The Undiscovered Country
Life is hard. So the human race invented escapism. Thus, the game. A construct which combines the best of many mediums. And video games in particular provide us with all sorts of goodness. We can immerse ourselves, 2 senses deep. Decades have gone into the how of this interactivity. It's nine-trillion colors of shiny and sounds so pretty. If you believe the people who told us we'd have rocket belts and flying cars, the ultimate interface will be brain-to-machine - hands off, senses plugged in. They're wrong. And I'm still waiting for my rocket-belt.
And so I present the secret ingredient that seems to elude video game developers. It's not controllers or inputs or joysticks or gloves or guitars. It's not force feedback, vibration, or sensorama.
Stuff -- things you hold in your hands and feel and interact with for their own sake. Stuff is important in every kind of gaming other than video games. People care how their golf clubs feel, whether it makes them better golfers or not. Pool players adorn their cue-sticks. Board gamers will wax poetic about the "bits" in their favorite game, and there's a whole subculture of folks who collect Chess sets and Go boards just because they are beautiful things -- every chess board is functionally identical, yet there are thousands of variations. Meatspace game designers really, really get this. Even folks like Hasbro, the most mainstream of mainstream game companies, clearly agonizes about making their games feel good. Go pick up a copy of Heroscape: you can entertain yourself for hours with the pieces without cracking the rule book.
Prove this to yourself. Go grab a deck of cards. Shuffle it. Deal a game of solitaire. Flick a card across the room. It feels good doesn't it? Grab some dice and shake them in your hand. You've been conditioned to associate certain memories, certain activities, with just that feeling of roiling plastic. I keep a big D20 sitting right in front of my computer. When I get writer's block, I just toss it around in my hand. Something about the act of holding that die triggers creative neural pathways in my brain.
When I walk into the bookstore, what book attracts my 6 year old daughter? The one with the frog on a string. Sure, it's a marketing trick, but she still reads the book. In fact, she reads the book with the little frog on a string more than it deserves (it's not that good, the frog doesn't even sing). She does this because she can hold the frog. Even without reading the book, she still enjoys holding the frog. It sparks her imagination. By comparison, if you walked in and saw me fondling my Razer Diamondback mouse or my DualShock, you'd fear for my sanity.
Our little corner of the world seems oblivious. Let me be clear, I'm not talking about cloth maps and gold coins. These Zork-era throwaway chotchkies still abound in the bizarre phenomena of "collectors editions," all the cheap black T-shirts, malfunctioning headsets and printed maps you'll never need. And as cool as the Guitar Hero controllers, light guns, teledildonic remotes and DDR pads are, I'm not talking about building a better joystick.
I'm talking about real interaction between the virtual world and the real world. I'm talking about a true hybrid game. I want a real interaction between Stuff I have in the real world, and what goes on in the virtual world.
I've only played one game recently that even comes close to bridging this gap between a virtual game and a physical game -- Hasbro's Clue DVD. Hasbro took an existing, understood, and beloved board game, and improved on it in a dozen ways that enhance the experience, adding cut scenes, graphics, soundtrack, and new game play elements and bring the level immersion far deeper than a board game ever can. In a word, it's brilliant.
To be fair, our industry has tried. Majestic, a short lived but groundbreaking "Alternative Reality Game," attempted to break the barrier between its world and mine by sending me emails, faxes and phone calls. But in the end, it wasn't actually that good a game, and it was more a gimmick than a real innovation. Perplex City comes close, integrating a collectible card game and an online scoring and clue system to tell a story. But fundamentally it's just solving puzzles (some impossible for mere mortals) and keeping score, and the puzzles are only available if you buy an endless stream of cards.
But even there, why should truly innovative game design be ceded to a card game company and the pathetic interactivity afforded by an industry standard DVD player or a web browser? Why are we relying on the old guard to get hip, when the hip could be leading the charge?
I demand a new game. I know you're smart, you famous-game-designer-people, much smarter than I am. Make me a game where there is something on my desk that is real, tangible, and interesting, and have it really matter in the game. I don't really care what it is: a deck of cards, a novella in which clues can be deciphered in and out of the game world, a small board game with little plastic meeples that I use to solve Myst-like puzzles. Give me a Kit Williams-meets-Perplex City game that requires neither a Ph.D. nor a never ending collectible card game investment. Give me the hybrid.
Dance monkey, Dance!