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new-horizons-probe

A few years ago, during something of an extended, accidental vacation, I picked up a copy of the novel Manifold: Time.  The cover, a rather minimalist affair, wasn’t particularly inspired – but the title itself, in tandem with the back-cover preview, was sufficient to catch my eye, as I’ve always had an especial fondness for temporal misadventures.

I had also, to that point, never had occasion to cross paths with any of Stephen Baxter’s work, and like any serious fan of a given genre (science fiction in this case) I’m always on the lookout for new authors.

It had, moreover, been quite some time since I’d last read a sci-fi novel; aside from the generally brilliant NJO series, I really hadn’t been exposed to anything new in the genre for a year or more – and certainly nothing ranging toward the harder end of the spectrum.

So Manifold: Time, when I dove into it, came as a most welcome surprise, and established itself with almost startling celerity as one of my favorite books.  For, above all it reminded me of the reasons that I had always been drawn to the genre in the first place.  By no means a truly hard sci-fi story, it nevertheless presented ideas theretofore unknown to me, and all in all afforded me a perspective just a touch different from the one with which I had begun reading.  In short, it genuinely expanded my intellectual and conceptual horizons – if not by any great margin, then enough to warrant both my notice and my gratitude.

And it is precisely this sort of experience that I hope to one day share, so to speak, with a game.

In the course of my personal gaming career, I’ve never encountered a title that I could say truly challenged me, intellectually.  A number have provided a wealth of moral food for thought, and a great many have, without question, pushed me to a greater mastery of their attendant mechanics that I would have thought possible had they simply coddled me (as most games are wont to do) – but much to my dismay, I’ve never yet stumbled to a game that has opened my eyes to new ideas, to new knowledge.

Now, lest I incur the impotent wrath of too many incensed onlookers, I should perhaps clarify what I’m not saying.  By no means am I claiming that ‘intellectual’ games, as I’ve here conceived of them, simply don’t exist, because there’s no way I could honestly be certain of that assertion; I’ve not played every game out there, obviously – none of us have.  Rather, I regret that none such have crossed my figurative desk – if there are indeed any to be found – and hope to some day correct that particular deficiency.

Further, I would never argue that every title should play like a schoolroom lecture.  Though I’ve never been quite so enthralled by the GTA series as most others, I’ve nonetheless enjoyed my fair share of virtual hedonism (Twisted Metal 2 was, for instance, one of the games that most interested me in the PSX), and I would never advocate that we do away with the same.

But, while it’s painfully clear that many can’t be bothered to spare even the dictionary an occasional, passing glance, much less spend any meaningful time in the company of a good book, I also know that I’m not the only one who relishes the thought of exposure to new concepts – and it seems to me that games are one of the finest vehicles by which to convey them.  The Armored Core series, in my own case, provides a serviceable enough exemplar, for when you get right down to it, a great deal of the game is really little more than glorified math.  More times than I can count, I’ve spent an hour or two doing nothing more than assemble and disassemble my AC in the in-game garage, endlessly swapping out her sundry parts in search of the perfect balance of aesthetics and performance, and running through batteries of arithmetic without surcease as I evaluate the impact of different components – and I’ve done so not only willingly, but cheerfully.  (Gran Turismo aficionados are no doubt well acquainted with this same species of mania.)  It’s not that I’m particularly fond of math – though we get on all right, most of the time – but rather, it’s the context that supplies the proverbial spoonful of sugar.

Obviously, low-level arithmetical operations are hardly on a level with a philosophical treatise or a decent sci-fi novel, but the point is that video games, I suspect, could be adapted to transmit the concepts of either with equal utility.  For, the tasks (such as the aforementioned math) which we would otherwise deem too arduous or dull to merit much more than a curt dismissal, when couched in a bit of graphical flair and some solid play mechanics, are suddenly rendered not merely palatable, but enjoyable to boot; I would very much love to see more developers and writers capitalize on this remarkable capacity of the medium.

In closing, I feel I should stress one last thing that I’m not saying: the foregoing should in no way be taken as a complaint, or any deep dissatisfaction with gaming in general.  I love the games that I’ve played, and I rather doubt that RE5, say, would be improved by shoehorning the EPR paradox in there somewhere.  And the oft-vexed ‘games-as-art’ debate, in this case, is neither here nor there.

But, as diverse a lot as gamers are, and despite their repeated caricature by fear-mongering rabble-rousers like Jack Thompson, I suspect that the majority are pretty smart cookies – it’s simply my hope that future games try just a little bit harder to take that cognitive horsepower into account.

  1. I’m curious to know exactly what you mean when you say that this book expanded your horizons and gave you a new perspective. The reason I ask is because I feel like I’ve played a lot of games which have done so for me. I should say, though, that I have a philosophy that humans don’t rarely ever ‘learn’ things, but instead, we just ‘realize’ them. So, while I’ve played a few games that have done the trick for me, maybe we’re talking about something different?

  2. Hm, I’m not sure if I can really do the novel justice with the verbal economy prescribed for comments and the like, but I’ll do my best.

    In an admittedly inelegant nutshell, there’s a part of the book in which the chief protagonist is asked to consider his place in the history of the human species, and the odds that he would be born when he was (the mid-to-late twentieth century). It was suggested that, by dint of sheer statistical probability, he should actually have expected to appear much later – unless, of course, humanity were already nearing the end of its existence.

    The author, of course, presents his case much better than I have, but that’s the gist of it. And I should reiterate that it was by no means an Earth-shattering revelation or any such thing – I’m not even altogether sure of the basic validity of the assertion – but it *was* something…new. I loved that chapter because it offered up a concept that I simply hadn’t encountered before, and a truly fascinating thought experiment (which I’ve no doubt butchered in the recounting).

    Now, like I said, my intent wasn’t to imply that games flat-out *don’t* provide the same, but rather that I have yet to encounter it personally in anything that I’ve played – which, of course, could just mean that I’m playing the wrong ones. :P But either way, I *do* think that games would make for a phenomenal delivery system, since they not only get us to do a lot of work already – just look at WoW raiding schedules, for instance – but enjoy it in the bargain.

    At all events, I hope I answered your question to some greater or lesser extent, and managed to convey the author’s idea with at least a modicum of clarity. (If not, feel free to IM me or something – I could probably do better with more space.) Though I’d also love to hear something of your own experiences: in my case, I was quite taken by my exposure to what essentially boils down to a new spin on a mathematical concept – but I’m guessing that you might be thinking along somewhat different (and less dorky) lines?

  3. Yeah, that was a great explanation! I didn’t mean to say that you were implying that games are all superficial (although, if you ask me, I’d say most of them are…). I just wanted to make sure we were on the same page.

    For me, the games I play that have given fresh perspectives were more on a social level than anything. And funny enough, they’re games that are mostly overlooked and even panned by critics.

    Take Legend of Mana, for example. That game is widely regarded as the black sheep of the series, and, until Dawn of Mana was released, it was also considered to be the worst by far. I would say that if somebody was to play just one game of the ‘Mana’ series, it would be Legend of Mana.

    I’m going to ignorantly assume that you’ve played a crapload of RPGs, because it will facilitate making my point. Most RPGs, as you “probably know”, like to talk about this omnipotent power called ‘humanity’, and how if all human beings come together, we can do all kinds of cool stuff. That’s true in theory, but it’s a little hard to swallow for the cynic who doesn’t believe in people’s ability to unite and work together altruistically in most cases, or just anyone who has lived longer than twenty years. RPGs also like to show their characters change from flawed people to perfect people over time, usually as a result of seeing this mysterious ‘power of humanity’.

    Legend of Mana doesn’t bother with any of that crap. In fact, its theme is more like “Changes can be made to the way people live their lives, but it takes strong-willed people, willing to make real sacrifices, to achieve their goals and bring about that change.” This is easier to stomach than the idea of millions of otherwise weak-spirited people uniting to become some all-powerful force that can overcome anything. Legend of Mana, despite its absolutely crazy aesthetic, is a very realistic game in this regard. And yet, if you talk to anyone about the game, they’ll probably just say something like “Oh, the stories weren’t that good.” It’s nuts!

    Or, one of my personal favorites is the super brief, super hilarious PS2 RPG, Okage: Shadow King. The game really hooks you with its comedy, but it winds up being a story about how, if you don’t work to make your voice heard, you’ll always be buried in the mundane, mediocre dreck of life.

    One way in which they establish this is by showing Ari, the main protagonist, to be a shy, soft-spoken, docile guy who gets pushed around a lot. Nobody ever listens to this guy: For example, for the majority of the game, Ari is frequently given choices to say certain things in conversations. This is a pretty common feature in RPGs, but the kicker is that, no matter what he says, people continue on their conversation anyways! This is really funny, but it also carries its own kind of poignancy. However, if you look at most reviews of the game, they all just say “Man, it’s dumb how you get all these conversation choices and they don’t even matter.”

    There are other games like this, but it’s hard to recommend them, because admittedly, the gameplay is usually so weird, or just bad. It’s always SOMETHING. What I’m waiting for is for someone to make a game in which the story has a compelling theme, but uses safe, fast-paced gameplay that doesn’t offend anyone. That’ll be the day…

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