Dif­fi­culty iculty Switch

Ian Bo­gos­tost on the in­her­ent ab­sur­dity y of physics in games

EDGE - - SECTIONS - IAN BO­GOST Ian Bo­gost is an au­thor and game de­signer. His award­win­ning A Slow Year is avail­able at www.bit.ly/1eQalad

We like to fool our­selves that our games are re­al­is­tic, but re­ally they are far from it. Physics in par­tic­u­lar has long been a part of games, and the sim­u­la­tion of the phys­i­cal world, ei­ther in ab­strac­tion for en­ter­tain­ment or with ac­cu­racy for sci­en­tific or train­ing pur­poses, re­mains a cor­ner­stone of cre­at­ing and op­er­at­ing them. Mod­ern game en­gines all pro­vide some ver­sion of phys­i­cal sim­u­la­tion, but physics means some­thing quite par­tic­u­lar in the con­text of games.

Of­ten, physics is a spe­cial ef­fect, as in the case of par­ti­cle sys­tems. This graph­ics tech­nique uses a large num­ber of small visual el­e­ments in or­der to sim­u­late the ap­pear­ance of a larger phe­nom­e­non, such as fire, smoke, clouds, fog, dust and so forth. Given mod­ern 3D games’ pen­chant for both dark, brood­ing en­vi­ron­ments and fiery ex­plo­sions, this kind of phys­i­cal sim­u­la­tion is far more rel­e­vant in a game than it might be in a more or­di­nary sce­nario, such as an op­er­at­ing room.

Un­like par­ti­cle sys­tems, rigid- and soft­body physics ap­plies to almost ev­ery­thing we en­counter in the or­di­nary world: your feet against a foot­ball; your tyres in con­tact with the pave­ment; a scalpel sev­er­ing the flesh of a pa­tient on the op­er­at­ing ta­ble; a dish plung­ing into the soapy wa­ter in a kitchen sink. In our or­di­nary lives, th­ese dy­nam­ics are nested and com­plex, such that in­tu­ition and ex­pe­ri­ence make it dif­fi­cult to fully char­ac­terise all the fac­tors at play in a par­tic­u­lar phys­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence.

Even with far greater pro­cess­ing power than is cur­rently avail­able, games couldn’t pos­si­bly hope to recre­ate the en­tire world at the most gran­u­lar phys­i­cal level in real time. And so they ab­stract. A ve­hi­cle’s weight and force and lift stand in for its over­all per­for­mance. A ball or pro­jec­tile’s tra­jec­tory is damp­ened by an ab­strac­tion of its in-flight al­ter­ations thanks to wind or its drag once it is de­posited on grass or snow. The re­sult is that dis­tinc­tive feel­ing of ‘game physics’ we have come to know so well. It helps us

We are al­ways flop­ping our way to­ward vic­tory in games, even those that re­ject the stu­pid­ity of such floun­der­ing

dis­tin­guish one ve­hi­cle from another in

Watch Dogs. It of­fers some­thing re­sem­bling the phys­i­cal sen­sa­tion of walk­ing waist-deep in wa­ter or sludge in The Last Of Us. And, of course, it af­fords the plea­sure and con­fu­sion of the phys­i­cal col­li­sion, in­ter­ac­tion and de­struc­tion of ob­jects in the likes of Half-Life or Un­real. Here, physics be­comes re­al­is­tic enough that it in­duces awe.

Then a game like Sur­geon Sim­u­la­tor steps in to throw things asun­der – lit­er­ally. For the same phys­i­cal as­sump­tions that make it pos­si­ble to ex­plode walls and knock crates off ledges also make the or­di­nary, every­day ex­pe­ri­ence of the phys­i­cal world in games pre­pos­ter­ous and ab­surd. In most games, the small-scale ob­jects that fill desks and cab­i­nets are locked in place, ac­cessed by a but­ton press or else rep­re­sented as tex­tured ob­jects that re­sist in­ter­ac­tion. But th­ese are the sorts of tools that a sur­geon – that great­est of pre­ci­sion work­ers – must con­tend with at the level of in­tri­cate ac­tion.

Sur­geon Sim­u­la­tor jux­ta­poses the con­ven­tions of videogame rigid- and soft­body physics with the re­al­ity of sur­gi­cal pre­ci­sion at the level of in­di­vid­ual dig­its ac­cess­ing and ma­nip­u­lat­ing tools and tis­sues. In the PC ver­sion of the game, the mouse con­trols the vir­tual sur­geon’s hand. Hold­ing the right but­ton al­lows the player to ro­tate the hand at the wrist, and key­board presses pro­vide the abil­ity to open or close the joints of dig­its for grasp­ing and ma­nip­u­la­tion.

The re­sult is a com­i­cal send-up of the idea of game physics. In­stru­ments and can­is­ters (and, oc­ca­sion­ally, en­tire or­gans) go fly­ing about, du­ti­fully obey­ing the rigid-body physics sim­u­la­tion so common as to be deeply in­te­grated into mod­ern en­gines. The dif­fi­culty of con­trol­ling the sur­geon be­comes the point of the game rather than its fail­ure.

Sur­geon Sim­u­la­tor is a game about the lu­di­crous­ness of all phys­i­cal in­ter­ac­tions in all mod­ern videogames. After all, ev­ery game makes more or less the same as­sump­tions about the level of ab­strac­tion nec­es­sary to rep­re­sent the phys­i­cal world. Those be­come ide­ol­ogy, and we cease to think about them, even as we of­ten have the (cor­rect) sense that phys­i­cal ob­jects and sub­stances are be­ing car­i­ca­tured for our ben­e­fit.

It should make us re­alise a greater truth: we are al­ways flop­ping our way to­ward vic­tory in games, even those that re­ject the in­trin­sic hu­mour and stu­pid­ity of such floun­der­ing in favour of dark, gritty un­der­worlds in which square-jawed men fire pro­jec­tiles at walls just to see them crum­ble.

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