The Surreality of Games

Yesterday, Richard Terrell at Critical-Gaming posted about the genius of slowdown. In the post, he discusses the slowing down some games display in complex scenes due to hardware limitations. Terrell writes:

The benefits for the slower gameplay are the same as with bullet time. When the game is slowed down, the player has additional time to process and analyze the game. But unlike bullet time, the amount of slowdown that occurs is directly proportional to the amount of in game “chaos” on screen. Like the smart slow-mo from Perfect Dark that activates when two players in a multiplayer match move within a certain proximity of each other, slowdown makes the game time relative to action and position.

Slowdown like Terrell describes was far more common on older consoles of the SNES era or earlier. Typically, when a large number of enemies or other sprites were on the screen at once, the game itself would slow down as the console churned to keep up with the graphics. Examples are the slowdown that occurred in some Zelda games when healing fairies filled the screen with a ring of hearts, or the lag that happened in early Megaman games when there were more than a handful of enemies and projectiles visible. As Terrell points out, these slowdowns aren’t just unintended errors. They connect the player to the medium, in a similar way to the oddities in Mark Z. Danielewski’s book House of Leaves connect its readers to the medium of the book.

House of Leaves is a book which depends on its typographical qualities. It tells the story of a young man named Johnny Truant who finds a monograph by a blind man named Zampano about a non-existent documentary called The Navidson Record about a house that defies logic and physics. Throughout the book, the word house appears in blue, footnotes crawl up the side of the page, and the text area gets narrower and narrower in sympathy with a character’s surroundings. The reader is constantly reminded that this is a book, that this is not real. Paradoxically, this draws the reader closer in, by involving the reader’s world with the confusing, half-real world of the characters.

Slowdown and other oddities do a similar thing. Slowdown is a direct result of the hardware of the system. When there are a hundred enemies on screen and the framerate drops, it immediately reminds the player that she is playing a game on a machine. However, as Terrell points out, this actually helps the player identify with the game world and helps her focus. When the player character’s situation is stressful or awe-inspiring, the gameplay lags in sympathy. When things are tense, the player is allowed more reaction time by benefit of the low framerate.

There are few examples of this being used intentionally. The Wii and Nintendo DS motion and microphone controls add a sense of physicality to the gameplay, but this is part of the originally-intended use of the system. Terrell highlights Bangai-O Spirits for the DS as a game that uses slowdown effectively. I’m inclined to draw parallels to “Doomsday of UAC,” an early Doom player-created level which took advantage of a quirk in the game’s engine to create an invisible floor. The latter, however, only registers with players who are familiar with Doom‘s capabilities. To the average player, nothing would seem out of the ordinary.

This reminder of the underlying nature of games is also present in certain fortunate bugs and quirks of games. One that comes to mind is the non-catastrophic buffer overflow. Seen in Metroid‘s Secret World and Super Mario Bros. Famicom’s Minus World, this happens when a game tries to access level data or graphics in the wrong memory location, but manages to make some sense out of invalid data. When I first heard of Metroid‘s Secret World, a strange abyss beyond the walls, as a child, I wasn’t able to sleep because of the visions of preternatural realms beyond the boundaries of reality. These bugs, despite being unintentional, do reaffirm the “reality” of the games by presenting a stark contrast of bizarre surreality.

Another illusion-affirming oddity is Grand Theft Auto III‘s Ghost Town, an in-game set built for the introductory cinematic and left floating above the ocean out of sight to anything but the well-hidden and unwieldy Dodo airplane. Other GTA games have similar hidden sets, used for cinematics. Somehow, I feel more interested in GTAIII’s world knowing that ethereal streets lurk behind the impassable mountains.

I’d like to see some games take advantage of hardware limitations and programming quirks for intentional effect. There’s great potential for Metal Gear Solid-style reminders that yes, the player is experiencing a game, but that’s okay.