Making smarter trash cans

Not enough videogames involve protecting a guy who's stuck in a cartoon costume.I’ve managed to climb down the scaffolding in the pouring rain and get to an open window. It leads to a kitchen, and from there I hear voices: it’s the cleaners, or rather the hired killers masquerading as cleaners who have been dogging my every step.

They’re watching a program called “Lords and Ladies” when I burst in on them, my 9mm taking one of them out immediately. The other one is able to roll behind a pillar and return fire so I leap over the couch to get a better shot at him.

Time slows down. Bullets fly by me and hit the television — as it goes dark, I’m able to reflect that a gun is also a remote control in a pinch. In mid-air, I turn and squeeze off three shots, winging him. I hit the ground and continue firing from a prone position.

After he slumps dead against the bloodied wall, time returns to normal and I notice another movement — I swing my gun around but I realize it is just something that’s been hit in the firefight falling to the ground.

I immediately forget the cleaners, my angst and my mission and investigate it — it’s a painting. A few more shots make it jerk across the floor, splinters bursting from its wooden frame.

I am impressed.

I go into another room, an office, and shoot the computer monitor. The tube bursts and a little electricity shoots out of it. The second shot knocks it off the desk.

I spent a minute or two shooting everything in the office: shooting the plastic wastebasket gave a hollow thump, and shooting glass made it shatter. Excited by an idea, I went into the bedroom and got up on the bed. I made the solemn, bitter cop character I was playing jump up and down on the bed. He did, but the bed didn’t bounce.

Oh, well.

The physics in Max Payne 2(Rockstar, 2003) may be limited, but they’re still at the head of their class. The “engine” behind the way objects collide and react in the videogame is called Havok, and it was supposed to debut with Half-Life 2. But source-code leakage has put an already-delayed release date until after the holiday season on this hugely anticipated sequel.

The sequel to Max Payne wasn’t causing quite as much geek slather. The games have hard-boiled detective stories and John Woo cinematics — the sequel is subtitled “A Film Noir Love Story.” While the story and character development are above average, it’s the aforementioned physics that are truly interesting. Pushing a door with a commando behind it knocks him on his bum. Running through an office sends a chair spinning. Shooting a guy on a scaffolding one way has him hit a board on his way down and knock that down too; shooting him from another angle has him missing the board entirely.

So what?

Not enough videogames involve protecting a guy who's stuck in a cartoon costume.
The standard argument goes: a game that is more realistic allows for a more immersive experience, without annoying mechanical stiffness reminding you that what you’re seeing is being generated by a machine. On a less rational level, seeing a simulation mirror your own reality, even your movie-reality, is just cool. But neither argument gets to the heart of what interests me about advances like these. My opinion is that by making the objects smart, the game designers don’t have to be.

An experience I had recently playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, another Rockstar game with great physics: I got the Multi Theft Auto hack for it and joined an online game. I was informed by the people already there that this was a “stunt” session. Instead of shooting each other, they ran around lining up cars on the main strip. When they had a few dozen of them, someone got a motorcycle and jumped over them, Evel Knievel-style. But side-by-side like that, they were pretty irresistible: someone shotgunned one of them until it blew up, and we watched the whole strip go up like a string of firecrackers.

One could imagine that if a few people wanted to, they could formalize the competitive dynamic presented by the game objects: Team A has to amass and jump over 10 cars in a allotted time, while Team B tries to stop them by any means necessary. This game variant was not imagined by the game designers, but could well turn out to be more fun. Game designers are a talented lot, but there’s a hell of a lot more game players out there who spend a lot of time in these environments: and when you’re playing, rather than working, you tend to come at things differently.

It’s kind of like throwing a kid a ball, and explaining the rules of dodgeball to them. They nod, getting a feel for the ball, throw it against the ground and watch it bounce up again. After they understand what they’re supposed to do, you go away, and the kid invents basketball.

In the videogame world, it doesn’t really take an Einstein to understand physics.

1 reply »

  1. what ever happened to paperboy? C64 games lacked dynamics, but nothing can top that rush of utter amazement when playing them back then. ahh technology, our miraculous friend…


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