Playing Beautifully

It could be said that my central argument here and in my thesis is that the real-time image as a medium is ultimately about the question of what is achievable in terms of definition and simulation in real-time.  So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that I, for one, am a sucker for tech demos in general, but those in particular that fundamentally alter the said paradigm drastically for the better.  As in, “there’s no going back” better.

Also, I love when a demo is presented before a live audience of which audible reactions contribute to the overall atmosphere. In fact, those kinds of presentations are often most effective and convincing ones, as there is immediate feedback from the supposed end users. This is, of course, something infomercials exploit unscrupulously with their hired audiences, but when the positive cheers and gasps are born out of legitimate excitement, the presentation becomes that more powerful and spectacular. One has only to reminisce the introduction of the iPhone back in 2007 to see where I’m going with this.

So, to find a live demo of equally epic proportions from the realm of real-time imagery, I would argue one strong candidate would be the Half-life 2 demo at the E3 2003 expo. In retrospective, it’s extremely fascinating to watch the presentation to unfold as the excited audience eats and swallows everything that is fed to it, trying at the same time to interact casually with the Valve representative with awkward jokes and giddy remarks. It really is demos like this that turn adults into kids, professionals into enthusiasts, and most importantly, the reason why I follow the industry in the first place.

Besides the mere technology that was briefly showcased at the beginning of the demo, I found, and still find, the gameplay portion itself quite interesting, not only for the visual content per se, but the elegant fashion the game was played. Indeed, the demonstrative gameplay wasn’t by any means a realistic portrayal of how people actually play such a game, but rather an ideal concept of how playing HL 2 should look like at its best.

This kind of “aesthetic gameplay” was achieved by carefully choreographing the hypothetical player to act far more spectacularly, or cinematically, if you will, than would’ve been necessary from the pure game mechanics standpoint. The overly stylistic and smooth camera movements, extensive use of cover, impressive utilization of various physics based objects and overall pacing all made the demo seem, in some sense, more like a machinima than genuine gameplay. It becomes even more evident when playing the finished product oneself that some things the supposed player does in the demo indeed don’t make any other sense than look cool.

Which raises the essential question of what other reasons there are to play video games other than to make cool looking things happen on the screen?

The charm of real-time image is that in the end it is what the player makes of it. One can choose to burst through the game as efficiently as possible, like they do in so-called speed runs. Or, to play the game like a musical instrument, with care and thought, and perhaps even fantasizing an audience to which the gameplay is purportedly being presented. Like in the HL 2 live demo.

So, what I’m trying to say here is that perhaps one should play video games more like an actor on a stage, than, say, an athlete on a 100m dash.