Thursday, 10 December 2009

And here's one I made earlier... Part II: The Creation of Worlds

When I was at school, I wasn't very good at English exams. Unlike Maths exams, the speed at which I had to write in order to complete them needed to be roughly equal to the speed I had to think. The problem was compounded by the fact that my handwriting was also required to be legible.

Anyway, there was one English exam in particular that has always haunted me. Not because it was important (although it was) but because of my complete failure to even begin the second of the two sections. Like most English exams given to children, it consisted of two sections: a short passage with comprehension questions followed by a creative writing question in which candidates are required to compose their own piece. Usually the creative writing section is similar in theme to the passage in section one. On this occasion, the first section featured an extract from the first Narnia book, in which Aslan breathes life into the world.


The entire second section read as follows:

Write about the creation of a world.

I remember reading that in the exam room, inwardly shrugging, and dejectedly pencilling in the picture of Stawberry the horse that had been photocopied onto the top of the exam paper. Somehow, writing about the creation of a world before I had even had my mid-morning Ribena was too much.

Anyway, this memory bubbles to the surface every now and again, though it happens less often now that I am out of formal education. One of my alter-egos (the bossy prefect one who insists on giving my younger sisters books for Christmas) tiptoes invisibly into the exam room, taps my eight-year-old self on the shoulder and whispers: "think about the question metafictionally. Surely any story is just a world that has been created in someone's mind. Don't you think that stories' existence within the minds of the author and the reader are really no different from our experience of our real world within our conscious?" My eight-year-old self shrugs because she knows her maths mark is pretty good and that she probably won't need to know what metafiction is for another ten years. However, I'm willing to bet that if she'd played Black & White she might have employed some lateral thinking and written something. And I mean anything, you can get marks for writing your name these days... Anyway.

Black & White is a "God" game by the makers of Fable. You are the faceless god of an island populated by various tribes. Like many games of this genre, as a deity you influence the more than you actually create, although admittedly the world's appearance and behaviour alters in response to your actions. The game's title derives from the fact that your success is not tied to your alignment. That is, if you want to rule by fear (crushing houses, demanding sacrifices etc), you can be as successful as if you assist tribespeople through divine intervention. This means that Black & White, like many so-called "God" games, could more accurately be referred to as a "Big, Faceless CEO" or "Despotic Leader" game. This doesn't mean they are not fun. The ones which embrace their rigidity and encourage you to employ a strategy in order to obtain dominion over a people, or run a successful Hospital are great fun, in the way that Monopoly is fun. If you have an aversion to capitalism, it's possible that these games aren't for you.

If I was given the Narnia exam paper today, I would write about how a young girl, eyes alight with the promise of creation bestowed up her by a video game package, fired up her shiny new copy of Black & White only to discover that the margins for creation within a digital world are painfully narrow. Disappointed, she turns to her Lego instead. Although the practical aspect of world creation is limited by the medium (primary coloured, square, full of jaundiced Vikings), she realizes that her imagination - not yet damaged by A-Levels, Neighbours and Bacardi Breezers - is capable of endowing the plastic bricks with more creative power than her computer could possibly give her pixillated tribespeople.

Now this might be being a little harsh on Black & White, which is a fine example of the genre, and provides the player with many entertaining hours of watching a civilization evolve. Except that you don't really create it, and it doesn't evolve by itself. The player is required to maintain it, as they would a needy and argumentative Bonsai tree. And it's difficult to imagine how any kind of video game creation would do otherwise. The problem is not that computers in themselves are restrictive - far from it, given that they almost every album you care to listen to of film you care to watch that was made within the last 20 years has either been created on, manipulated using or polished with a computer - but that games and the freedom needed to create do not go hand-in-hand.

Although games like Black & White and the famous Sim City are known as God Games, "God" implies an omnipotence which the player simply does not, and can never have. It's not a matter of technology not being advanced enough to allow complete freedom either, but simply that when there is complete freedom to create, a game stops being a game. If you want to create a world on a computer, get yourself some animation software, or some word processing software, or Photoshop or, erm, Microsoft Paint. None of these are games, and they all allow the user to create. A game is a game because it has rules and boundaries, and accomplishing goals within these parameters is what makes them fun.

More and more games released over the last decade have championed "user generated content", the ability for players to create their own world (within the parameters of the world) in which to play. When Tomb Raider V was released, it came with a Level Editor which enabled PC players to do just that. Tomb Raider has never been an online game, but many of these levels were uploaded by their creators for other fans to play. Though some were good, most were unintentional reminders of the reason why studios employ professional designers. The freedom given to amateur designers meant that the Level Editor was not a game, any more than Lego. There was no quantitative aspect, it was merely a toy.

Nine years later, and the release of Little Big Planet enables players to edit levels on a console and share them online. A "rating" system attempted to quantify the whole proceedings by allowing players to award stars to levels. Whilst this went some way to filtering out the truly rubbish levels (approximately 92% of submissions), the entire system was rather bogged down with the vast amounts of obscene or copyrighted content which flooded it. This problem was compounded by people awarding five stars to levels with boobies in them.

Some of the amateur Tomb Raider levels boasted pretty naughty textures but as the online sharing was both unofficial and marginal, this never posed much of a problem.

Indeed, just as in a story, character creation is best left to the professionals, so is world creaton best left to the guys who understand things like physics. And moderation. That's not to say that they shouldn't let us hold the paintbrush every now and again (just like Mummy let you use cookie-cutters on the dough so long as she was the one who actually put them in the big, hot, scary oven). Hence the joy when we are allowed to choose the wallpaper in The Sims and decorate the family home in Fable. These effect these have on gameplay are minimal - Sims might cry if they don't like the wallpaper, but we wouldn't be playing it if we weren't so sadistic - but it's nice to feel like we're contributing, even if it is just an illusion. 

In fact, the inadequacy of in-game world creation (assuming you aren't actually a video game designer) can perhaps serve as a gentle reminder to dust our imaginations down every so often and let them have a run around. Games enthrall because they allow us to explore other worlds and other people's imaginations in a way no other medium does, but they are no substitute for allowing our own minds to wander free.

*This was actually the image on the cover on my copy of The Magician's Nephew. It always disturbed me because there appears to be something mightily wrong with Polly's feet.

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