Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
Time for Gaming's Physical

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 30 Aug 2011 12:00
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Physics seem to be a permanent mainstay in today's games, as indeed they always have been for basically the entire universe, and it's a rare game indeed nowadays that isn't obligated to paste the Havok logo on the end of the credits. And this is no bad thing. I can still remember full 3D games whose token acknowledgement of physics was that crates would move straight downwards unless any point of their model was on top of anything solid. So in games like Thief you could build a staircase of crates all balanced on the very lip of the crate underneath it and climb out of the universe. Which wasn't exactly great for immersion.

Nowadays things fall off other things with all the complex gravity and rotation of real life, even if everything in the universe seems to be constructed from extremely high-tension rubber, and things have never been more fun to fuck around with. But some games are still in the giddy courtship period with physics and base their whole games around them, like bullet time in the early 2000's. Half-Life 2 led the way with its slightly erotic fascination with see-saws and latterly there's Red Faction Guerrilla, which constructed all of its buildings from detachable physics objects.

I remember in my Extra Punctuation column for Guerrilla - one of my very first Extra Punctuation columns, history fans - I bemoaned how there didn't seem to be much guerrilla-y about your actions, that is to say, subtle. You just smash everything up. In Red Faction Armageddon things go even further backwards by being a linear shooter that just happens to have some destructible buildings along the way. The appeal for me lay in an entire world built from destructible physics parts allowing literally any route, if you were patient enough to just tunnel your way directly to an objective, and Armageddon missed that point. After a while it just came down to occasionally passing a small building with alien stuff growing on the outside you were invited to smash down for the experience points. And they're not even in the way.

All these games that base themselves around the physics like this, in which camp I include stuff like Angry Birds and Stair Dismount on my iPhone, seem to be about watching stuff fall down. On the broadest level, that is. And it's true that there's a curious satisfaction to be had in seeing something big and which someone probably put a lot of time and resources into building and assembling fall back into chaos. Even on the smaller scale, there are entire schools of comedy built around the basic principle of watching some dignified sap fall on his arse. It's the same instinct that makes us want to kick down a small child's sandcastle or drop water balloons on the new neighbours as they attempt to carry their furniture into the apartment below yours.

I wonder if there isn't some evolutionary reason for enjoying the spectacle of big complex things falling into ruin. Perhaps, in the depths of our so-called civilized minds, our animal instincts still carry an automatic distrust for order and society, longing to take down the established rules and authorities and grind them beneath our barbarian heels. On the other hand, perhaps it's a throwback from caveman times when we'd have to team up to bring down the larger animals of the day. When we see the woolly mammoth succumb to its wounds and tortuously collapse in a cloud of dust then we know there'll be cold cut suppers for weeks and plenty of raw materials to make our caveman sweaters from.

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