Arcade Style Game Programmers Are Thriving

What is more purely interactive than an arcade-style game? What else offers such a rapid feedback loop, or packs so much outcome into every move you make? Compared to Quake, where one jab of the joystick makes the difference between life and death, doesn’t even the most informative and artistic interactive multimedia feel… well, sleepy?

In a telling moment, hundreds of conference attendees gave a standing ovation to a dance performance based on the video game Tomb Raider, in which the dancers responded to the action of the game as played live by a young boy. The high-minded “Play” attendees seemed ready at long last to learn from Tomb Raider heroine Lara Croft.

lara-croft-newNot surprisingly, young designers who grew up with video games are leading the way. Taking the stage at “Play,” several of them demonstrated daring experiments in making “serious” content the object of the game, beginning with a 1560 painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Brueghel’s Kinderspelen is a painted field guide to child’s play. Set on a Flemish street, it depicts dozens of children engaging in more than 70 pre-industrial diversions, from climbing trees to fistfighting. For a group of students in the animation department of the Utrecht School of the Arts, the lively scene cried out for computer enhancement. In their collaborative, digital revision of Kinderspelen, you can move your mouse across the canvas to reveal pink-tinted hot spots where the characters have been set in motion, and the way they move makes the project more than a moustache drawn on an Old Master. The animators seem to have learned their choreography from game characters like Mario, Parappa, and the contenders of Virtua Fighter 2. One corner of Kinderspelen shows a child seated on the arms of two friends; in the animated version, she gets launched through the air and stuck headfirst in an attic window on the opposite side of the painting. Several youngsters have learned, anachronistically, to breakdance. Each time the tree-climbing child reaches the treetop, he falls back down with a slapstick boi-oi-oing!

While the students’ animations make for a simple toy box, the Utrecht graduates who founded Dutch design firm IJsfontein are going further in their projects for children’s software and TV. IJsfontein first received attention in European educational circles for its 1997 CD-ROM Masters of the Elements, an elegantly rendered adventure designed to teach children basic principles of kinetics and electricity. It was a fitting debut for designers who believe that the best interfaces are inspired by physical-world truths. Masters of the Elements players progress through the story by “picking up” and using simple objects: balls that bounce when dropped, pins that can be juggled.

What good are limitations like gravity in a fantasy game world? According to IJsfontein’s Jan-Willem Huisman, such behavioral rules allow the designer to create “the illusion of tactility on the screen… an intensity of feeling in the senses.” (To understand what he’s talking about, one need only recall the popularity of early ball-bouncing arcade games like Pong and Breakout.) Illustrating his point at the conference, Huisman demonstrated one of IJsfontein’s more recent magic tricks: the transformation of a 2D, sans serif Y into a manipulable onscreen object that “feels” like a pogo stick. “You need rules, like compression and gravity,” Huisman explained to his audience. The Y began to hop up and down, its stem compressing on impact like a spring and its arms flailing slightly with each bounce. The mouse action that controlled the Y simulated jumping on a pogo stick, down to compress the spring, up to bounce back. “A logical correlation between action and response” makes the letter feel solid, he added.

The Y is part of a project called “Typotoons,” an interactive TV program for children that IJsfontein is currently designing for Dutch TV channel VPRO. On the program, children playing live over the Internet will help create a story by forming words from 26 running, rolling, or hopping letters. Each letter will have its own way of moving, and by extension, its own personality. Anthropomorphizing the alphabet is nothing new, but the ingenuity and responsiveness of the “Typotoons” may bring a finer grain of interactivity to the story.

Will letters that act like video-game characters help children pin down the abstraction of language? At the very least, they may encourage viewers to stay tuned to a show that promotes creative writing.

Reading and writing aren’t the only skills emphasized by new computer games. Another “Play” presenter, designer Will Wright of Maxis in San Francisco, showed scenes from the upcoming The Sims, a game about building a home, shopping for furniture, and starting a computerized family. The model for this experience is not movement-intensive arcade-style games but brain-bending strategy games. Wright is the designer from who brought educational computer simulation to the masses with some games, but not SimCity and topical brand extensions like SimAnt and SimHealth.

Instead of courting the social engineers who buy his other games, Wright is creating The Sims to let players shape the world on a more personal scale. To Wright, SimCity is analogous to the model railroad sets he played with as a child; The Sims is more like a dollhouse. Unlike dollhouse play, the game will have three modes: build, buy, and live. Players will build their ideal homes, using an interface that resembles real home design software. Then they buy things to fill it, based on incomes of the family members. The third mode is where things get strange: The house fills with automatons representing the family, and players can configure their personalities and moods and program their relationships with one another. (Wright hints that it won’t be easy to build a dream house and maintain domestic bliss at the same time. Want to be the Waltons or the Carringtons? Your choice.)

Wright thinks that the nuclear family will make a rewardingly flexible simulation. While SimCity mayors can’t possibly work with each building, road, and citizen individually, users can shape every detail of The Sims and make it their own. One game feature allows players to feed their own home plan, inventory, and family, and run their lives as a Sim. At that point, says Wright, “you’ve taken your house and you’ve said, This is a valid thing to play with…. You can tear down a wall, have a big party, or invite a cousin to live with you.”

How bizarre is it to re-engineer one’s personal life inside a computerized toy box? Perhaps not at all, when you consider the growth in Web sites that help users program their lives, recovering their data from broken hard drives, assisting them in dating and job-hunting. When people interact in real-time on these sites, their behavior increasingly resembles that of game players. Chatters don’t so much exchange words as fire them back and forth like photon torpedoes. And what is online trading but a combination of strategy and timing worthy of a virtual empire builder? Meeting a mate or buying a car online? A bit like an adventure game, or perhaps role-playing–only in these cases, you’re trafficking not in play money or hit points, but in the tokens that define your financial worth and even your self-worth. As more rounds in the real game of life can be played out on a computer screen, video games may look less pernicious, and their style more attractive.

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