Friday, October 12, 2007

Rewriting physics

From time to time I have referred in these pages to thought experiments (or, more encompassingly, thought-emotion experiments) as being central to the enterprise of futures thinking (see here, here, and here). The elaboration of "images of the future", the core subject-matter of the field, clearly invokes the hypothesis-making process: the exercise of imagination in general, and scenario thinking in particular.

Now, a current post by Wired writer and blogger Clive Thompson helps illustrate the role of (video) gaming in developing this cognitive faculty. I'm reminded of Steven Johnson's highly readable manifesto in defence of video games, and other unjustly maligned -- as he argues -- pop culture products (Everything Bad is Good for You).

Thompson reviews a video game whose breakthrough innovation is a basic, profound, rewrite of the laws of physics. To me the key is not whether this is physically plausible or not, something the future could realistically bring, but simply the mental gymnastics necessary to wrap your mind around the adjustment. My sense is that this is somehow exactly the kind of mental elastic that we ought to stretch on a regular basis to stay in shape for changing times.

The game is Portal, and the premise is simply this: "[Y]ou control a gun that can blast two connected oval portals on different surfaces -- floors, ceilings and walls. If you step through the first portal, you emerge immediately from the other, teleported instantaneously through space, as if you walked through a magic mirror."

Thompson continues:

The game designers produce their coolest tricks by ruthlessly adhering to most of Newtonian physics but then cleverly violate one key rule -- thus allowing you, the gamer, to explore what happens in such a world.

This is precisely the sort of mental thought-experiment that really well-designed games can provide.
Why not use this game mechanic to shake up other well-worn genres? Imagine a first-person shooter where you can trigger portals on the fly, popping through them to snipe an enemy. Or think how weird a Mario racing game would be if you could shoot portals that wreak havoc on the racetrack?
It's ... an object lesson in breakthrough game design. Tweak one part of a well-worn game mechanic, and presto -- you can open a door to something really new.

The game review is insightful and very well written, but the demo video posted at YouTube really says it all ... this is a game I need to play. Maybe you do too.


Stuart Candy said...

"Welcome to the Aperture Science Enrichment Center. Let's look at some of the challenges you'll face as a test participant. You may be required to perform simple tasks, such as locating an exit. These simple tasks may be supplemented with insurmountable obstacles..."

Neglected to mention, the setup for this trailer is diegetic to the scenario -- it presents as an artifact from the future.

Anonymous said...

hey mate,
How's it going? Enjoyed the post about portal, it sounds like a great game! Anyway, just thought I would ask and see if you had had a chance to play it yet? I'm not exactly sure when it comes out, or if it is out already, but this is the flash version of the game. It obviously much worse graphics, and there is a couple of bugs in the game, but it is still worth a go...and it's a lot of fun! So, if you have some time have a go at:

tokyocrunch said...