On The Future of Gaming: Other Worlds

This is a paper I wrote for my college when I was asked to help the CS department's ailing Game Design program. It's a brief history of the concept of building other worlds for people to explore. This is not the one and only future, but merely a branch of it. Gaming will expand in many ways, shapes, and forms in the coming years.

People have always been fascinated with the concept of other realities. From the Chronicles of Narnia to the Matrix, the idea that there are other worlds, real or fictional, has permeated human consciousness. It makes sense, of course. We've mapped all continents, seen much of the planet's unique wildlife, and know of all human cultures. To put it simply, there just isn't that much more out there to explore, but we humans are, by our very nature, explorers. We crave discovery. We crave the new. Most of us will never have the opportunity to drive the latest Lamborghini, rob a bank, solve a crime, or save the world, but through virtual reality, we can explore any experience in any time or place, real or imagined.

The history of virtual reality is an interesting one, though, for the scope of this paper, my intent is to cover its relationship with gaming. The fundamental issue with virtual realities as they stand today are content generation, artificial intelligence, and better immersion technology. You can't just run headfirst into virtual reality any more than you can invent a car without having the wheel or internal combustion engine. Innovation, after all, is iterative, not immediate. Gaming provides us with the building blocks for virtual reality, so that's what we'll explore today.

It actually starts before video games, back in 1974, when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created Dungeons & Dragons, which took the strategy wargaming games and focused them on a small party of players, rather than individual players who ran entire armies. Dungeons & Dragons utilized dice rolls as an abstraction-that is, a simplified version of a more complex real-life idea-to allow for, say, a character do dodge successfully. The game they had created was the role-playing game, a genre built around the idea of allowing players to become characters in an adventure of their choosing.

Fast forward to 1981, when programmer Richard Garriot developed Ultima, considered by many to be the first proper video game RPG. It moved the RPG from the tabletop to the computer, though in the process, it lost the intelligence brought by the game's moderator, since computers are less flexible and capable of dealing with player improvisation. Still, the computer was better able to handle dice rolls than players, which would blossom and grow in the years to come.

Ten years after Ultima launched, Paul Neurath and the members of his company, which would later be renamed to Looking Glass Studios, began work on a new version of Ultima. The idea was simple: marry the simulation experience that the team had with their RPG experience; this game was called Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, and it went on to inspire a vast number of games, including Bethesda's legendary The Elder Scrolls series.

Looking Glass, made up of primarily MIT graduates, went on to create some of the most influential games of all time, such as System Shock (which inspired Bioshock, Dead Space, Doom 3, and Portal, among others) and Thief (Hitman, Splinter Cell, Assassin's Creed). In doing so, they established a new genre: the immersive sim. Other games had done interesting things with the medium, but it was the immersive sim that revealed the true strength of what video games could accomplish. The immersive sim was the first real virtual reality in games.

It was defined by a few important elements: first, and foremost, immersion. That meant that all immersive sims were to be played in the first person and in 3D. Abstractions were removed-no longer did the games rely on simple dice rolls; instead, they relied on more advanced artificial intelligence and physics simulations to allow things to occur. Level design was altered from traditional games as well; they were intended to emulate real space, as opposed to virtual ones. Sound, too, was given prime focus.

Take, for instance, Lord Bafford's Manor, the first level in Thief. It takes place in a mansion in a city. You navigate the city, climb down into the sewers, and make your way into the house, where you must avoid both guards and servants. You can hear them, whether they're conversing about bear fights, snoring, sneezing, or just walking along the halls. They can't see you if you hide in the shadows, but should you make too much noise, they'll respond and investigate, or, if they see you, take appropriate action. Once, at a later point in the game, I beat an enemy who fled before I had the chance to finish it off, and every time we crossed paths, it would whimper and run away.

After Looking Glass's demise in the early 2000s, it looked as though the genre might have died. Sure, people had released a few games, like Deus ex, Arx Fatalis, Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, but the immersive sim's creators were gone, and it didn't appear as though much was going to change. Then, in 2005, a developer named Monolith released a game called FEAR, which had a groundbreaking type of AI, called "Goal Action Oriented Planning." The idea behind GOAP was that AI should be able to solve problems more easily. If you told the AI to do something, it would figure out how to accomplish that task independently. Upon its release, FEAR's AI was lauded as the industry's best. The same year, German developer Crytek released Far Cry, a game with massive, open maps that were designed to allow players to play how they wanted.

2007 changed everything. Irrational, who had co-developed System Shock 2 with Looking Glass, released Bioshock, a more gamified version of the immersive sim, but an immersive sim nontheless. Crytek released its next game, Crysis, which had better physics and AI than Far Cry, but remained true to its predecessor. Ubisoft Montreal was very deep in their own immersive sim, Far Cry 2, headed up by former Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory designer Clint Hocking. It would release in 2008 to critical acclaim.

But it was an obscure Ukranian studio, GSC Game World, that pushed the medium even further forward. Their game, STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, had been first announced in 2001. Upon release, it was one of the buggiest games that had ever been released. But when STALKER worked... well, that was a different thing entirely. Shadow of Chernobyl built upon GOAP to create its own unique form of AI, which GSC called ALife, which was involved environmental factors, as well as character evolution. Meet a guy at the start of a game, and he'd have poor equipment. Meet him after he's gained experience, and he'll have better equipment. Packs of dogs would grow more bold the larger their numbers were. The game's sound design and physics helped increase the sense of immersion, as did the night and day cycles, weather and environmental changes, and complex elements like hunger, thirst, and bleeding. Mods, such as AMK, have since made the game even more ambitious.

To this day, STALKER is still the most advanced immersive sim existence, though that isn't to say that other immersive sims haven't been released. We've seen games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, two more STALKER games, Amnesia, and others. The genre has been reborn, and with it, a new hope for virtual reality.

For VR to succeed in the future, several key areas are going to need to be worked on. First, and foremost, is artificial intelligence-AI needs to be a lot better at reacting to people. If, for example, I'm playing as a cowboy walking into a saloon and I pull my gun, the AI shouldn't get up and start shooting; instead, it should take into account the situation, and act like normal people would, rather than merely switching between states of action. After that, you've got to think about sound design-people actually rely on game sound far more than they realize for their enjoyment of a game (this is a large part of the reason that otherwise poor games or hated game tropes will get high scores), not to mention world design (creating a compelling, yet logical worldspace), the better facilitation of character/world interaction, and, lastly, better sensory information and feedback.

We are on the cusp of an exciting new reality, and it's gaming that's going to drive the technology to get us there. It will, eventually, grow from being merely a method entertainment to something that can change the world. Doctors and soldiers could be trained in moments of extreme duress. Individuals who can't afford vacations could use virtual realities to relax. People could go to places they've never been to, study times they'll never experience, and many other things. Games are how we get there, and it's the immersive sim that leads the way.