The secret lives of games

If you’ve always loved Ico for its sparseness – the wind-blasted ruins, the empty space, the near total absence of an overbearing backstory – you probably had mixed emotions about this week’s news that fans have datamined the game and discovered that the original script was far longer than the final cut. 115 lines of dialogue for an entire game is hardly chatty, of course, but Ico as we have it now is all about restraint, about the things that go unsaid or unexplained. Will Self has a wonderful word that’s worth reappropriating for this kind of thing: under-imagined. It’s not a criticism at all in this context (or in his original context), just an acknowledgement that if showing is better than telling, sometimes not showing or telling is better than both.

Ico’s not the only game that we’re learning more about long after the fact. Far more delightful is a recent story about Fallout 3 that suggests that, in order to create the effect of a player riding a subway train, the player was actually wearing the subway train in question. First-person viewpoints can hide an awful lot of fudging: the only thing that truly matters is what ends up on the screen, after all. We expect this trickery with cinema, where years of Behind-the-Scenes TV shows have meant that we now know that the rocks are polystyrene, the skyline is digital, and that, just out of view, the actors can see a bunch of ladders and lighting rigs and assistant directors drinking Frappuccinos. With games, it’s a little different perhaps – more along the lines of the mutated spinal monstrosities that Crytek relied on to get crouch animations right for Crysis 2 – but the hidden world is still there, jury-rigged, Scotch-taped, and endearingly human.

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Urk.

The humanity of this stuff is what I find most fascinating: that hidden in the code you get traces of the people who made the game. It’s everywhere in code, I gather: comments explaining how a thing operates, or why a thing operates in a very strange way, tacked inside everything from the stuff that controls cashpoint interfaces to the workings of an old NES cartridge. Normally we never get to see this, and that’s fine. Because it means on the rare occasions we do get to see it, it makes all the more impact.

I remember a famous post on NeoGAF that revealed the bushes in Super Mario Bros are really just clouds, set at ground level and coloured green. In the context of Nintendo, this discovery has a disproportionately large impact. We sort of expect Nintendo games to be perfect, or at least seamless, allowing no access to the things we are not meant to see. Even when you know that the bushes are clouds, of course, Nintendo has only given a certain amount of itself away. What you’re left with is a sense of even greater craftsmanship: a nonchalant and perhaps innate understanding of the way that perception works, and the sort of things that players will never spot, that affords coders and artists a pleasing kind of elegance and economy in their work.