Congratulations, You are DEAD.

The level of abstraction in video games is a matter which I’ve been thinking about for a while. As stated previously, it begins with the graphics. There are two ways to do video game graphics – trying to depict nature or doing something really cool (read: abstract.) Now with abstract, I don’t necessarily mean it has to be totally nonrepresentational. Rez is a good example (as usual) – it’s not just a bunch of weird shapes that don’t make sense, but instead something you won’t find in nature in that form (of course there’s the usual worm-like enemy and things like that, but that’s beside the point.) However, I’m not only interested in graphics, but also in “abstraction” of the gameplay itself.

Take browser games like Mafia Wars on Facebook for example. The game is entirely text-based (the graphics don’t serve any function) and everything the player does all day is click on buttons which in turn usually increase numbers, like job completion ratio or amount of weapons in the inventory. This is actually a pretty boring and stupid task – yet it works and people become addicted to this dry and mathematical game. Another example where it really makes sense to use an abstract interface is Endgame: Singularity. In this game, you play an A.I. that has come to life and must hide itself from the human world to survive. With the player being a computer, it makes complete sense to only juggle numbers and textboxes around. Now this kind of abstraction existed since the early days, when computer were not powerful enough to produce meaningful images. But another kind of abstraction I find interesting is looking at the games themselves and taking apart their core. One aspect of this is the breaking up of video game conventions which have been established eons ago – or some of the more recent ones. Take Achievement Unlocked for example – a game that parodies the achievement/trophy feature a lot of new games employ. Basically every user action or in-action unlocks an achievement in the game. Just like there are many gamers who solely play games for their achievements to gain a greater gamerscore than their friends, this game is only about unlocking all of the 100 achievements it contains – but not about the platform game itself.

This is where the new download distribution model for game consoles comes in – it enables smaller studios and semi-hobbyist developers to reach a much larger audience with unusual game concepts, like in the case of the Indie Games program on the Xbox 360. There’s game available for download called The Impossible Game. The interesting thing about its gameplay is that it’s a jump & run – without the “run” part. You play a red square that automatically moves along a line and has to jump over triangles and black squares. That’s the entire game. But it really works in deconstructing the jump & run genre and showing the challenge that is at its heart – precisely timed jumps.

And then there’s the most annoying video game convention of all time – death. I was reminded of that when playing the first mode of Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2, where you have a time limit of 3 minutes to score as many points as possible. You have unlimited lives – but if you die, your enemies won’t respawn for a couple of seconds, and this will cost you dearly when it comes to scoring. So I thought to myself, the secret of this mode is “Don’t die!” However, this frustrating feature is slowly but surely crumbling away. Braid was the first game that I know of to introduce a rewind feature. If you fall into a pit, instead of respawning and using up a precious extra life, you just rewind the game to the moment just before you made the misstep.  Prince of Persia (2008) used a similar system, and even the racing game Forza Motorsport 3, where you can’t die per se, lets you rewind after a driving mistake. An extreme example is Nintendo’s Super Guide, a game mode that plays the game for your if you die too often at one place (an example of inter-passivity, where machines do the things for us we should actually be enjoying.) Of course a lot of the so-called hardcore gamers will cry out, complaining that this trend will make gaming too easy. But I think it’s actually a positive step, transforming games into something different and getting rid of the many rules that were set in stone for the past 30 years or so. Who knows what this will lead to – and the oldschool games we grew up with will always be there for us, in case we’re fed up with all these new play mechanics.

Turning the whole extra lives convention around, I think a game where you have to die to succeed could be interesting. It could be a platformer where all the deadly traps are covered the very last moment you try to fall to your death and you have to find a way around that. Or maybe take a conventional game, but have the protagonist die at the very end to save billions of innocent women and children by lying flat on top off an exploding hydrogen bomb. Congratulations, You are dead.

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