Adam Martin ya_hoo_com at yahoo.com
Tue Sep 11 00:45:24 New Zealand Standard Time 2001

I just saw Existenz:


and was quite impressed. The basic premise of the plot is that you
can "plug in" to virtual reality games a la many similar takes on
the future of games/virtual worlds, and the film follows the
adventures of the world's lead game designer (Jennifer Jason Leigh)
and a tech-illiterate who doesn't even have one of the "bio-ports"
in the base of his spine which are pre-requisite for plugging into a
VR game (Jude Law).

Now, with this type of movie, it is generally accepted that the
ending will involve some kind of "But are we still in the game?" 
type question, so let's forget about that. However, what I found
particularly interesting was Jude's character, who although
(eventually, once he joins a game) enjoys the whole VR experience
quickly becomes very disturbed by his inability to differentiate
fact from fiction. It's a "This is too real; that scares me"

I'm sure this is a situation that has worried anyone who has
imagined such a future, but after thinking about it I realised you
are generally going to have a hard time finding a game which is
indistinguishable from reality; essentially because history so far
has shown that no game has achieved success by emulating reality -
only by emulating a "desirable subset" with most things
non-essential to the gameplay or plot abstracted away, and with
various conveniences added to make the game more fun. Note that a
lot of abstraction has been necessary for performance reasons, but a
generalization of the old equation "amazing graphics != great game"
seems to hold true again and again no matter how overpowered the
available hardware compared to the game complexity.

It seems to me that this is strongly related to the "Everybody wants
to be a hero" problem that faces designers of MMOGs today. There are
indeed counter examples of games that succeed precisely by emulating
reality as close as possible (Train Driver, anyone?), but the
evidence is that the majority of the market has an inherent response
of "But where's the fun in that?" - c.f.  the reaction to Sim
Earth. Despite being successor to the fantastically successful Sim
City, it bombed.

Having thought about it in relation to the film, I really can't see
Quake-VR (or whatever :) dumping things like the ability to carry 9
different weapons including rocket launchers, chainsaws etc, that if
you want to be accurate are barely feasible as luggable weapons for
a single individual. To be honest, I can't reconcile the concept of
extreme realism (i.e. down to the smallest detail) with the concepts
of "game" and "fun" that for the forseeable future seem to drive the
development of games - these seem to me to be mutually opposing aims
such that you could never have completely one without completely
sacrificing the other.

So, I'm resting happily at night, and not worrying that I'll be
charged with the title of "best games designer in the world" and
then get promptly shot in the head :) [see the film].


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