Friday, March 13, 2009

Video Games as Art 5-3: “Quantum Gaming”

I’m currently brewing some new flavor to bestow upon my “Games as Art” blogs, which are currently on hiatus. This is not the special post I alluded to in my previous DFB entry (Donkey Kong DFB continues next week). Instead, this is something that came to me in the dead of the night yesterday. I decided to manipulate some accumulated knowledge and slam it into this blog to test it out as a preview of what’s to come. It’s a sample of where I’m taking the upcoming GaA blogs, so any feedback will be appreciated (as well as any flaws or overlooking on my part).

Something that all gamers (let alone the entire human race) take for granted daily is the simple passage of time. It’s ironic because unlike a movie or a book, a game is often structured around and successfully conveying the passage of time (i.e Mario’s star power or time limit). Immediately veering off for just a second, I’d like to take your mind to the obviously inevitable question for just a second: What is it, what is time…exactly? Seriously, take your mind away from the screen and ask the question to yourself, do you have an answer? Good. I’m not asking for a definition, you can get that crap out of any well sourced material, but does the mind really wrap itself around it? There’s actually still no definitive answer over a force that’s the most constant presence in our lives (and I don’t honestly know if there ever will be but that could be my existential anarchism talking). Anyway, according to the dictionary I have on hand at the moment:

Time - [tīm]
n - (plural times)
"A system of distinguishing events: a dimension that enables two identical events occurring at the same point in space to be distinguished, measured by the interval between the events."
[Old English tīma "period of time" < Germanic, "extend"]

Digging for a while will run one into familiar names such as Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. As it stands, there still remain two divisive standpoints on the nature of time. One is known as Newtonian and the other is Relativistic. Newtonian time hinges on the concept that time itself is an absolute presence. The “now” will come to pass in this case no matter what. However, in Relativistic theories only the “observation” is absolute, which leaves time itself to bend, twist, and shift depending on the observer.

Relativistic theories is what most will probably “side with” these days (myself included), as it presents a certain “understandable complexity” for a fundamentally crippling perception of being. Newtonian absolute time and space is very cemented, and although it presents “the possibility” for something like time travel, some portions of it just seem antiquated now (from what I’ve read anyway). I’m sorry for anyone who still adheres to that theory, but I don’t take comfort in making assumptions on the universe.

Also, when delving into relativity, be prepared to be immediately hit things such as how subatomic particles move at extraordinarily high speeds (pretty much…quantum mechanics). This is where such sciences are at now, and it’s why defining time is such an enchantingly complicated issue. Even my bastardized definition above only explains the base division between Newtonian and Relativistic theories. Too many things factor into how time is simply perceived by us and it happens over the course of a few seconds so we don’t even notice (therefore stupidly taking it for granted). A muon for example, is a negatively charged subatomic particle with a half-life (time it takes a substance to lose half of it’s initial quantity) of two-millionths of a second.

Mister: “Man: Well, it's like this,…supposing I were to sit next to a pretty girl for half an hour it would seem like half a minute,—“
Einstein: “ Braffo! You haf zee ideah!”
Mister: “ But if I were to sit on a hot stove for two seconds then it would seem like two hours.”

Look familiar? Well it should, because we’ve all experienced this at some point in our lives and we’re all caught up in experiencing it now (and watching it BE experienced through others). The above quote is actually a cartoon used to illustrate Einstein’s theory of relativity in the 1930’s. This is known as the “Kappa effect” and occurs when perception is altered in some part by “spatial interference” (i.e. time appears to “drag” when we’re children and “fly” as we’re adults). Also, remember that we have to consider things such as altered states of consciousness as well (i.e. drugs, disabilities, dreams, etc.). When you consider the magnificent weight of such things, why even sit down to play a game? I’m an extremely strict “anti-escapist”, so I demand deep meaning and thought be blossomed from even the shittiest game from the‘80’s. Video-games are a medium that can uniquely capitalize on the educational, psychological, and even spiritual aspects of what time encompasses. First, let’s visit three moral/ethical dilemmas I place out for myself when involving anything of this magnitude:

Can we mess with “this”?

Yes, the time is nearly perfect to do so right now. We’re in a dark place financially, creativity is constantly being cannibalized, and the need for a new layer of ability should be seen for our medium A.S.A.P.

Should we mess with “this”?

My vote is of course, yes. I probably would have said no ten or even five years ago (hypothetically asserting my present acumen was available to me at the age of thirteen). However, a small window of opportunity has presented itself through the times and I think it’s a necessity that someone…anyone capitalizes upon it.

How do we mess with ”this”?

There are multitudes of ways that already exist and an even more startling amount that haven’t even been considered yet. I’ll try and provide some examples/samples of this in a second.

So with those subjective prerequisites out of the way, let’s talk about another two…

What is “this”?

What I’m referring to is the implementation of “what we perceive as time” to be conveyed through a game. I’m not talking Prince of Persia type stuff, that’s actually the most superficial example of what I’m proposing. For the most blatant notion of my mind-track, think along the lines of a theoretical physics model. Tools involving the “world line” and the stylizing of actual scientific constructs are more than welcome at this point. Video-games are based off code, systems which allow and permit us to operate in simulated space. Have we truly played with this notion on it’s own yet?

I think the biggest challenge is wantonly applying game mechanics to the “time concept” or vice-versa. If it’s too sticker-esque, the whole thing will come off as just another gimmick. Simple games such as Flower show potential arenas for a simple concept to flourish (no pun intended). Having a game that uses simulated subatomic particles that move in tandem with time itself automatically places an image of something in my head that most would instantly try and lump in along the lines with Braid mixed with Geometry Wars. We could also dip into the 2D platforming era if need be. From a 3D standpoint, I see this as an actual remedy to fix Sonic’s seemingly fundamental flaw in 3D space that has plagued him since Sonic Adventure. It’s not as convoluted as I’m making it out to be, but it would definitely have to be methodically and painstakingly developed.

Narrative-wise, there’s room here as well. Since The End is Nigh’s release, my disdain has been held not for the price point, but the content. I certainly don’t begrudge a competent brawler’s existence; however I do question the persistence of developers to make a game adapted from an acclaimed graphic novel that has nothing to boast about other than it’s visuals. After all the hype surrounding the recently released movie, my mind immediately wanders to Jon Osterman (Dr. Manhattan) when I hear the words “Watchmen Game”. This is not because he’s a makeshift god that can do almost anything he wants. We have enough Hulk/Superman simulators for cheaply being almighty. However, to experience time as his character did in a game would be interesting, and could possibly give the video-game industry it’s own Memento for the times. This is something I find incredibly amusing; as Dr. Manhattan is my most reviled character in the graphic novel (I simply LOATHE him).

Implementation as a sub-textual thematic is far more likely in terms of what I’m expecting though (i.e. if the real-time clock in Ocarina of Time was taken to another level). Time or it’s surrounding scientific theories have to have a flexible yet noticeable fixing over the game proper. It has to meld and twist the basic premise (which is usually strictly built presenting yet another problem). A “true” bildungsroman game doesn’t even exist yet and time would no doubt play a major role, which could be subtly toyed with by developers.

*Post-Edit* Something that L.B. Jeffries pointed out to me that I totally forgot about was The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, and I think that is an excellent example for the substextual category.

I also stated a while back that very few “space games” exist. Sure, we have a plethora that simply take place in or around space, but not much beyond mere settings. Space is in itself is a theoretical construct in which plenty of odd & beautiful things occur daily (black holes, dark matter, astrophysical phenomena, etc.) Playing with how space-time presence works is ridiculously easy…to an extent that it’s infuriating to me nobody has even earnestly tried yet. We still have fundamental problems in the game industry (camera perspective, “formulaicism”, control hiccups, etc.). This seems like a trivial worry when we consider this: The multiverse is a definite possibility, even simply though game-form (let alone it’s actual existence); when one considers what 4-D actually is, clarity begins to come, doesn’t it? We’re spoiled by a natural privilege, and artistic mediums are perfect for showing us when and how we take those privileges for granted. I cordially bow for a video-game to do this.

When will we see “this”?

Huh? In some senses…we just “saw it”. Seriously though, I think if that if something…anything doesn’t remotely scrape an area such as this within the next fifteen years, it will be “lost” from a creative standpoint. It won’t be destroyed per se, but its ability to shift the movement of the industry on a fundamental and radically intrinsic level will be lost. The good news is that I actually think the ground is fertile for this, so the likely chances for it to pop up will at least reach a sort of critical mass for itself over the coming years. As always, I’ll insert my now-staple closing here: If no one else does, I’ll design it myself.