If it's going to be that kind of party, I'm gonna stick my dick in the mashed potatoes
When I mentioned the idea of a fake guide to an NES game based on Bartleby in last week's update, I actually received a number of letters from people who wanted to see it done. I liked the concept of a game centered around a character who is defined by his refusal to actually do anything in any given situation. In my mind the protagonist (pre-lightning strike) would be a typical early-90's skateboarder kid with neon colored clothes and a backwards baseball cap, the sort of character you'd see in every game advertisement in Gamepro magazine back in the day. This was just one aspect of how the guide would push how tubular and gnarly the game was, psyching you up for all sorts of action and craziness which would simply not be there.
This didn't really work though. Beyond the difficulty of creating all those sprites (which would have been possible but a pain in the ass), the concept sort of fell flat. Once the game was introduced and Bartleby was shown choosing not to do one or two potentially exciting things, there wasn't much material to work with. Then the idea to write the entire thing in the style of an Infocom interactive fiction game hit me out of nowhere, and I ran with it. I remember playing those old games and saying random and inappropriate things in the hopes that the game would respond realistically, but of course it never happened. Working that into the article was natural and fun.
On the topic of interactive fiction, I'd like to discuss something that's been looming in the back of my mind lately. Now that graphics have progressed to the point that true photorealism is within a few generations of hardware, I hope that developers can begin to really focus on other aspects of gameplay. Physics are starting to come into their own but imagine a game with truly advanced AI, completely accurate damage models, and a powerful text parser or speech recognition.
Just picture it. A man comes at you with a chainsaw but you sidestep the blow, and the tremendous effort he put into the lunge backfires when he stumbles and the whirring blade carves into the meat of his own leg. He screams in pain as he collapses and you simply laugh. In response to the sound of your laughter he locks his eyes on you angrily, cursing through clenched teeth while blood spurts from his injured leg. At this point he tries to get up and come at you once again, but the pain of the injury (accurately modeled to the exact angle and depth of the wound, knocking the appropriate muscles out of commission) is too much and he falls back on his rear end with a thud. From here the AI examines how angry, determined, and injured he is and decides if he will crawl forward to continue to try to kill you, try to get your sympathy by screaming for help and pleading that he has a wife and children at home and was paid to come after you, or simply pass out from shock.
Now imagine that whole scene again, but you pick up the chainsaw instead of laughing in the beginning and hold it next to his face while calmly detailing what you're going to do to him. Scared, he gives up the name and location of his employer.
I know, I'm a weird bastard. Regardless, that's an accurate illustration of my ideal sandbox game. A truly interactive and freeform world to explore and screw around in. Chaos in motion rather than a series of carefully arranged and disguised event triggers which we've seen a million times before. I'm not saying every game needs to be like this or that we should abandon games that work within an existing formula to tell a good story, just that I'd gladly pay more than a hundred bucks for a fully populated and fleshed out version of a city capable of producing the scene I described above on the fly.
On the other side of the coin, I don't think photorealism and freeform gameplay is the be-all-end-all that some people make it out to be. For some games (sports, gritty stuff like I blabbered about above) it's ideal, but I'll take "visually distinct and creative" over "looks pretty much like what you'd see in real life" any day if given the choice. One of the fundamental concepts in art is that iconic and simple images will always be easier for a viewer to relate to than images that are complex and overly detailed. It's easier to see yourself in a drawing of a circle with two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth than in an intricate painting of Abraham Lincoln. You could certainly have fun playing as a disturbingly lifelike Mario and watch as his fat rolls jiggle after every hop, but there's something fantastical about the exaggerated and simple version of him found in Super Mario World and Mario RPG that really pulls you into the game.
Speaking of, could you imagine a modern side-scrolling Mario game with the level of detail afforded today? I mention this not because I'm nostalgic for the SNES, but because I think the 2D side-scroller was a terrific genre that didn't have to die just because 3D came along. I would kill for Super Mario Revolution with vector character animations and a version of the Mushroom Kingdom where texture and background artists could go absolutely nuts with no limitations. Then again, I am a weird bastard.