Big Pic­ture Mode

In­dus­try is­sues given the widescreen treat­ment

EDGE - - SECTIONS - NATHAN BROWN Nathan Brown is Edge’s deputy ed­i­tor. Last week he found a shard of bread­stick in his jacket pocket. RNG!

Nathan Brown on bad baby de­sign and the RNG of real life

A few months af­ter my son was born I re­mem­ber hold­ing him and think­ing: ‘This thing is ter­ri­bly de­signed’

As a par­ent, it’s in­evitable that some­one will ask you for ad­vice on their own im­pend­ing par­ent­hood. But even now, with my son clos­ing in on his third birth­day, I’m still not sure what to say. I re­mem­ber ask­ing the same ques­tion and peo­ple would tell me to en­joy it, which at the time felt re­as­sur­ing but now, with the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, seems like a thor­oughly cruel joke.

In­stead, lever­ag­ing my ex­pe­ri­ence of sit­ting across ta­bles from videogame de­vel­op­ers who have just been asked some­thing they’d rather not an­swer, I choose to re­frame the ques­tion. Do I have any ad­vice? Well (quick, awk­ward glance to PR rep), we’re not talk­ing about that just yet – please look for­ward to Gamescom. Steve, it’s Gamescom for that, right? Per­haps we can email some­thing over nearer the time.

So per­haps I can’t give the hy­po­thet­i­cal new par­ent any ad­vice as such. But I can tell them the one thing that’s caught me most by sur­prise, that I was least pre­pared for: how ran­dom the whole thing is. As my son gets older, his cog­ni­tion and co­or­di­na­tion im­proves, and his tantrums be­come less fre­quent, and shorter. That should make things eas­ier, but I’m not sure it does; at least when he was hav­ing a meltdown ev­ery five min­utes about ev­ery lit­tle thing, I was pre­pared for it. Now they come from any­where, for no rea­son. This morn­ing it was socks; yes­ter­day it was parsnips (‘But you

loved parsnips last week!’); one day a few weeks back he got so an­gry about be­ing pre­sented with a bro­ken bread­stick that he clenched his fists and shook them, for­get­ting he was ac­tu­ally hold­ing a piece of bread­stick in each hand. Amus­ing, yes, but also quite un­nec­es­sary, and thor­oughly un­fore­seen. Later that evening I found a piece of bread­stick in my sock.

This ran­dom­ness is the bane of my bloody ex­is­tence at the mo­ment. Yet when the boy goes to bed, the house falls silent and what passes for nor­mal­ity these days re­sumes, ran­dom­ness is pre­cisely what I crave. Part of the rea­son I’ve found the un­pre­dictabil­ity of par­ent­ing so dif­fi­cult, I think, is a life­time play­ing videogames. A few months af­ter my son was born I re­mem­ber com­plain­ing about pre­cisely this prob­lem. I would be hold­ing this scream­ing thing that couldn’t even hold its own head up straight and think to my­self: ‘This thing is ter­ri­bly de­signed. It needed another six months in the oven, min­i­mum. ’

As play­ers, we ex­pect lin­ear pro­gres­sion; that things, once learned, are never for­got­ten. Once you spend a skill point on un­lim­ited sprint, you do not ex­pect to find your avatar pulling up and lean­ing against a lamp­post to catch their breath. Yet within that con­text a lit­tle ran­dom­ness can work won­ders, whether it’s sub­vert­ing our ex­pec­ta­tions – some lit­tle mo­ment of emer­gent magic in an open-world game, per­haps – or even defin­ing the game as a whole, as in my two long-stand­ing obsessions, Puz­zle & Dragons and Des­tiny. Take away the ran­dom el­e­ment of these games’ core sys­tems and you are left with, re­spec­tively, a novel spin on the match-three puz­zler and a new Halo game with su­per moves, 27 kinds of grenade, and a re­ally bad story. So I spend the day wish­ing life would set­tle back into a nice, pre­dictable rhythm, and my evenings play­ing things that are shot through with so much ran­dom­ness that I can get just as frus­trated play­ing them as I do when my tod­dler has a meltdown about bagels in the bak­ery aisle.

There are a few pos­si­ble rea­sons be­hind this, I think. For one, I have an ad­dic­tive per­son­al­ity, and used to like fruit ma­chines a bit when I was young and stupid, so the ran­dom wheel­spin of a loot drop has an ob­vi­ous ap­peal. My mis­spent youth also taught me that life’s lows re­ally help you ap­pre­ci­ate the highs; that the Mon­day morn­ings give mean­ing to the Fri­day nights, that the 300 times you don’t get Gjal­larhorn make it all the sweeter when it fi­nally shows up. And ob­vi­ously there’s the fact that ran­dom­ness is just a very use­ful tool in game de­sign, es­pe­cially in games that want a big base of reg­u­lar, en­gaged play­ers, but don’t have enough raw con­tent to sup­port one.

Could it be that I like this par­ent­ing lark more than I’ve let on? That ac­tu­ally the wrong-kind-of-bagel freak­out makes the weekly shop more fun? That the fuck­parsnips meltdown makes us more cre­ative with what we cook? And that the socks thing… well, no, the socks thing is just in­fu­ri­at­ing. Damn it. For a minute there, I re­ally thought I might be onto some­thing.

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