Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The Physicality of Games

I like games about shooting. I like to run, and jump, and blow things up. I'm a fairly cerebral - some would say pretentious - type. My musical tastes are 50% chasing avant-garde newness, 50% over-thinking pop; in film, I talk about the new Coen Bros, how Where The Wild Things Are figures in the Jonze/Kaufman/Eggers canon, in a way that annoys my girlfriend.

And yet, in gaming, it's yr Halos, yr Marios, yr Grand Theft Autos that grab me. These are the videogames your parents warned you about- the ones with the explosions and childish colours and dinosaurs and mindless killings. As this blog attests, I like the more thinky games too - Bioshock, say, or indie games - and I definitely like to over-think games. But those games, almost without exception, are the ones where I get to do physical things. Shooters, platformers, action games...

For me, gaming is that physicality. It's fair to say that I am: fairly chubby, non-athletic, completely lacking in any hand-coordination beyond the confines of my keyboard. I'm not incapable of experiencing the rush of speed and activity: semi-regular biking, or my occasional attempts at fitness through running. But, by and large, I'm not regularly putting aside time for sports or major physical activity. I'm not in any Fight Clubs. In this way, I'm pretty much your average 'hardcore' gamer.My sport is Halo multiplayer, my exercise a burst of left-to-right platformer. I take out day-to-day frustration on the poor citizens of Liberty City, or the buildings of Mars, or anyone unfortunate enough to be worse than me on shooting games. I need that physicality- the Fight Club thought leads me down an entire new path of thought, where that extreme physicality - fighting strangers - is sublimated safely into the (largely) non-active pursuit of gaming.

But, my point remains: a game needs to be physical to succeed. For me, anyway. I don't mind using my brain - whether in Portal's puzzles, or deciphering the avant-garde mystery of Time Fcuk, or learning about Objectivism and Ayn Rand from Bioshock -I just want to feel engaged in that world. The world is physical, so a gameworld should be physical too.

Simple as that.* Half of the joy of New Super Mario Bros Wii is bumping into your playmates, knocking them off ledges, picking them up, helpless. Living-room griefing, hilarious because of its unpredictability, bringing together housemates in a way only a few games have. Another of these being Sumotori Dreams, the fantastic slapstick physics-based drunk-outside-a-kebab-shop fighting game.Half-Life 2 made puzzles tangible, showing how using physics to carry through a simple task made it that much more entertaining. Portal took that a step further and, beyond a few mods floating around, no-one seems to have really tried since. I know it's a tired maxim but games need to do what only games can. That's interactivity, yes, but it's also consistency, physical interaction. Remove the abstraction, and do less to distance the player.

What I'm trying to say here, really, is aimed at the world of game developers in general. Make your games physical: represent what a player can do as fully as possible, make them feel possible of anything, and you can revive dead genres. You can make slapstick funny again. You can make a player feel powerful in a way Michael Bay never could. You can make it exciting to bounce a basketball around a room, for someone who'd never actually pick up a basketball.

*It's not quite as simple as that- my love for the point-&-click adventure game disproves my point, though my lack of love for strategy games, and loathing for turn-based combat** puts us back on familiar ground. Phew.

**Further undermined by my current obsession with Solium Infernum. Balls.

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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.