|Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #55:
Future Memes, Part One: Overviews and Genres
January 3, 2002 The start of 2001 truly felt like an odyssey. Perhaps not Arthur C. Clarke's widely known Space Odyssey, but, at the least, a journey into the future, into that place of which we had but dreamed. 365 days later, it has become apparent that 2001 was just the same as all those years before; it was living. For some of us, perhaps more terrifying and saddening than most others years on our personal calendars, but still in its texture and its moments it was largely like the twenty or thirty or fifty years that had touched upon us before.
In 2001 tax rates were raised in some countries and lowered in others. Nanotechnology did not transform the world. Some hearts were broken and others were mended. The promise of the information revolution did not reach true fruition. There were some atrocities and some acts of selfless kindness. We did not colonize the stars. In other words, it was a year. It was life. It was time.
Nonetheless hope continues to spring eternal, in my heart at least, and the future continues to appear as a chaotic, disorganized place where anything could happen. The promises of the Internet of a reality free from physical laws; of a worldwide community that spans all national boundaries; of a new way of thinking, of working, of living are still bright, barely dimmed by the corporate crashes of the last two years. There is a real chance that we're approaching a technological singularity, a point at which everything will change, after which the future is unknowable and unimaginable. And I believe that the virtual realities we're creating right now will have a large impact on what comes after.
So, for these first few weeks of 2002 I want to talk about the future not, most definitely not to gaze back at the last year. I want to talk about future possibilities, and how we're still shackled by the lessons of the past by the lessons learned in the world outside our new virtual realms. I want to talk about how we haven't really adapted to this new universe, connected by its pulsing beams of light and its electrons spinning across millions of miles of wire, across the entire world.
Before I go much further, I should say: these are my views, not Skotos'. It's a disclaimer that's not usually required, but when I wax poetic, nostalgic, and futuristic I'm never entirely sure what words might jump from brain to fingers to keyboard to article, so I'll be safe this time around. Consider that disclaimer to apply to this entire series.
The State of the World Yesterday
My own odyssey toward this new series of articles began with Otherland, Volume I, by Tad Williams. It's a novel set in the future a near future disturbingly similar to our own world. It centers around an Earth which VR-interface computers have become a cornerstone of society. The book is an interesting, though long, read and through the complex interrelations it creates between real and virtual worlds, it asks real thought-provoking questions about the nature of reality.
As I was reading through the book I was surprised and pleased to find one of the (many) proganists playing in a game not too different from our own Castle Marrach or The Eternal City. This young hero took the role of a barbarian and adventured across "The Middle Countries", scaling the walls of wizards' towers, drinking in bars, fighting deadly gryphons, and all the rest.
Williams offered some interesting insights into his gaming world into how his gaming world is somewhat advanced beyond what we have now. It was a very dynamic world, for one, seemingly without the repetitive quests of many such games today. He seemed to be postulating a player-driven dynamism similar to what I suggested in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #29, The Dynamic Dilemma, Part Three. Likewise, it was apparent that some of the players' success in the game was based on real economic investments, a tough topic discussed by Scott Roberts starting in The Mummer's Dance #20, Cash and Carry Part One: The Economics of Pay for Play Games.
Still, Williams' Middle Country filled me with a certain degree of sadness. Despite the amazing advancements in VR and AI underlying his book's society, his VR game wasn't that different from the prose games that you can play today. Or, maybe more correctly, it wasn't that different from the games I've seen described in fiction, but never quite implemented in reality, for at least a decade.
Don't get me wrong other parts of Williams' world offer interesting insights into what virtual reality can really mean, but this look at a future game led me to the following conclusion:
Thus far, the scopes of online roleplaying games have been pretty limited. And, they're probably going to stay that way unless we start really thinking about what else can be done, about how virtual reality frees us up and allows us to consider weird possibilities that could never be considered in the "real" world.
So, free your mind a little bit, and hang in there for the next few weeks. The virtual world, she is a changing, and this week I'd like to discuss the first place where we should be considering multiple, different possibilities.
The Skotos games, thus far, are pretty closely matched to the traditional computer games genres. To start off with we've got our high fantasy game, Castle Marrach. A low fantasy game like The Eternal City is slightly less common, but definitely not unheard of. And finally there's Galactic Emperor: Succession, a science-fiction game never as successful as fantasy in roleplaying games, but still mildly ubiquitous.
When considering the whole palette of possibilities, it's a pretty small subset. Oh, sure, we've got other stuff planned and even in development, no doubt about it. External developers are working on horror and anthropomorphic fantasy games, two of the other biggies in wide world of prose games. But ... shouldn't there be a lot more possibilities?
Travis Casey has already started discussing this topic in Building Stories, Telling Games #23, Exploring Genres: Part 1. Because he's spending more time on the topic, I expect he'll do a better job than me covering all the possibilities. Tomorrow, he'll be talking about fantasy, and probably pointing out its limitations in computer games to date. I don't know his topic list, but he may also talk about many of the other common genres which are given pretty short shift in computer games, among them science fiction, detective, humor, romance, western, "mainstream literature", spy, thriller, and tons of others.
There is room for these genres in the medium of prose games. Infocom proved that a decade ago with releases such as Suspended (science fiction), Leather Goddess of Phobos (erotica), Bureaucracy (humor), Plundered Hearts (romance), Infidel (pulp), The Lurking Horror (horror), and lots more. It makes you ask, why haven't these genres been better exploited in online roleplaying games?
The first MUD, released by Richard Bartle in 1978, was a fantasy game. It was more than a decade before anything different appeared. Now, we're faced with a catch-22. Travis pegged it in his last article when he called it demographic intertia. The players of online roleplaying games are traditionally interested in fantasy games (and to a lesser extent, the closely related genres of science fiction and horror). Thus, it's by producing in those traditional genres that a StoryBuilder can attract players. As a result no one interested in other genres is introduced to our medium. And so there's no point in making games in those genres. Catch-22. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to think about these other genres detective, pulp, romance, and all the rest and how they might be built into online games. (and I'll also note, you should read Travis' current series of articles as it unfolds.)
However, I want to take a step further and suggest that even limiting ourselves to traditional fiction genres is a mistake when designing online games. What else could you create? Anything.
Here's a few other genres that I think would be exciting to explore in online games a few genres that you probably don't consider when thinking about the high-profile fiction genres:
History. The fact that we are creating virtual realities made up of electronic bits gives us considerable power. Most people use that power to construct places that never were, but why can't we use that same power to construct places that no longer are?
Clearly, we can.
One of our first internal game ideas was Golden Gate: 1849. One of our original Skotos Seven games was Florence. Each offered the possibility of laying out a real, historical time period as the basis of a computer game. Consider the possibilities. You could reconstruct ancient Troy, rebuild London before the Great Fire, even rediscover the first caves lived in by Man. Are there games in these places? There are, as certainly as there was drama in the lives of the people living in these eras.
Travel. In Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #53, Building Blocks: Maps, I offered up a few maps I'd drawn of the White House. Those maps were a lot of fun to draw. Just like a historical reconstruction this type of virtual reconstruction can allow people to wander around a real area that they would never be able to experience in physical life. Again, you might ask if there are games here. And again I have to answer "Yes". As a StoryBuilder and StoryTeller, you'll be able to discover stories everywhere.
Recreations & Occupations. Thus far I've kept pretty close to the "types" of games that exist already. You, as a StoryBuilder, can understand wandering around a locale, even if it be a historical or physical locale that you might not usually consider appropriate for a game.
But as you begin to investigate other types of gameplay, as I'll discuss next week, you'll realize that different types of gameplay open the possibilities up for even more genres for all the genres, in fact, conceivable in our wide world. Why not have a prose online game which sequentially represents the innings of a Baseball game? That allows players to swing their sticks around on a hockey rink? That supports online mountaineering or piloting or anything else? They all should be possibilities.
Genres, if you're not careful, can be strait jackets. And, to a certain extent, they've become such for our medium. We know what types of games have been successful, and so we create those. But, we need to remember that there are many, many other possibilities out there, that we're just touching upon the edge of the edge of what can be done.
And that's my spiel for this week.
In the magical turn of the digits on Great Caesar's calendar, I've found a few more topics to talk about than I'd originally intended. Expect me to stay on this tact for the next two weeks or so, continuing to look at the limitations imposed by tradition on our medium, and also to look at how we could open things up, if we just look forward.
The insides of games gameplay and physics and the outsides of games communities and reputation are both on my list for additional memes to talk about before I've expended all of my New Year spirit.
After that, it'll be back to the topic that was haunting me through the last months of 2001: Building Blocks. There are lots more building blocks to consider when creating your games, and I promise I'll return to them... soon.