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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.


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