Postcards From The Clipping Plane
Conveniently ignoring the serious side of videogame development
If you can keep your head and focus on your short-term goals when all about you are losing theirs; if you can retain a sense of the overall direction in which you wish to travel while doing the above, it doesn’t automatically make you a man, my son, but it does mean you’re capable of telescoping.
Telescoping is when you solve immediate problems in order to progress to a defined goal. Pretty much every game does it, and apparently it’s a skill which the youth of today have mastered because they all play games.
I’ve done my fair share of work on education software, and although it’s hugely worthy and well-meaning, what it tends to amount to is a load of curriculum which you click through. If you’re lucky, it’s animated and you might even get to interact with it. But frankly it’s a school lesson on a screen. What is more interesting to me is how gaming affects us, and what, as developers, we can do with this information.
Another example is pattern recognition. Sit any gamer in front of a title they haven’t played, and one of the first things they’ll do is subconsciously categorise what they’re looking at. After blowing up two crates, they’ll know that you can blow up crates. Oil drums are inert, so they’ll stop trying to shoot those. It’s a very quick and instinctive process, and it relies on the fact that we ‘know’ how games work and can make general assumptions about them which usually prove to be correct. If, in a game, you can’t hit someone with a stick, you’ll treat that as a universal truth because the game doesn’t let you even try. In real life, hitting someone with a 14-foot branch is practically impossible, but, even after trying and failing, you’d happily pick up a four-foot one and hit someone with it. Especially if it was Mr Bowen across the road, with his stupid caravan.
What I love about getting immersed in a game is how, so long as it conforms to its own rules, those rules can be as odd as you like. Eating whole roast chickens can instantly prevent one from bleeding out after being shot, for example, while drifting the back end of your vehicle out will definitely make you go twice as fast. Imagine a game where, after being shot, your body went into shock and food was the last thing on your mind. If for some reason you did eat, you were immediately sick because of the trauma you’d just suffered. It’d be realistic, but probably not add a great deal to the gameplay. But it’d only take trying this twice and you’d know it’s not something the game wants you to do.
It’s odd how much satisfaction you can achieve from working out such rules and applying them. If every third roast chicken was edible and restored health, we’d keep count and use that information quite happily. However, if about half were, and it was random whether you’d get one you could eat, it’d be very irritating, and even when you got what you wanted, there would be no joy in it. The trouble with randomness in games is that I, personally, as a player, don’t trust it. I know that it’s all pseudo-random; I know that true randomness isn’t possible. That’s not what I mean. I mean that I always, deep down, suspect the game to be cheating.
When I’m bored I sometimes play a tiny Risk-type game on my tablet. Every time I do, though, there’s a point at which I’m convinced that the dice the AI is rolling is skewed to help them. They just get the rolls they need in the nick of time too often. I feel like I sometimes do, but they always do. I’m aware that actually altering the dice rolls in favour of the AI player is not only possible but extremely easy, but deep down I don’t believe that’s actually happening – I think it’s confirmation bias. I remember with pain every time the enemy lucks out on a roll and defeats me, but I don’t remember all the times I crush him by rolling higher numbers myself. It doesn’t matter, though. I still think they’re cheating. They’re breaking the rules and I am angry.
The other one is fog of war. When playing against a computer, I will always disable fog of war – not to make the game easier, but simply because I can’t dislodge from my head the notion that the computer doesn’t ever adhere to fog of war. It can’t: by default, it knows where everything is. Turning the computer setting to fog of war is, in my book, like telling a human chess opponent to pretend he can’t see my rooks.
So I’m not saying I don’t trust computers. I’m saying I don’t trust programmers. But thanks to my telescoping skills, I can work with them on a daily basis while keeping a clear view of my long-term goal to run a polecat sanctuary in Devon.
Turning the computer setting to fog of war is like telling a human chess opponent to pretend he can’t see my rooks
James Leach is a BAFTA Award-winning freelance writer whose work features in games and on television and radio