Crispy Gamer

Capturing Perception

I think it's safe to say that in the next few years we're not likely to see a great change in the way games represent conscious actions. Everyone knows how to run, jump and shoot in a game; these mechanics are well established and may be tweaked here and there, but not rewritten. Each does a good job of translating player motions into the interaction between characters and the world around them.

(Note: This is not to say that developers should not reinvent these mechanics, only that they are unlikely to do so.)

There is still a frontier in the realm of representing intuitive action and unconscious perception. As games proffer more sophisticated narratives that require more than casual observation from the in-game characters and players controlling them, they are also getting better at representing the much more interesting aspects of being human -- like how we move unconsciously through space, how we read the intent of people around us, and how we register easy-to-miss but important actions that have big effects.

Certain mechanics have already been put in place, like small grenade pointers in action games and racing-line overlays in racing games, which represent a champion driver's understanding of braking, acceleration and the need to hug a curve. I used to see some of these as cheats. That was when games were more primitive, when everything was about timing and movement. You saw things and reacted to them, and that was the game. Pointers that showed nearby, off-screen enemies then seemed like a workaround that subverted the skill set the game was meant to exercise. There wasn't any question of modeling perception. A racing line, for example, was something designed explicitly for the player to see, rather than a representation of something the player's character would see.

But as games grew more complex, we needed play mechanics that were more imaginative than rigid. A few games turned interface breakthroughs into industry standards. In Metal Gear Solid, the indication that enemies are on heightened alert is the sort of perception that would be communicated in real life by a stiffening of posture or a quickness of movement -- things that might be too small to represent through animations. So the exclamation point floating above heads stands in. Still, many of these seem as if they are early drafts, compared to those games that are experimenting with devices like alternate vision modes to better represent how we would unconsciously understand who to shoot, where to drive and when to jump.

Still one of the best HUDs around, Ghost Recon gives loads of useful, intuitive info without overloading players.

There was night vision in Splinter Cell, the heartbeat sensor in Rainbow Six and the enhanced helmet cam in Ghost Recon. (Ubisoft, in fact, is pretty damn good at this sort of thing.) It comes right up to today with the night-vision/target-enhancement VISR in Halo 3: OSDT and the inter-dimensional mode in Wolfenstein.

All these tools are easy to accept because they're driven by narrative, so we accept things like satellite-enabled visor overlays as plausible devices. But what they're really doing is expanding the way players are able to perceive and interact with environments and characters around them. Most of these "powers" are actually in-game versions of things we can all do. (Cue an expansive, totally tangential essay on the relationship of super-heroism to humanity.) They help us identify enemies and remember where they are; they allow players to know when a threat like a grenade has landed nearby without having to insert, for example, an invasive audio cue that breaks the game's overall sense of immersion.

In Prototype, you're made aware on the mini-map when non-player characters are looking at you, just as most people in real life would understand that they've been checked out in a crowd. And you're alerted when some of those people peg you as a threat, just as you'd probably realize through a shift in the "feel" of a room that things had gone south. It's a crude representation, sure, not much more than a spider-sense, but it's a beginning.

Modeling vision and perception has gone a long way. But capturing the intricacies of movement hasn't. I don't want to be able to accidentally fall off a ledge in Halo 3: ODST when lining up a shot. That would never happen to a soldier like the ones in-game, not even a rookie. But it does, just as many characters in shooters get backed into corners and hung up on small obstructions that would never be an issue in real life.

Is it too much to ask that, when moving quickly, a character would run right off a ledge; but if moving slowly, it might take a deliberate double-bump on the analog stick to communicate, "Yes, I really do want to fall?" In this case, Halo may be a bad example, as everything in the game is quite obviously subverted to the needs of the multiplayer competition, where too much interface overhead is definitely a bad thing.

Tactics like alternate vision modes sometimes work too well, as the old cheats that once irritated me so. Wolfenstein's enemy-highlighting mode, justified within the story as an alternate dimension, is likely how players will see most of the game. It's an easier game using the alt-vision, so why switch back? The same issue plagues Halo 3: ODST. New Mombasa looks neat at night, but is so dark that there is zero reason, when playing the Rookie, not to remain in VISR all the time. But shouldn't there be a gameplay reward for varying your approach? It's around this time that I start to think of these enhancements as cheats again.

Neat-looking, yeah, but there's no incentive to play much of the game any other way. Eventually, it's too much.

Looking at real life, a world-class soldier is going to be able to maintain highly focused perception for a significant length of time, but not indefinitely. Add something crazy to the mix (amphetamines, say) and you get more intense concentration, but also a twitchy unreliability. So to have this limitless in-game ability to perceive everything in perfect detail all the time feels like I'm being handed a "get out of jail free" card over and over again. In a game like Ghost Recon, what are some of the most frantic, intense and fun moments? The ones where your perception is compromised.

That leads into something we haven't seen much of. Unreliability, for the most part, is MIA. Games have started to tackle the unreliable narrator from a storytelling perspective, and there are certainly game events that obscure the player's perception to the point where basic actions like movement and shooting are unadvisable. But what about a Ghost Recon-style overlay that wrongly identifies NPCs whose identities aren't confirmed? Players today can enable disguises to fool artificial-intelligence characters, but for the most part we haven't seen a lot of scenarios where that dynamic is flipped.

Maybe unreliability is too much to ask for. Games are about having more control than we normally do in life, so expecting developers to craft scenarios where we lose control is probably unrealistic. I'll be satisfied to see how developers craft new ways to show off abilities that appear to be superhuman -- but are really just cutting ever closer to the small details that make regular humanity so endlessly fascinating.

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