Let’s Get Visceral
|The Uncanny Valley is a
phenomenon in which people tend to reject simulations that look “very
close but not quite real” yet they accept simulations that are
obviously false, like cartoons. Suspension of Disbelief is a funny
thing. Anime and low frame rate cartoons, talking animals and even
animated inanimate objects are perfectly acceptable to many viewers
in terms of dramatic impact. But as the simulation gets closer to
reality there comes a point when people stop buying into the
simulation until it gets all the way to the point of having live
actors playing a scene. The slight sub-reality becomes distracting
and people tend to suspend their suspension of disbelief. The space
from where it first gets real enough to be irritating to the place
where it is no longer differentiable from actual photography is the
Uncanny Valley. It’s a concept we will all be dealing with more and
more in the coming years.
Grand Theft Auto 4 is
out now. Yeah, baby! And for some reason seeing it on the shelf (or
rather seeing the re-order place holder on the shelf) takes me back
to one of the most profound gaming experiences of my life, that being
Grand Theft Auto, 3 and beyond.
What that’s about is
firsts. I have always been a big fan of breakthroughs in vid games.
All of my games broke new ground. Yars was the first game with pause
mode, full screen explosion, reset from the joystick and a few other
things. Raiders was the first movie conversion game and established a
new threshold for adventure games (a genre defined by Warren
Robinette), and ET was the first video game bad enough to topple a
billion dollar industry. But it was easier to be fresh then, there
were more things still undone. As a medium matures it becomes harder
and harder to do something new. But GTA3 blew me away because it did
so many new things in such a brilliant way.
I could fill several
columns on the specific innovations introduced in GTA and I may yet,
but today I want to talk about one thing I experienced for the first
time in GTA and that is Visceral Involvement. Some games get me on an
intellectual level and most games get me on a physical level but GTA
actually reached me on a visceral level. I can remember the exact
moment that really brought it home. . .
I was running around,
deeply into a mission, and I zigged when I should have zagged and
accidentally fell off a tall building. As I was plunging toward my
temporary death I found myself clutching at my stomach because I was
experiencing the weightless sensation of actually falling! I really
felt it. My imagined experience was taking on a real sensation. That
is visceral. That is an amazing and very significant thing to achieve
in a video game.
The difference between
physical and visceral is the difference between doing and feeling.
Not emotional feeling but “physical” feeling. Visceral sensations
come about when a non-real situation is perceived as real. In fact,
you can find the word “real” in “visceral” just like you can
find the word “fake” in “physical” (well, you can if you
spell it “phaic,” but let’s not quibble here). The point is
that visceral reaction comes from a much deeper place than physical.
Visceral only happens when the player is totally immersed in the
gaming experience. Anything short of that is merely physical
interaction. The 2600 (and every game system) is decidedly physical,
but the first time in my experience that gaming achieved visceral was
on the PS2 with GTA.
|What did GTA3 ever do
for me? People criticize GTA3 for lame graphics and no particular
technical innovation. You know what? They’re right. Not only are
they right, but this is exactly why GTA3 is so innovative. Instead of
merely improving the look of the same old game play they actually
designed a game that combines skillful level reuse with a variety of
concurrent missions and so many different (game world logical)
methods to accomplish each task that it makes GTA3 a rare and genuine
game design innovation which many try to copy but few have the talent
to pull off.
In making games,
involvement is always the goal. The play must be compelling and the
look must be adequately inviting to get a player to pick up a
controller and hold on to it a while. Back in the day we were simply
looking to capture a player’s attention rather than tweak their
equilibrium. We aimed at the head rather than the guts. We didn’t
have the horsepower to even begin to conceive of immersive
environments. I mean how can you even contemplate photorealism when
you are doing everything in the world you can think of just to try
and achieve coin-op-realism.
And when playing many
of my favorite games I could get very involved physically, often to
the point of kicking and slapping a coin-op console or doing some
elaborate controller dance to help influence the quality of the input
I’m generating, but nothing even remotely comparable to the
sensations of visceral reactions.
I’d like to say we
were striving to achieve that back on the 2600, but I’d be lying.
The 2600 was so elemental that all we were trying to do was create
innovative abstract game plays and make some passing nod to any
actual representation. As time went on and licenses from actual
properties like movies and TV shows became more common the pressure
to be more realistic increased but there was never any “realistic”
hope of getting close enough to generate the kind of buy in that can
lead to a genuine visceral reaction. When you are still dealing with
the concept of a square ball, the Uncanny Valley isn’t even on your
long range sensors.
Now before I become too
dismissive of the idea of trying to reach inside players and tweak
them at a very primal level, I should mention that there was one 2600
game that did seem to have the power to replicate the same kind of
experience I had when playing GTA on the PS2. In fact it was one of
my own games that did it. For over a quarter century I have been
hearing people tell me about how they got a sinking feeling every
time they fell into a pit in ET.
Congratulations to my
cohorts at Rockstar. GTA is a monumental achievement not only for
current platforms but in the evolution of gaming.