Friday, January 2, 2015

The (Far) Future of Video Games

From Johnny Greek
In 2010 Roger Ebert dismissed video games as a form of art--his arguments are that if you use a decent definition of "art" then video games fail (to at least some degree) to satisfy them because they are, well, games. In his essay (and The Omnivore is a big fan of Ebert--even if he was, well, wrong here) he discusses a TED talk given by Kellee Santiago where she argues that (a) video games are already art and (b) that they are at the level of (kinda) cave art.
One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.
This is interesting because it is the same conclusion that The Omnivore came to before he looked up Ebert's essay (which he only vaguely recalled). It's interesting because it echoes some of the arguments around #GamerGate (as to whether games like Gone Home or The Stanley Parable) are actually games or not and whether there are some kinds of tabletop roleplaying games that shouldn't be called roleplaying games (The Omnivore is intimately familiar with all of these arguments).

What The Omnivore wants to talk about here is this: If video games can be art (spoiler: they can!) is there a video game we'll still be playing in 50 or even 100 years?

Let's Get This Out Of The Way First
In case anyone is keeping score:
  1. Almost all of these "non games" are actually games. Anyone claiming otherwise is trying to sell you something (probably their ideology). It's fine to have different categorizations of games to facilitate clear discussions. It's fine to have a depth of descriptors for games to help express preferences. If you are trying to exclude The Stanley Parable from the realm of "video games," though, you're carrying water for an ideological position that can't hold it and doesn't warrant it. Here's a pretty good YouTube video that covers some of the main non-game positions.
  2. Video games can be art (sorry, Ebert). There are all kinds of definitions of art--but if you accept the creation of works of great beauty? We're there (Minecraft). Creations designed to make statements on the human experience? Done (Papers Please). Works designed to stir the emotions or uplift the soul? Okay (Gone Home).
There are, of course, plenty of philosophical tools one might use to try to "split the baby"--but even Ebert's charges (that video games are comparatively primitive placed against early cinema and that you, well, play them) are more additive than exclusionary (does playing art make it not art?).

So, there you go. If it quacks like a game, it's a game. If it quacks your emotions like art does? It's art.

So, What's the 'Michelangelo' Of Video Games?
That's what got The Omnivore started: what video game will we be playing in 50+ years. Now, let's be clear: we still do listen to music that's over 100 years old--just not very much of it. From the era of early film? There are a few clips. In the black-and-white movie era? More of them. We read novels and watch plays that are more than a half a century old all the time (Tolkien and The Great Gatsby get the deluxe movie treatment. Brave New World was published in 1932 and is still relevant today)--so why not video games?

If a video game says something meaningful about the human experience ... wouldn't we still want to experience that in five decades? Or ... are video games different?

I've Seen The Future, Brother, It Is Murder
Tributes to Leonard Cohen aside, it's possible the answer is either "no, we wouldn't" or "maybe--but we might not be able to." These positions are both worth a moment of consideration. We are at a technological level of advancement today wherein a century of progress could fundamentally change us. For example, in 100 years our native reflexes and pattern recognition might make an un-accelerated version of Pac Man meaningless. The "human condition" might change.

Even without a traumatic singularity event, though, we should remember that the ability to play some of these games is fading. Today you can get abandonware--but running it is often difficult for an ordinary person. Playing games with emulation--and without the original controls--can be a negative experience. If serious work is not done to keep backwards compatibility, much of today's material might be largely inaccessible in a century.

Still, the trends are against both of these: there seems to be a prevasive interest in preserving today's electronic environment (Internet archives, emulation, and so on). While, yeah, we might all trans-human ourselves and our minds or lose the ability to read today's game's code ... there's no reason to think it's likely.

What Will Video Games Be Like In 50 or 100 Years, Anyway?
Assuming no humanity-class singularity, if we kinda extrapolate from what we have today and assume some of those progress curves flatten out what might people "like us" be playing in 100 years? The answer seems pretty straightforward: near-perfect virtual-reality simulations. While there are some, erm, issues (how to produce sensations beyond the 5 senses without being surgically invasive?), with 100 years of work we should be able to generalize most sensory input at a "real life" level of fidelity.

Of course 100 years is fantasy land. What about thirty or fifty years? What might today's games be up against then? How would today's games compare?

Firstly, most evolutionary improvements in video games are, The Omnivore thinks, kind of like video phones were in the 70's: Everyone thinks they want them--but when they actually get them, it turns out that, except for the grandparents with the grandkids (if you wonder why Skype's UI is so horrible, look no further than the primary user-base), we don't want people looking at us in our home. And voice mail? The Omnivore will cut you if you leave him a voice-message.

Similarly, big advances along some of the obvious axis's for video games might not pay off all that well. For example: 

Immersive Sensory: In 100 years we might get full "Dream State"--but in thirty years? In 10 years we'll have super-sweet Oculus style audio-visual headsets (and probably most of us will want that sometime--with a proximity sensor so if you are doing porno you'll know if someone walks in)--but what about, say, electrically stimulated touch. Wouldn't that be cool? You get shot in the game, you feel a little twinge in your chest?

Ehhh ... maybe. If it involved wearing a full body-suit, The Omnivore is pretty sure no one would do it outside of the aforementioned porno uses. But even if it was a clean "touch-emitter cannon" you just pointed at yourself, The Omnivore thinks that the improvement over today would be minimal. Dying at the hands of alien invaders is annoying enough without a little "shock" added to it.

Super Real Virtual Environments: Some games already look frighteningly realistic and some in the industry think that realistic facial expressions will be available in 10 years--but The Omnivore isn't sold on full-out "reality" as something we'll all have for everything. Yes: some games will look much, much better than today. However, there are plenty of games, today, that look exactly like they're intended to--and don't look super real (Kentucky Route Zero, for example).

Even games that are supposed to have very realistic environments would not necessarily be improved by extreme real-level detail. Imagine a haunted house exploration game where you can read every (boring) book on the dusty book-shelf. Would that be a real improvement? It'd be more realistic--but if that took the design team even a day to import the various books ... would it be worthwhile? A good use of time? Probably not.

Simulated AI: In 30 years we will be able to  create AI's that, in the context of a video game (a villager, an orc, a dragon, an alien), will be able to "pass a Turing Test." This will not be an improvement. Firstly, most of us don't have time to, for example, ask villager-NPCs about their childhoods. Secondly, most of us don't want our enemies to suffer realistically. Finally, extremely smart opposition is, with rare exceptions, indistinguishable from just much, much tougher enemies. Often the net result is the same (granted: really stupid enemies are problematic--but once we have reached a certain level of reasonable behavior that is not identical every time the enemy is encountered or the scene is replayed, we're probably at the point of diminishing returns).

What The Omnivore is saying is that most "linear" increases in capability are approximating diminishing returns right now. 

Of course, there will be other non-linear increases that will be new. The ability of lay-people to create what, today, would be a Triple-A game title just by working with AI tools, for example, would let all kinds of people create video games in a way that would expand the field beyond all measure. Games with extremely personalizabe experiences generated by highly sophisticated emergent-behavior algorithms could do things that would chill and amaze us (imagine a survival horror game that takes place with YOU as the main character ... in your house).

New art-forms will emerge from augmented reality and lateral-thinking applications of existing capabilities that will excite us.

The Games That'll Hang On
If we are going to play a game fifty years after it has been released it has to give us something timeless. This lets out any game that trades on new technology or being cutting-edge. Games that survive for five decades (or more) will do so because:

  1. They are considered classic. If, indeed, video games are an "art form" there will be a substantial--if minority--of people interested in "the classics." This is distinguished from absolute uber-nerds who are simply stuck in the past--but may include some of the people interested in the movie King of Kong for reasons other than gawking. It's not inconceivable that something that came out today might still be worth a play to a person with a mature interest in the history of the art.
  2. They have timeless characters. Darth Vader and Han Solo have held up for 30+ years as compelling characters. Harry Potter will still probably command mind-share 3-5 decades out for its target market. Do we see any games today like that?
  3. They have timeless story or presentation. The Wizard of Oz will always be the first movie to go from black-and-white to color. The beautiful animation of the Disney classics won't age--it's art. Even Toy Story that did show us something new (or Jurassic Park) will have some staying power because their stories are strong--and their presentation is artful (Jurassic Park's dinosaurs will likely look realistic enough to be awe-inspiring even after the technology seen in the film seems horribly dated). Are there any current games in that category?
What Are The Video Game Classics?
While props for the "first" video game go back to 1947 (a cathode ray device), Pong came out in 1972. That's more than 40 years ago. However, from PC Magazines top 10 Most Influential Games of all time, we have:
  • Pac Man (1980)
  • Super Mario Bros 1986 (IGN puts it at 1985)
  • Wolfenstein 3D (1992)
  • Metal Gear Solid (1998)
  • Grand Theft Auto III (2001)
  • Space Invaders (1978)
  • Ultima (1980)
  • Dune II (1992)
  • Super Mario 64 (1996)
  • Half Life (1998)
The Omnivore wants to list a couple of points on the line here:
  • DOOM (1993)
  • World of Warcraft (2004)
  • Portal (2007)
In terms of classic-ness, The Omnivore thinks that since you have to remove the spectacle factor, ground-breakers like Wolfenstein 3D have to get by without trading on the "OMG" we got playing it for the first time. Remember: People still play Monopoly--but no one is wowed by it.

The candidates The Omnivore picks for being real, keep-being-played classics are:

  • Pac Man (and Donkey Kong). These seem to be good enough games that they are still being played with some regularity today. We can include Tetris in that list as well.
  • Portal. While The Omnivore is biased (and Portal will show up again), the experiential puzzles using the Portal technology may make the game good enough on its own merits aside from the wow-factor of the then-new technology. It also seems unlikely that "everyone will have a portal game out" in the future so if you like the idea, you'll need to play one of the Portal titles.

A couple of Quick Notes From This List:
There are a few takeaways from the above lists that we should keep in mind:

  • New genres of video games seem to get a defining title about once a decade. We might be seeing the emergent titles of some new genre today (the Walking Simulator?). In fifty years we could have maybe five new categories of video games.
  • It looks like each decade gets a new emergent technology (3D in the 90's, maybe ubiquitious broadband in the '00's, and mobile gaming in the 'teens?). We're likely seeing the next emergent tech in its nascent form today (the Rift and augmented reality with Google Glass).
  • Franchises can last two decades easy. Some game franchise that starts today may have title #52 in 2065.

What Are The Great Characters?
Let's see what the Internet thinks are the "greatest" video game characters of all time. Empire Online has a list of the 50 greatest video game characters. Their top spots?
  1. Gordon Freeman from Half-Life. Unfortunately, Freeman never speaks. Yes, he's a bad-ass with a crowbar and has soulful blue eyes under those geek-chic glasses--but part of his silence is so that the player can kinda be him. This is a character who works on-screen but is not a literary powerhouse.
  2. Mario from Donkey Kong in 1981. He might be the most iconic video game hero but is he any kind of great character? Again, Mario doesn't speak (especially) to the human-condition outside of, maybe, persistence.
  3. SHODAN from System Shock. At this point, though, we actually have a real character. The System Shock games were no joke (Steam keeps trying to sell The Omnivore SS 2--and, had he the time, The Omnivore would buy it). System Shock 2 is, perhaps, the first game/character combo here that might have some legs.
GamesRadar has the 100 greatest heroes. With characters like Francis (Left 4 Dead) and Duke Nukem, it's clear we're not really looking for literary merit here either. On the other hand, Max Payne shows up at #23 and got a movie (even if it was a bad one) made about him. Having played all the Max Payne games, The Omnivore is comfortable saying there is a glimmer of "human-experience" stuff to Max's story arcs. His tragic past isn't just window-dressing: he thinks he's a failure and it carries through in the tone of the game-play. On the other hand, they list Link and Freeman and Mario in their top slots so we're still in the realm of "guys whose game I liked" rather than great characters in a classic artistic sense.

We have to get to Dorkly's 20 Greatest Videogame Villains of All-Time before we hit The Omnivore's pick: GLaDOS (from Portal). Thankfully, she is #1. One of the reasons they like her is because she 'breaks up' with your character Chell in the end (when she realizes she probably can't beat you--that you actually saved her, and so on).

It's notable that the most human-interest characters on these lists are both villain AI's. When Pixar set out to make their first movie they settled on Toy Story, in part, because their technology did plastic really, really well. Maybe starting with Artificial Intelligence for the most human characters we've got is along the same lines?

How About Great Stories?
The Internet will tell you which games they think had great stories--but, again, often this is being done in the context of it was a great game! Still, it's worth a look. GamesRadar thinks the best story is Silent Hill 2, followed by Bio Shock, followed by The Walking Dead. Videogamer Network decides the best story ever is Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The Omnivore has not played Skyrim but this ... does not seem likely. On the other hand, Fallout and The Last of Us (and The Walking Dead) show up on this list too--so there's that (GameSpot's forums asks about games with "good storylines" like Skyrim, to which the next response down is "Well, if Skyrim is your standard then I guess any game with a story will make that list."). Complex thinks the #1 spot is Zelda. Sigh. What Culture goes with Silent Hill 2, The Last of Us, and then Bioshock Infinite.

These are not all bad picks. L.A. Noir and Hard Rain both show up a bunch of times--and these are closer to what some people call "video novels" (which they maybe distinguish from "video games.").

So ... are there great stories in these games? Well, Silent Hill 2's story is pretty cool--but it relies heavily on a twist ending. Bioshock Infinite will be pretty until the day it dies--and its, well, its story is interesting. It's got enough of a philosophical undertone to it that, in 50 years it might be relevant to see what we were concerned about back when it came out. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that given its state-of-the-art wow-factor as a major selling point it'll age well after 50 years.

If any great stories do exist, The Omnivore thinks they'll be found in the Walking Simulator genre--and will pick Gone Home as his standard for a game that might survive 50 years. Gone Home is topical (it deals elegantly with issues of sexuality, coming age, and so on), contained enough that it's hard to see how technical innovation could eclipse it, and literary enough that it should still be powerful so long as humans remain human. It also, and very importantly, takes place explicitly and with attention to detail, in 1995. That means that even as our computer platforms get much better, Gone Home will still look perfectly acceptable for the foreseeable future (it renders a 1995 home quite well).

Is it great? Well, it's not Moby Dick but it'll pack a punch so long as teenagers are forced to unhappily go to school. It's also short (something it shares with Portal) which is a big advantage when trying to be something that'll be played by people who'll be more interested in the narrative than the experience of trying to beat it.

So, What Are The Games?
The Omnivore thinks that right now we are kind of in the cave-painting phase of video-games-as-art--or maybe just starting to come out of it. Perhaps nothing we see today will hang on as a played game past a decade or two out--but if The Omnivore had to guess?
  • Great games. Pac Man and Tetris will probably exist on mobile devices for all time. Minesweeper might too. Minecraft doesn't need to look any better than it already does as well. These games may persist due to hitting a sweet spot of timeless perfection the same way Monopoly does.
  • Great characters. We probably don't see anything compelling enough today to ensure that the game will have cachet in fifty years. The Omnivore, however, will nominate Portal as it is short, shockingly good, and has engaging puzzles that will likely still be intellectually interesting in 50 years. Also: being inside an installation should help it age better than it might otherwise (if it were made today with all the money you could throw at it, the original Portal would probably look much the same).
  • Great stories. Likely one of the "walking simulators" or emotional gut-punch zombie games (The Last of Us?) will have a chance of surviving. The reason The Omnivore offers things like Gone Home over some of the more deluxe titles (The Last of Us) is that it has less reliance on impressing the player with its technology.

The Omnivore had a chance to review a "modern day remake" of the 1987 title Shadowgate. The orignal received very positive reviews and was considered a classic. A Kick-starter had been put together and it had been released. The new backgrounds were all original hand-painted art. The action and puzzles were similar enough to the original that a walkthrough for the original was close enough to get The Omnivore past where he got stuck. It was a competent, loving job of updating a game that had captured a reasonably sized audience a little over 20 years ago.

Unfortunately, the interface had been kept more or less 'congruent' (static pictures--but clicking would unlock animations and changes) and the Omnivore found it a somewhat clunky and frustrating experience (you can't move around to see things from a different angle--so some clicking options are very hard to discern: you kind of wind up just clicking all over the place and seeing if you get lucky). It was a very well done remake of the original--but it was not a premium experience for a gamer with no history. It was a classic that would likely only appeal to a very small hard-core Shadowgate fan community.

The Omnivore also remembers when common desktop computers caught up with the machines that rendered Myst and the company released a full-on 3D version of it. In the original Myst, although the entire game was computer rendered by the designer's servers, each screen in the game you played was static--and chosen to be a "work of art." In this case being able to move freely in the 3D world was incredibly cool--but just about every other angle than the one the creators gave you in the first title was less impressive than the original game. It got a massive tech-upgrade--but the improvement was still somewhat minimal (it had a good story and puzzle-set, though).

What is impressive in one era isn't necessarily well suited to another and video games suffer from that more than most forms of art being bound, necessarily to the technology they run on. Still, if The Omnivore is right, we should be seeing something today that will have resonance a few decades from now--maybe even five. Within the next five decades, we might even see a title that'll, somehow, be 'immortal.'

The Omnivore can't wait to play it.


  1. I wouldn't pay attention to those best-of lists if I were you. Video game journalism tends to be terrible.

    1. Well, at least highly unethical, right?

      -The Omnivore

    2. Heh.

      Not gonna lie, I had high hopes for Gamergate before I realized what they were actually about.

  2. what game icon is black dragon

  3. can I use that video game picture?

    1. Honestly, it isn't mine. I got it off Deviant Art on a Google Image search.

      -The Omnivore