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Abstract vs. Concrete (or: Gluttons for Our Doom)

March 6, 2010

The article “Coelacanth: Lessons from Doom” (via Waxy) might not mean much to you if you haven’t played Doom (as well as a lot of other video games—especially the early ones, ones with vector graphics or sprites like, oh, Tempest or Defender, maybe even in arcades in the 1980s)… but a lot of what it says rings true to me. Especially this bit:

As the march of technology has allowed ever-higher graphical fidelity, virtually every FPS since Doom has attempted greater and greater representationalism with its environments. While games like System Shock began to show that a real sense of place can be a huge draw in itself, designers of such games will always have to manage the tension between compelling fiction and optimal function, unless you are willing to go all out and have the kind of weird, abstract spaces Doom has. I would love to see more modern games break with this conventional wisdom and see where it leads, if only in an indie or experimental context.

I’ve thought this for a long time too… that making your games more “realistic” shouldn’t necessarily be the goal; that abstraction is itself powerful—the way chess is an abstraction of war, or even how Pong is an abstraction of (table) tennis. Rather than trying to build more bridges across the uncanny valley, why not try going back to a simpler palette, and seeing where that leads?

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