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

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