Way back when I started this blog, one of the first essays I did was about conceiving of a game as the combination of three related spaces – physical, mechanical, and narrative – and gameplay as the act of allowing the player to explore these spaces. I think this perspective is still useful, though sorely in need of revision now, five years later (I’ll likely return to it at some point in the future). However, whenever I think about how different games emphasize one or the other of these attributes, whenever I try to draw a hard line between where one space begins or ends, I run into a bit of difficulty making that division. The mechanical and narrative spaces are fairly easy to delineate – one is the actions you can take in an environment and how that environment reacts to those actions, the other is the story that is told about those actions and the context in which they take place. However, the physical space, which one would expect to be the most intuitive of the three, is a bit more difficult to delineate – and I think it has to do with how we create physical space in games.
The problem I keep running into is that the physical space of the games is actually created by means of mechanical and narrative elements. The mechanical aspect of the space is your ability to move around on some parts of it and to have your movement blocked by others, and the narrative aspect is the colors and textures and what they suggest about the world you’re in. Together they create something that feels like a chunk of physical world to explore, but there’s nothing actually physical there. A sense of physical space is created, but it is not separable from the mechanical and narrative elements that contribute to it – not in the same way that the mechanical and narrative elements are separable from each other.
It may be extremely obvious that the physical reality of the game world doesn’t exist, but it’s suggestive that we create the illusion of a physical reality through recreating the parts of reality which interest us most as humans. That is, when we encounter an object, our concerns are a) what can I do with this? And b) what does it mean that this is here? This, of course, has very little to do with the actual material world, where objects are made of many different bits and pieces, covered with bits and pieces of everything else, subjected to forces we have an incomplete understanding of. What’s noteworthy is not that we are simulating a reality, but that we are simulating outwards in, out from the superficial aspects we find ourselves most interested in, down into the more fundamental aspects such as mass and warmth only as we find those necessary to power the superficial simulation.
Tangentially, I am now quite certain that if we had any way to simulate texture and taste in games we would have done so long ago, as these are also superficial aspects of great interest to human perception.
It’s fascinating that we so many of us consider what we’re doing to be realistic. What we do with games is render exclusively that which can be seen: every 3d object is an empty shell, every character who is modeled is simply their exterior with nothing inside, and interior parts only created as they become necessary to render when they are ripped apart from the exterior (a common scenario in games). We see what a human, or a house, or a rock, looks like, and reproduce what we see, when that is inherently only the most superficial possible version of that thing.
Something from physical reality is translated into signals for our brain, is stored as a symbol representing that object; then our brain conducts our body to create an object that can reproduce those signals in another brain. That is what we call art – or, at least, representational art.
So, with games, we started from the simplest version of the most superficial reality, and from there we’ve managed to make more detailed and convincing forms of that representation. Perhaps we could simulate a reality based more on what we know to be there than what we see to be there? Even a primitive simulation of a more complete reality could lead to new and interesting artistic pursuits. Or, perhaps, since we are unmoored from the physical basis of reality, we could create a simulated world far wilder and stranger than we can while paying lip service to material reality.
Mostly, though, I just find it amusing how much we like to act like we’ve come anywhere near a reality simulation when our approach is in essence purely superficial. How very human of us.