2 December 2004
A darkened room. I am leaning forward in concentration, grasping a controller and getting ready to press a button while I watch a pattern of glowing and flashing multi-coloured lights that moves around to the accompaniment of various pseudo-mechanical sound effects. Where’s this going? How many was that? Did I miss one? Quick, press three times. A computerized female voice, of the sort that announces facility alarms or self-destruct countdowns, confirms: “One, two, three.” And they’re off again. Okay, let’s make sure we get it right this time. I’m enjoying this.
But it’s not a videogame. Your slightly myopic correspondent is at the optician. Since I was last there, they have acquired this shiny new machine which tests peripheral vision. So I lean, with my forehead on the edge of a large box, and a fetching piratical patch over one eye. I follow a red dot around the inside of the box. When it stops, one or more green lights will flash briefly somewhere on the screen. I need to thumb a button to tell how many I saw. Sometimes they light up only faintly. Sometimes I don’t see any at all, and wonder if it’s a trick. It’s really quite involving.
Finally, I get the results: my peripheral vision is fine. I feel strangely exhilarated. But the experience had a wider resonance. It’s not just the obvious fact that this computerised diagnostic system owes so much to the pervasiveness of videogame technology. What I found interesting was how much more involving taking this test was than playing many of the big-budget commercial games that cross my desk.
A large part of it, I realised, was the feeling that there was really something at stake here. I had no reason to think my peripheral vision was faulty – it’s not as if I’ve been habitually careening sideways into lampposts of late – but the remote idea that some creeping, as-yet-undiagnosed retinal disorder could be unearthed in the process really committed me to doing the best I could. In a videogame, by contrast, you can usually do something aimless or stupid, half-concentrating, safe in the knowledge that failure can be instantly effaced and there is always another try.
How, indeed, might a videogame instil a comparable sense of involvement? The interestingly drastic option is symbolized by Steel Battalion, where you lose your entire saved game if you fail to eject from your burning ship in time. That certainly ups the psychological ante, but at a rather high cost to anyone who actually suffers this erasure, perhaps through no fault of their own, for instance if a friendly cat comes and sits down in the wrong place on the controller at just the wrong time.
More usually a game will try to solicit our engagement with some suitably epic storyline to the effect that we are the only person who can save the planet; a species of narrative that is ruled with an iron fist by the law of diminishing returns. Yeah, I was the only one who could save the planet in Generic Third-Person Shooter 34: The Half-Real Apocalypse Prophecy, too, and frankly I couldn’t be arsed to finish the job because the game sucked.
Alternatively, you could argue that the player becomes emotionally involved in a game where she can empathize with the other characters in the world. Occasionally I can buy this. The inhabitants of Hyrule Village in Ocarina of Time or Yorda in ICO did exert a pull, but that wouldn’t have been enough by itself without OoT’s astonishing symbolic richness and heartbreaking music, or ICO’s spellbinding architecture.
In the end, I think it’s really all about me. And you, of course. What can you do in the gameworld? Are you learning, becoming more skilled, exulting in your capabilities? You become more involved in a game the more it serves as a kind of psychological prosthetic: an extension of power and challenge into a compelling other world.
So perhaps instead of trying to invent more lovable NPCs, videogames should try to do more interesting things with us, as players, as humans. The peripheral-vision test obviously can’t be replicated on a TV screen six feet away, but its highly specific mechanic points to unused potential. Many games already use surround-sound to give the player clues or scares. Try it with seeing: why should what you see always be what you get? Visual conundrums could interact fruitfully with dynamic ones. Many paintings, such as Holbein’s The Ambassadors, demand careful decoding; and more abstract work, such as that of Bridget Riley, explores the physical limits of our visual capabilities.
In games, on the other hand, there is a lot of flash and artistry in the visual element, but it is mostly junk food for the retinas: designed to be as quickly assimilated as possible, not to be lingered and puzzled over. It is reassuring rather than challenging. Games could surely make us work more with our eyes, as well as with our fingers.