factor in slowing down innovation and experimentation in games.

So far in Electric Dreams we’ve discussed how innovation and artificial intelligence in particular has stalled somewhat, but now it’s time to look to the future, and talk about how to start it up again. In this article I want to turn the spotlight on you, RPS readers, and talk about a culture shift I’d like to see happen to games. A shift from knowing that things aren’t possible, to wondering if they could be. A chance to start dreaming again, to ask big questions so that people have a reason to go and find answers. I think we can do it, but you might need to forget everything you’ve ever learned about games to make it happen.

Why can’t I combine any items I want to solve an adventure game puzzle? Why don’t my companions in Dragon Age actually show their feelings for each other? Why do my choices in Telltale games always end up in the same place no matter what? There’s a lot about games that we’ve just come to accept over the years. Often when we talk about games in this way we throw around words like ‘impossible’ with a depressing amount of fatalism, as if the brief fifty years we’ve spent working on this medium has told us everything we need to know about what can and can’t be achieved. Videogames are done. We can simulate individual strands of hair on Lara’s head, that’s new, but everywhere else it’s just a bunch of technological roadblocks. We’ve been taught that this is The Way Things Are and that we should be grateful for our 120FPS bulletfests. You can open doors yourself in the latest Call Of Duty! If that isn’t progress I don’t know what is.

These technological barriers that we’ve come to accept as part of games aren’t even that difficult to break, in a lot of cases. Researchers in Copenhagen and New York have both looked at building point-and-click adventures with replayable puzzles that redesign themselves each time you play, for instance. Others have looked at giving RPG characters emotions that affect how they behave in battle, protecting their loved ones, becoming distraught if they see close friends die. There’s a huge community of researchers looking at how to build better, more interesting and more complex interactive narratives (there’s even research into why some choices feel more meaningful than others). A lot of this kind of research is early work, and much of it never finds its ways into the hands of the right developers, but these are not outlandish, unreasonable questions. They’re not even close to unreasonable. Compared to the kinds of innovation we regularly celebrate in games, though, they sound impossibly futuristic.

Back in early 2014, Polygon ran a piece about ‘2014’s Most Innovative Games‘. It’s now a fascinating piece to read, as developers attempt to explain why their games are innovative, and most of them fail completely. Over a year later, many of these games have flopped on release while others have descriptions that seem anything but innovative. The Elder Scrolls: Online boasts about having ‘200 players on the screen’ even on low-end machines. Destiny’s developers reel off a series of existing game ideas that they’ve just decided to cram into a single game. Telltale’s description of Game Of Thrones could just as easily be applied to any game they’ve made in the last three years. Why do we seem to gravitate towards certain kinds of innovation, even when they amount to incremental nudges forward?

The article continues on page two.

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Michael Cook


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