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Why 3D realism is killing video games

Is it possible that 3D is ruining the creativity of video games?

I’ve been musing on this for a while, but this recent piece at IGN convinced me: It’s a comparison between the style of the first Defender game (from the early 1980s) and the updated, modern version released — with full 3D.

Currently, the theory behind game design is that “fun” comes from being able to do anything you want — to be playing in a massive, complex world, with the freedom to go and do anything you want, and everything rendered in fantastic 3D realism. This strikes me as wrong for two reasons:

1) Games aren’t about freedoms. They’re about restrictions. Games are defined not by what you can do, but by what you can’t. In chess, if you were allowed to move the chess pieces anywhere you wanted, it wouldn’t be a game. As the very brilliant game theorist Eric Zimmerman has told me, games embody an interesting existential paradox: It is the presence of rules (which limit behavior) that creates play (new, unpredictable forms of behavior). Play comes when everyone has agreed, in a slightly masochistic way, on a bunch of restrictions that everyone will abide by. Then the fun begins. So the idea of having massive 3D worlds is not really about gaming. It’s something else. It might be about emulation, about creating alternate universes, about having another personality you can live online, or many other incredibly cool things. But that’s not really like a game, in the traditional sense that video games have been, well, games.

Moreover …

2) The idea that “realism” allows for more creativity is almost perfectly wrong. Realism actually limits the ways you can envision the world, because reality only looks one particular way: Real. Which is to say, if you’re going to create a video game that’s highly realistic, and it’s going to have to have roads in it, the roads can really only look one particular way: Like, uh, real roads. In contrast, a more impressionistic or expressionistic aesthetic can be far, far more offbeat. Put it this way: A photo of a road in rural Boston looks pretty much like a road in India or Tokyo, more or less — a straight(ish) strip a few metres wide. In comparison — a road painted by Matisse looks totally different from a road painted by Picasso, or Walt Disney for that matter.

Look again at the Defender ship above — how kooky and stylized it is. The compare it to the Defender ship above that’s coming out in the new game. It’s pretty much like any other 3D ship in any other 3D game: brownish/greyish, bulbous, yadda yadda yadda. Since the designers wanted it to look realistic, it looks like every other “realistic” ship in existence.

This is why realistic 3D games have begun to look so incredibly tired in the last few years. Everywhere you turn, things look and play the same. I once talked to a guy who worked in software back in the early 80s. At conventions, he’d go to the sections devoted to computer games. “Every time you went around the corner, you had no idea what you were going to see. Everything looked different from everything else.” On the other hand, when I went to E3 two years ago, there were virtually no surprises, either in aesthetic style or gameplay. Because games are supposed to have tons of “freedom” and “realism”, they all wind up doing the same few things.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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