The space that isn't
Even the limits of simulation are interesting.
In Greg Egan's Permutation City, a copy of a human mind wakes to find itself trapped in a simulation of his apartment. He fixes his gaze on a copy of the painting that hangs on a copy of his wall, and the simulation renders the colours into the copy of his brain, so he sees the painting, or close enough for government work. But he knows that when he turns away, the simulation won't bother to render the painting. It'll just assume it as a flat monocolour rectangle and calculate how light would be reflected from it to affect lighting conditions on what he's looking at. It freaks him out. He has to resist the temptation to whip round and try to catch the simulation not simulating the painting.
If you've played Thief, or Deus Ex, or one of those, at some point you've heard a guard say, approximately, 'must have been rats'. If a guard says that, it's never rats, it's always you. In fact if you're not there, the guard isn't there either.
You can walk to the North Pole, at least until we melt all the ice by using cars to go to the Tesco at the end of the road. But if you're in the northernmost location of a traditional parser IF game, you can have this kind of conversation with the game
You can't go that way.
You can't go that way.
You can type it as many times as you like, and you won't get anywhere. This isn't because the game won't let you go north. There is no north. It's like trying to fry Thursday. It's not that you can't fit Thursday in your wok. It's that the attempt to do so doesn't make sense.
A lot of games - perhaps 'most games', certainly most AAA games - are set in virtual space. It's tempting to intuit virtual space as a sort of alternate dimension. It's not. There's no there there. It's like a book narrating how you turned left, turned right, opened the door, or a high-speed DM in a good tabletop RPG saying to you 'at the end of the corridor is the Fane of Tribbles'. It's just done with pictures instead of words. Nothing is present at all until you ask the software 'what's here?'
Well that's sort of depressing, isn't it. What's your point, Kennedy?
I've been playing the latest Deus Ex. The level and mission design is really good. I didn't register how good it is until I read Edwin's review, because it's so good it's invisible. Prague is a breathing and beautiful place, and every street corner is a labour of love. And it's wonderful and enticing that Adam Jensen's apartment is in a building full of other apartments, each with its own little chocolate box of environmental storytelling details. You can get into every one of them and poke around to your heart's content -
But I live in a real apartment building full of flats, and it has never occurred to me to break into them. Still, it was the first thing it occurred to me to do when I stepped out of the door of Adam Jensen's apartment. Despite the fact that it would be a grossly criminal act, and Adam - I'm just going to call him Adam, we have history - is a policeman. Why?
Because the apartments aren't real places. All the verbs you can use on and around them are verbs of spatial navigation and manipulation. You can unlock doors, you can throw boxes down the stairs, you can jump over sofas. But you can't knock on a door, you can't open a box, you can't sit on a sofa and have a chat.
This isn't another 'WHY CAN'T YOU HUG THE MONSTERS' article. The point I want to make is that things that look like things aren't actually things. They're gestures towards the possibility of actual things. Those aren't actually apartments, they're a simulation of beautifully decorated boxes. When you turn Adam's head away, none of it exists - not in the sense that the wall behind you now exists. But we can't believe that. The world trains us to think that things that look like the world are also the world.
This is why the hype over Second Life surged, fell off, and died. The name was genius: Second Life! Another world like this one! You could make things that looked like restaurants and banks and houses, so it was like a world, and we'd all sort of... move there and have meetings there? Of course, again, these restaurants/banks/houses didn't actually allow you to eat or change money or keep the rain off your head, and once people realised that, they drifted away, embarrassed. I believe Second Life still does pretty well, especially as a virtual dildo farm, but the media has got over the temptation to treat it as an effective substitute universe.
Meanwhile, other games don't pretend to be the world. Consider - to choose a handful of things at random - Prison Architect, Thirty Flights of Loving and your board game of choice.They only look moderately like the things we're pretending that they are. We're not distracted by the fidelity of the resemblance of the environment, or the tokens, and we can get on with enjoying the versatility or elegance or impact of the game.
And, of course, this is one of the interesting features of the High Indie Tide of the last decade. It's difficult (not impossible: but difficult) for indies compete on immersive, increasingly photorealistic graphics. So we've seen an enormous variety of handcrafted impressionist approaches, sometimes lo-fi, sometimes painterly, from Braid to Limbo to Sunless Sea to Darkest Dungeon to Firewatch. Everyone recognises that these are distinctive art styles - a great way to reconcile talented but limited resources with a need to stand out in the marketplace. What we often don't recognise consciously is how these simpler representation of the world, and the things in the world, often follow the underlying model - the system that we interact with, shorn of wallpaper - more closely.
This is in part - I believe - because audiences and devs together have improved the understanding of system thinking and game mechanics. Steam community threads have an understandable reputation for being long smears of angry verbal diarrhoea, but if you compare a typical Early Access Steam thread to a typical World of Warcraft post-patch thread a decade ago, it's night and day. Gamers' understanding of game design and production is much more sophisticated. There's still no shortage of ignorance on the Internet (psst, obviously I don't mean you, guys) but I see the quality of the conversation improve, year on year. Look at how much cannier Kickstarter backers have become. And it's a rising tide. Smart communities make indies make better games; smart indies are the hinterland which drives AAA innovation.
I don't think that games like DX: MD - where the immersive quality is so much of the appeal - will ever go away. That immersivity is a tremendous appeal, and they're beautiful games. But I am excited about a future where it'll be increasingly possible to make a living making games that rely on the richness and elegance of their internal systems - games that don't necessarily have to masquerade as real life.