WATCH AS GAMES COME ALIVE
ORSON SCOTT CARD
Remember the board game called Life? You play by putting your player-figure into a little plastic car and driving along the road, randomly landing on squares that give you money, debts, babies, and disasters. Your career is generated by a throw of the dice; everybody has to get married; and at the end you win by having the most cash value or by staking everything on a throw of the dice. One last gamble.
I played it as a kid, and it was fun. But the more I repeated the game, landing on the same squares, seeing the biases and values built into it, the more frustrated I got. Why should the dice make all the decisions? Why is my "life" in this game wholly imposed upon me? Why can't I take a real part in creating it?
The answer is easy: The board can only be printed once. With a puzzle game (Scrabble, for instance) this doesn't pose a problem; the board takes on new meaning as the player adds pieces. On a story-type board game, however, the meaning is permanently affixed to each location.
With computers, the story game has been able to come into its own. One approach has been filmlike: Sierra On-Line, Lucasfilm Games, and Cinemaware have all developed movielike approaches that attempt to give the illusion of reality. With the game of Life, it would be the equivalent of having a little car that actually runs and little people that move around and talk in squeaky voices.
A lot of fun, but it still runs into that same dilemma: Coming up with scenery for movielike games is expensive in terms of disk space, and companies can't afford to include scenery that isn't used. So, while you have a lot of freedom of movement within each setting—the equivalent of having your little Life people get out of the car and run around—the game still has to force you to move through all the available locations, just like the spaces on the Life game board. The game authors know this and labor mightily to try to increase the illusion of freedom by letting you visit the locations in varying orders. But the boundaries remain firm.
There's another approach, however, that has already come a long way toward giving the player greater control of the story of the game. These are games in which players alter the board during the course of the game. The meaning of the board changes with the players' choices. Think of the developing cityscape in SimCity or the constantly changing terrain in Populous.
In fact, these are really puzzle games with an intensified story element. If we think of the movielike games as biographical, following an individual character's passage through the world, then these map-oriented games would be historical, following the flow of larger events. There's little or no individual, personal jeopardy, normally a vital part of fictional story-telling. Instead a whole city or population is at risk.
In a way, these games exactly reverse the relationship between designer and player. Where the biographical games let the player control a person moving through a fixed landscape, the historical games let the player control the landscape, while the computer controls the people who move through it. We gain freedom to control the landscape at the cost of losing individual control over the characters.
The division between these two types of games is not permanent. The biographical games will be greatly benefited by improvements in computer processors, which are finally getting fast enough that it's practical to create new locations on the fly. This way locations can be coded, not as pictures, but as descriptions, and thousands can be stored in the same disk space now used for dozens. Most locations wouldn't even be visited in the course of a game. In fact, it's conceivable that these locations could be infinite: If the program includes algorithms for creating towns or rooms, then if the player moves in an unexpected direction, a new location can be randomly created so that no matter where the player goes, there's already a place to arrive.
At the same time, the historical games are already reaching for ways to include individual characters; to have, in effect, heroes in the overall sweep of history. SimCity treats the player as an invisible mayor who has to keep his popularity ratings as high as possible, but this is pretty primitive as an individual game of Life. Populous gets somewhat closer by giving your populace a leader who can break loose and become a heroic berserker, ravaging the enemy landscape.
At the moment, we don't yet have computers that allow game authors to do it all; when we do, and we're getting close, the creative minds in both camps will be ready to seize the opportunity.
I personally enjoy each one of the approaches to gaming that I've mentioned here. They're all bearing fruit. Each of the games I've mentioned takes a step toward helping gaming to become a strong storytelling medium, one with the same delights and the same transformative powers as novels, movies, and plays.