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Play Crash — and find out what makes a game a game

Okay, game fans: RUN, AND DO NOT WALK TO SHOCKWAVE.COM RIGHT NOW — and play their newest game Crash.

Crash is the latest offering by skull-kings at Gamelab, an indie game house in New York. I say “indie” in the precise, historical sense of the word “indie”. Indie rock and indie film sought to bring higher levels of artistry to their genres; indie gamers try to do the same thing. And, interestingly, one place where innovation is frequently seen these days is in the humble, much-denigrated Shockwave game. In a Shockwave game, the designer can’t hide behind the usual ooh-ahh stuff that drives most of the dismal boxed titles you find at game stores. There are no special effects, no painstakingly rendered dungeons, no fabulous fog effects that deploy themselves in a cunning combination of fractal predictability and pseudorandomness.

No, with a Shockwave game you pretty much have to do it old-skool style, the way game-makers did in the early 80s. You have to rely on superb game design, and nothing but. Which means you have to grapple with one basic question: What makes a game a game?

This isn’t an obvious as it seems. Indeed, this question is rarely openly asked. Endless technology journalists assume they know what video games are all about. A game, they’ll tell you, qualifies as “good” if it has an interesting narrative, interesting characters, and creates a really rich world. But this is a bit of a blind alley. Sure, a game can have those elements — but so can a novel or a play or a poem, pieces of culture that aren’t games at all. What is it precisely that makes a game seem, uh, game-like?

Gamelab co-founder Eric Zimmerman likes to answer this question. As he once pointed out to me, a game is an existential paradox. It’s a set of rules that ruthlessly restrict your behavior — and yet somehow produce the opposite of rules: Play. Games are oddly masochistic; we submit to a bunch of often quite weird and arbitrary limits. (In basketball, you can dribble and walk, but if you stop walking, you have to pass? Like, what’s up with that?) Yet it’s only by agreeing to abide by these onerous rules that we create fun. “Games are not about freedoms,” Zimmerman noted. “They’re about restrictions.” Everything from baseball to chess to rock-paper-scissors to Pong is based on precisely this paradigm. You create a few simple rules, then sit back and watch what weirdness ensues.

The best games, of course, are fiendishly efficient. They have very few rules — so you can pick them up really quickly and start playing. Think of checkers, football, or Quake: Pretty simple games, with only a few rules. In each case, the first time you try it, it all seems so blase that you wonder why it’s going to be fun. Yet you quickly find that those few elegant rules combine to produce amazingly unpredictable results. And that, right there, is what makes a game fun.

The thing is, this theory is exactly the opposite of how most game journalists — and even game designers — talk about games. They constantly prattle on about how the best video games are these really huge worlds where you go anywhere and do anything, and everything looks so amazingly realistic and 3D you’d swear it were real. But Zimmerman argues, this is just “film envy”, and it often leads to incredibly crappy games. It’s true. Walk into a game store, pick up 10 of the most sexy-looking “immersive” games, and I can guarantee that nine of them will suck so much ass you will die of boredom if you play them. The creators were not thinking about what makes a game a game. They were trying to create something that emulates Hollywood, and thus they wound up producing an extremely subpar movie — whose only allure is that you can walk around in it, marvelling at the inane plot, ludicrous dialogue, and total absence of play.

Which brings me back to Crash. The game concept is ridiculously simple: You have to prevent cars from crashing into one another, by speeding them up or slowing them down. That’s it. Full stop. Unlike the average first-person-shooter, which comes complete with about 10 bazillion different commands, Crash is insanely restricted. There’s only one control — the mouse, with its click-button. You can click on a car to speed it up or slow it down, but nothing else. You can’t even change their direction. And much like Pac-Man or Asteroids, there’s only one screen: No side-scrolling, no big immersive world. Yet after a few minutes of watching the cars trundle across the screen, the game becomes fiendishly complex. What initially seemed so simple reveals itself to be virtually unmanageable, and you’re juggling forty balls at once — and that’s what makes it so fun.

Okay, I’ll get off my little pompous hobby horse here. But you really should go play the damn game. It rocks! And dig the incredibly funky techno music designed for it by Michael Sweet of Audiobrain.

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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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