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Games Grown Up
by Amos Parker

I've watched video games grow up. In a way I feel like a parent. It's a strange parenthood though. There are lots of other parents out there, and not just one woman. You're all parent in the same sense that I am. The dominance of video games was born of that willingness to pay for the entertainment they offer. So in that sense it's our offspring.

I remember playing "Asteroids" as a child whenever I could in a nearby market. It was a physics class well before I hit high school, judging x and y forces on the fly in a great space dance around the rocks of the Universe. Games were younger then. So young and innocent. "Asteroids" was set up near the door, as games usually seem to be. Maybe that's where they were because the owners wanted them visible immediately. Maybe they were there so that they were separated from the "real" business of the store. Maybe "Pong" just wasn't supposed to create a traffic jam in between the dried rice and breakfast cereals.

There was also a game at the local laundrotmat, the name of which I still don't remember. (After writing this, I was happily informed that it's called "Rock 'n' Rope") I was a mountain climber, and I shot grappling hooks from one side of the screen to the other trying to reach some kind of bird at the top. There were monsters at every ledge. They shook the cables when I was on them. I had to stop when they did, and hope the cables didn't break. The game had my imagination by the throat. Something similar, if not the same, seems, from the description, to be out on a Konami classics CD for the Playstation.

But I digress.

I felt like talking about my spin on the growing importance of violence in video games. The adolescence of video games brings this on. Puberty, if you will. Our child has too much power now to be an innocuous sideshow in a supermarket. "Mortal Kombat" is too much for shopping housewives.

"Asteroids" doesn't have much in its form beyond some connected lines representing an almost abstract intergalactic destruction. I don't imagine that anyone worried, when they walked into the market looking for the golden peanut butter, about how the depiction of an occupied spacecraft being destroyed by rocks of a fearful size was too greusome and needed censorship. If we imagine that, graphics aside, there's a person in that little wire-frame ship screaming in agony when you clumsily guide him into the nearest hurtling rock, it's still not an image conjured up by the disinterested passerby. You have to work to imagine that buried reality.

And the disinterested passerby may gladly admit that brain power was better spent on something different... perhaps which brand of baking powder was the bigger value, or whether the generic ibuprofin was really as good as Advil. So the bulk of the danger in games when they were young may have been in how people who played didn't want to do anything else, how they forgot about their homework, zoned out; not in the images they portrayed and how that could seep into reality.

In a way, those were the days. The lost innocence of youth. Games took up time, and people complained a little, but the connection to reality was tenuous. Shaking me from my grappling hook in that climbing game seemed about as tragic as an eviction in Monopoly. Maybe that was one of the problems as well as one of the benefits. It was an escape from reality, not a terrifying version of it like we might find in "Carmageddon". But now that we have systems like the Dreamcast (almost), the realism of fleshed-out designer mainstays can start to look like a terrifying and vulgar reality, rather than an abstract time-waster. It's leaving it's childhood home. It's intruding on reality. Call to mind "Kingpin".

What do we get now, with the Dreamcast? We have the capacity for games that are easily mistaken for reality. Even the Saturn and Playstation could do it on occasion. I remember having an aunt walk into the house when I was playing "International Track and Field" once. I saw her later, and when she began with the chit-chat, she mentioned the sporting event I'd been watching earlier. Go figure.

"NFL 2000" looked nearly photo-realistic when I saw videos filter down from the E3 and into the Net. And the console market is bigger than the PC market, more mainstream, closer to reality, because unlike the PC, it's a living room passtime. The world of the PC is further from the core of a family, where the living room may be more of a sanctuary. Seeing near photo-realistic imagery in that so-called place of living (unlike straight television, which isn't controlled), could easily be much more disturbing to a parent that's worried about having to release her child into the big bad world of reality every day. Maybe video games as an escape from reality were better. If video games can now be as disturbing as reality, where's the sanctuary from reality?

You have the possibility of children controlling and obliterating characters that look nearly real. And maybe in one of the few places that parents have time to be a good influence in a dangerous world.

Facial expressions are a big part of this reality. The "Emotion Engine" in the Playstation 2 accepts this as a given. I have a hard time empathizing with the blocky polygonal characters of today, with their painted and immobile faces. "Metal Gear: Solid" is great, but.... Still, it surpasses the Master System. Bodily movement is a part of this too. Characters on current systems look like a bunch of rectangles masquerading as a person, and without much practice. Games like "NFL 2000" have a close tie to this issue. Clarity alone wouldn't be enough if the animation were only as detailed as the latest "Gameday". In "NFL 2000", the characters won't just be as clear as people, they might move like them, too. My mountain climber didn't look real

A facial expression or a tiny twitch in the body can make a beautiful human moment. As an example, I'll mention the film "Liar Liar". In general I wish that movie hadn't tried to touch touching. But the face, body, and voice of the judge near the end of the film when he said "I see...." in response to the fact that there would be a custody battle, was genuinely moving. If I shut the movie off then, I can almost forget the sugar that comes after. If such a moment were in an interactive world of Playstation-quality visuals, much of the power would've been inevitably lost. The Dreamcast might do it.

And with games, often so intent on destruction, the capacity to build "real" people with as powerful a face and body as that judge will necessarily bring the capacity to destroy "real" people. No more imaginary space men in wire-frame space ships that only the fascinated gamer would bother to picture. A cornered enemy in a first person shooter can give you the most human look of fear, and then have the face that made it splattered all over the wall. By you. It should happen. Or could. Couple this with what the Game Boy Camera can do for enemies in "Perfect Dark" and it's easy to see how more people could get close to killing those that anger them. Maybe at times that could be a healthy venting. I don't know.

Again, this could be good... sometimes. Like I said, "a healthy venting"? A "reality simulator" could be used for good or ill. Just as easily as someone could destroy a character that seemed strikingly real, that same player could see the look of fear in a cornered foe and realize a way to have unforced sympathy for a kind of human pain. And maybe he or she could have an epiphany about the human condition. Maybe the player could spare the enemy.

I mentioned that anything from the greatest good to the worst evil could be done. That's with anything, not just a video game-like reality simulator. There's a spectrum between them. Spectrums are everywhere. More power broadens the available spectrum of good and bad, distances the two extremes. The arrival of the Dreamcast means we have a great big spectrum now.

Two examples for a good/bad spectrum, influenced by power: Hitler may not have been as "evil" as some. But the ability that the power he had gave to him made him stand out more than any hellish recluse. Someone who doesn't have the charisma to lead a country, even though he may want to kill billions, won't make a huge mark. Infinite unknown evil that doesn't kill billions won't be remembered or matter as much as Hitler did. And Anthony Hopkins may not be as "good" an actor as some. Maybe those with more talent will be undiscovered forever. Maybe they never get lucky enough to hit it big. Maybe they don't have the political talent necessary to get ones self to a place where acting talent can be fully utilized. Maybe they'd rather be game designers. But if they don't get a break and gain some acting power, their talent will never show to any but their closest friends.

My point is that the power of the Dreamcast means that if bad has been done by games in the past, greater bad is now possible. If good has been done by games, more good is now possible. A better "murder simulator" can be programed, a bigger artistic epiphany can be programed.

The Dreamcast has power. Not ultimate power, but a great deal of power none-the-less. Enough to get "close enough" to reality in many regards. The limits of reality in games will no longer be near the grainy yet somehow grand compromise that constituted "Metal Gear Solid". Only the sound and voice acting in that had no obvious technical boundaries.

The rest of the boundaries are fading now. I should mention the FMV or CG cut scenes that can come on any CD system. Those mimic, and even out-pace the movies, quite well, as I mentioned a few weeks ago. Any camera movement and set is possible with animation. Yet they remain frustratingly non-interactive. Sometimes spectacular non-interactivity is what I want, but I'm not writing this piece for a film site. And the Dreamcast can do near-CG quality real-time interactivity.

So yet again I say "Long live the Dreamcast". My love makes me feel like a parent of it, too. I hope it grows up well.

You may contact Amos, he would love to hear your comments and opinions.

Visit Amos' Website: Sega Web


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