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Edge Magazine #181 November 2007

Down with physics

Edge #181, November 2007

I'm not a great fan of Terry Pratchett. I appreciate that he has his admirers, but I've tried his books, and found them to be... well, the sorts of things fat virgins laugh at.

However, Pratchett once said that "Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can". Despite not liking his books, I can't help but think he's right on that score.

Alas, it seems that this is something the videogame industry is in desperate need of being reminded of. Speaking at this year's Siggraph, Electronic Arts' chief technical officer Glenn Entis told an audience that game developers had a duty to make games realistic in ways other than purely through graphics.

He echoes an issue I raised not so long ago in this very column; that you can throw all the polygons and light sources in the world at a game character, but what's the point if he's going to shuffle around like he has brittle knees, and jerks from one animation cycle to the next with all the grace of a pilled-up alpaca?

"It's about worlds that look beautiful, but behave beautifully as well", Entis barked. And he has a point.

Regrettably, I fear that Entis' definition of beautiful differs from my own. Much like so many game developers, EA is obsessed with recreating reality. With EA's forthcoming Xbox 360 title Virtual Me, players will be able to recreate themselves, taking unprecedented control over their game character's physical appearance and wardrobe. I mean, that's all well and good, but what's the point? If you want to take unprecedented control over your own wardrobe just go to Primark. If you want to change your appearance get a haircut, or, I dunno, wear a false nose.

Whatever happened to projecting yourself upon a fictional character? If we're getting to that stage it's as if games have become like those books you can buy for toddlers, where you've sent off a photo of them to have it superimposed over the face of the main character in the book (be it superhero, or a pirate, or leathersmith).

We seem to be moving further and further away from the kinds of fantasy or abstract environments that used to typify games. Now that it is easier to recreate a virtual version of reality, it's like the industry is obsessed with doing so, as if that's the pinnacle of what interactive entertainment should be.

LittleBigPlanet is a good case in point. Admittedly, you're controlling fantasy characters in a sort of fantasy environment, but they look like a version of reality, in a world that utilises a fairly convincing recreation of our real-world physics. It's a hybrid between the games of yore and the way games are becoming.

I mean, would Sonic The Hedgehog or Pac-Man really have been improved with photorealistic graphics, or real-world physics? Of course not (I was going to add Tetris to the above list, but that could actually work quite well). Doing that would've unbalanced some beautifully tuned gameplay, and robbed the world of some of gaming's most iconic moments. The day Nintendo introduces realistic physics into a Mario game is the day I go upon a catastrophic death-rampage.

Don't get me wrong: I'm all for realism up to a point. I mean, the likes of Splinter Cell wouldn't be in any way improved by making it more cartoony, or setting it in the distant shadowrealms of Kel-Da-Roth. Nevertheless, for me one of the big appeals of games is that they are a window on to fantasy. I don't mean fantasy in the dragons/elves/breaking-into-people's-cottages-to-smash-their-vases sense of the word, but in the more general sense of being transported to somewhere that isn't real.

Somewhere that stimulates the creative nodes, and fires up the imagination. Something - somewhere - that knows it's a game. The more real our gameworlds become, the more mundane we risk them becoming.

It's like the Shrek films. When the first Shrek came out it was a feast for the eyes, purely from an 'isn't that clever?!' perspective, but I kind of found the recent release of Shrek The Third to be completely pointless. If you're going to create a CGI world that's only one step away from our real world, then why not just make a live-action movie? I utterly lament the death of traditional, hand-drawn movie animation in much the same way I hate how realistic physics are being applied to every other game.

Admittedly, I'm at every risk here of coming across like a woeful nostalgic. Part of me remains hopeful this is just a transition period, and that once they've decoded the genome of realistic physics and animation then all of that will take a backseat to the fantasy.

Nevertheless, realistic physics is all about maths, and in maths there's no soul. You don't ask an accountant to paint your portrait, and I think it's time that games were taken out of the hands of the technologists and given back to the artists.

Mr Biffo co-founded Digitiser, Channel 4's Teletext-based videogames section, and now writes mainly for television

Do you know of any important moments from the annals of Digi history that have been omitted? If so, then mail me ( right now, man. Credit will be duly given for anything that gets put up.

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