Will Wright, the genius behind the SimCity/Sims Online franchise is on year who knows what of developing Spore – a profoundly complex AI engine that looks like a cross between Playdough and Lego Mindstorm on the surface. This is not by accident – when I saw Mr Wright speak at the Banff Media Conference several years back, he confided that one of the things that most influences his game design is Japanese zen gardens – the idea that though the landscape has been radically altered, dozens of iterations later it appears as though it had always been that way.
Spore is about building new organisms, or a combination of organisms from the uni-celled beginning to complex space colony end.
Sims is about moving virtual Barbie dolls around and seeing how they feel about each other and themselves. You can not micro-manage them, only give them subtle catalysts to work from.
But there is also another kind of playing God that doesn’t have any game-designer objective behind it. That is the merge between old terra-forming software like Bryce 3D and map-making for gamers who love first-person shooters.
I am hacker when it comes to playing games – most gamers are – we like to see what we can can break about it before we commit to finishing it. Even Will Wright admitted this; the first thing kids do when they encounter a new game is figure out what the limits are – can you walk off the path, flip upside down, self-destruct, kill others, etc. This is how we learn the laws of its universe.
When I used to play Everquest – I had no interest in actually questing – I was more curious about using it as my new instant messeger. I would meet people in Qeynos and we would wander over to a willow tree I had found and chat. The game for me was to see how long I could engage total strangers in stimulating conversation, enjoying the vistas, without ever having to kill anything. Why does that almost sound creepy?
So you can imagine my interest when I see a map-maker become available in a first-person shooter like Ubisoft’s Far Cry 2. Check out this vid:
I have little to no interest in shooting anyone. But I have a lot of interest in creating landscapes that I can walk through – not as some omniscient invisible Arrow Key Monster checking out my Thomas Kincaid wannabe digi-art (a la Bryce) but rather as a developed avatar with rich 3D, ray-tracing and texture on a next-gen console.
Halo 3 also worked towards this with its Forge software. And Bethesda’s Obilvion on a PC is simply a dream for world-building – there are currently over 4500 modifications online created by user that you can implement into the world and see how it unfolds. Not all the mods work together, and many are redundant in ways that prove disastrous to running the game without a crash – but when you get the combination just right, you can get a near-cinematic experience with endless variation that has no time limit and no rules. My girlfriend and I use to play with a hyper modded Oblivion and then go out to a garden and comment on how much nature looked like the game.
And if you were to believe Plato. or the Baghavad Gita’s discussions of maya – then you would recognize this is hardly a new idea.