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'Beyond the Technological Summit'

by Ben Parfitt on April 25, 2004 @ 2:42 p.m. PDT

Excitement spread around the office as, shock horror, another screenshot for Halo 2 was released on the net. Not that the screenshot showed us anything new, of course, merely more of the same. In fact, for all intents and purposes it could have been a shot from the original Halo. I couldn’t help but wonder, as I sat there engulfed by the surrounding euphoria, whether there would be the same level of excitement if an example of a new sound effect from the game had been released onto the web?

Of course the answer is no. We live in a visually obsessed society. Every moment of every day we’re bombarded with visual imagery. We’re obsessed with how we look, and this is partly due to the fact that every day we see hundreds of images telling us how good other people look. It’s only natural that in turn gamers then become obsessed with how games look. Of course, many games are critically acclaimed for their audio prowess. I’ll never forget the auditory impact Tomb Raider had on me when I climbed a ledge to be greeted by a room built of skulls and a haunting church-choir soundtrack.

Currently games only communicate to us through three of our five senses – sight, sound and touch. But game music is generally little more than icing on the cake and aside from in rhythm action titles, music is rarely an important enough factor to make or break a game. This just proves the importance of visuals in the world of gaming, especially when you consider that the use of touch is still yet to extend beyond the vibrating of the joypad or the feel of a dance mat beneath our feet.

Seeing as games have been able to replicate CD quality sounds ever since, well, they started to come on CD’s, the first thing that new games are judged on are their visuals. It’s no coincidence then that when producing a new game, developers strive above all else to make a huge visual impact. Take for instance all of the hype surrounding Guerrilla’s PS2 FPS, Killzone. Every new (grey) screen is greeted with a suitable chorus of “ooohs” and “aaahs”, every analysis wondering at the amount of visual juice Guerrilla are able to squeeze out of the aging PS2.

This has been the situation for years in the games industry. Each step in gaming technology is marked by the visual progression of the games on display. As we approach the dawn of the third generation of 3D gaming all of the talk surrounds the closing of the gap that separates CGI graphics as seen in movies such as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within from the in game graphics we know today. Once this quality of visuals is achieved we’ll begin to rave about the next generation of machines that will offer visuals that will be almost indistinguishable from the real world. After that, we’ll probably be looking forward to visuals that far exceed the quality that we’ve become accustomed to in everyday life!

Still though, even if you take into account the fact that as the power of gaming consoles increases, so does the ability of developers to program for them, there must still be a finite limit to what can be achieved. Imagine a theoretical games developer. Any company at any given time can only afford to employ a certain number of people, and these employees can therefore only work a limited number of hours. Therefore, any game can only have a limited number of man-hours devoted to it. It’s also logical to assume that at some stage the point will come when the computing power available to developers is so vast that it will exceed the limits that any one group of developers will be able to utilise within the timeframes imposed by publishers and developers. When this stage comes, how then will developers strive to push the gaming industry forward? With totally realistic visuals a reality, and the number of polygons available actually exceeding the amount required by any one game, surely the industry’s focus will be at last forcibly shifted from the insatiable quest for prettier imagery.

Will this then finally be the point when games recognise what is unquestionably their full potential? Art and entertainment come in many guises, but what separates gaming from other forms is the intrinsic element of interactivity. With the engagement of the user an integral part of the gaming experience, does this surely not present the games designer with a unique opportunity, and indeed, possibly a unique responsibility? If you watch an action movie and see the “hero” single handedly slaughter a whole battalion of “bad guys” you are never more than the passive observer and you remain constantly free to either approve or condemn the actions which you are observing. When, however, you play a game like Metal Gear Solid, it is an inescapable truth that any death in the game is a result of the player’s actions, the player’s decisions, since it is of course possible to complete the game without any fatalities. What moral implications does this have?

Following this logic, it is reasonable to imply that games offer a unique opportunity to engage with the consumer in a way that few, if any, other forms of entertainment and/or art are able. Can this opportunity not conceivably be also seen as an obligation? Even if this is not the case, then it is surely apparent that the potential exists to titillate the gamer beyond the confines of shooting people, driving fast cars or sneaking about in darkened alleyways? Every now and then we do see games that emerge which challenge the boundaries that we’ve grown accustomed to in gaming, but rarely are these titles a commercial success. And considering the stage of maturity that gaming is currently in (which can probably be likened to late infancy, or early adolescence), anything that is not commercially viable is unlikely to get produced. But in time, and once the technological developments that are needed are met, perhaps the new frontiers of gaming will mean that such innovation becomes a necessity rather than a luxury.

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