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.
There's not one simple answer, but I think there is a very important factor that affects the kinds of risks willing to be taken in modern games development, and it's perhaps something we're not very comfortable admitting: that the majority of discussion about games is dominated by a small group of people, and that group is increasingly well-understood by game developers and publishers. `Core' gamers are a tamed breed - companies know how they think, what they want, and how to make them feel like their needs are being met. They are the people who never ask why a door can't be opened, they never ask why Mass Effect characters can only die in cutscenes, they never explore the same conversation tree twice expecting new dialogue. At the start of this piece I talked about playing with people newer to games, or the people who are routinely made to feel embarrassed for playing 'casual' games, and how it can seem that they make strange decisions that break the conventions we would never dare to. This is not a reflection on them for playing without preconceptions - it should be a reflection on us, as people too entrenched in what games are to be able to think about what they could be.
We need new ideas, new communities, new groups of people making demands about their games, to diversify what is being made and what is seen as important for games to do. This is not just true for games technology, of course - games as a whole need this diversity badly. But it applies here I think, because the kind of games being made right now don't require much innovation. They have found a niche that most are willing to accept, and the only way to push them out of this comfort zone is to introduce a lot of new voices. The fact is that we've stopped asking for things that aren't easily done. We've learned not to ask for things that we've not seen done before. We clamour and petition for co-op mode to be added to our favourite shooter, or for Valve to update Dota 2's UI with a new button, or any other variety of trivial nonsense. These things are easy to conceive of, and when they're fixed or added the Internet gets to enter full "We Did It, Reddit" mode and feel powerful and significant. In reality, however, we're incredibly powerless - easily placated by having little successes thrown at us from time to time.
I'm not going to promise you that by asking for the impossible we're going to suddenly revolutionise the games industry and see new ways of thinking filter into all the games we play. Ubisoft are not going to try and solve wild new problems in the next Assassin's Creed, because they spend too much money at too large a scale to even consider doing something risky. I do think, though, that if we are more ambitious and open-minded as players, then we can help grow and nurture new cultures besides ones that whine about how many frames per second a game runs at. If we celebrate experimentation more publicly, and ask more interesting questions when we talk to developers, then we create positive pressure on games as a whole. We encourage developers to shed off some of their assumptions when developing games, we motivate journalists to push these ideas in their writing, and we pull cutting-edge games research closer and closer towards what games are doing right now.
Games as a creative domain look very different today to how it looked ten years ago. Twitter, Twitch and YouTube bring us closer to the people that are creating games than ever before, and sites like itch.io and Patreon are making it easier to support creatives working on small-scale and personal projects. We can reach out and touch the people whose work we care about, and watch them develop their work from the very first line of code in many cases. Lots of developers are asking their playerbase directly to suggest improvements, new additions, or areas they'd like to see expanded or worked upon. Most of the time we ask for new weapons and a local multiplayer mode, but we don't have to. We can ask for anything we want. We don't have to be reasonable, or sensible, or logical. We're not being asked to do that. We're being asked to dream up the technology we want to see, so that other people can decide how or if they can achieve it.
(The title of this part comes from a talk I gave at Videobrains last year on a similar topic - you can watch it here, and if you're near London you should come to Videobrains' future events! They're amazing.)