Physics seem to be a permanent mainstay in today’s games, as indeed they always have been for basically the entire universe, and it’s a rare game indeed nowadays that isn’t obligated to paste the Havok logo on the end of the credits. And this is no bad thing. I can still remember full 3D games whose token acknowledgement of physics was that crates would move straight downwards unless any point of their model was on top of anything solid. So in games like Thief you could build a staircase of crates all balanced on the very lip of the crate underneath it and climb out of the universe. Which wasn’t exactly great for immersion.
Nowadays things fall off other things with all the complex gravity and rotation of real life, even if everything in the universe seems to be constructed from extremely high-tension rubber, and things have never been more fun to fuck around with. But some games are still in the giddy courtship period with physics and base their whole games around them, like bullet time in the early 2000’s. Half-Life 2 led the way with its slightly erotic fascination with see-saws and latterly there’s Red Faction Guerrilla, which constructed all of its buildings from detachable physics objects.
I remember in my Extra Punctuation column for Guerrilla – one of my very first Extra Punctuation columns, history fans – I bemoaned how there didn’t seem to be much guerrilla-y about your actions, that is to say, subtle. You just smash everything up. In Red Faction Armageddon things go even further backwards by being a linear shooter that just happens to have some destructible buildings along the way. The appeal for me lay in an entire world built from destructible physics parts allowing literally any route, if you were patient enough to just tunnel your way directly to an objective, and Armageddon missed that point. After a while it just came down to occasionally passing a small building with alien stuff growing on the outside you were invited to smash down for the experience points. And they’re not even in the way.
All these games that base themselves around the physics like this, in which camp I include stuff like Angry Birds and Stair Dismount on my iPhone, seem to be about watching stuff fall down. On the broadest level, that is. And it’s true that there’s a curious satisfaction to be had in seeing something big and which someone probably put a lot of time and resources into building and assembling fall back into chaos. Even on the smaller scale, there are entire schools of comedy built around the basic principle of watching some dignified sap fall on his arse. It’s the same instinct that makes us want to kick down a small child’s sandcastle or drop water balloons on the new neighbours as they attempt to carry their furniture into the apartment below yours.
I wonder if there isn’t some evolutionary reason for enjoying the spectacle of big complex things falling into ruin. Perhaps, in the depths of our so-called civilized minds, our animal instincts still carry an automatic distrust for order and society, longing to take down the established rules and authorities and grind them beneath our barbarian heels. On the other hand, perhaps it’s a throwback from caveman times when we’d have to team up to bring down the larger animals of the day. When we see the woolly mammoth succumb to its wounds and tortuously collapse in a cloud of dust then we know there’ll be cold cut suppers for weeks and plenty of raw materials to make our caveman sweaters from.
Whatever the case, what disappoints me is that Red Faction only seems to occupy that broad, primal end of the spectrum – smash up the entire building and shoot anything that runs out of the wreckage. We’ve proved we can make a destruction physics game where the idea is to smash things. The next thing we need to do, to prove our mastery of the art, is to make a game with destruction physics based around knowing when not to smash things.
Let’s say you’re an infiltration expert assigned to go into an enemy fortress to acquire some secret documents, in a sort of Thief 2 / Hitman-style mission structure with smaller open-ended environments. The fortress is constructed entirely from destructible physics objects that a certain amount of strength could bring down, some bits requiring more strength than others. The point being not to encourage the player to completely demolish the place but to allow almost infinite options. You could go through the main entrance, knocking out or killing guards, risking the enemy realizing the intelligence is compromised and changing their plans (as discussed in my previous XP on invisibility), or you could bash a hole in the basement wall and make your own way in where the guards don’t patrol. Maybe you could even have every alarm, camera, light and electronic device hooked up by hidden cables to appropriate power sources. Then, with the right intelligence, break outer parts of wall and ceiling to release the cables and cut them. Then use a dangling one to swing over a gap, why the hell not? Throw in fire physics from Alone in the Dark and water physics from Hydrophobia and solutions multiply twentyfold. And then your processor explodes, but whatever.
If you stop worrying about linear paths and just concentrate on making a building as detailed in its physics as possible, players can find whatever paths they want. And it seems to me that there are an awful lot of reasons why you wouldn’t want to completely demolish an enemy building. It’s going to draw way too much attention, for one thing, and, as much as games like Assassin’s Creed might refute this, the last thing an infiltrator should want to do is draw attention to himself. Even disregarding that, you might ruin or destroy some important object you’re supposed to be acquiring. Or maybe your superiors want to be able to use the building afterwards – there’s not going to be much consolidated staging going on inside a pile of brick dust.
Still, let’s look at it from a less processor-melting perspective. Why not simply use destruction physics against the player? Perhaps in some kind of disaster simulator in the vein of Raw Danger or the mysterious I Am Alive, where you’re inside a physics-driven building whose supporting wall has just collapsed and you need to get out safely. A sort of logical continuation of that old platformer cliché of ledges that collapse just after you step on them. Come to think of it, you could do this in 2D as an Iphone game – a sort of reverse Angry Birds where you’re one of the pigs and need to make your way to the ground without falling too far or getting fatally bashed on the head by debris. You’d need to move around and shove the scenery selectively to get out while causing the least damage to the world.
Don’t get me wrong, I like watching things collapse as much as the next man, but games have had physics for ages and you’d think we’d have gotten more sophisticated with it by now. Comes a time when you have to stop jumping on sandcastles and see if it wouldn’t be just as much fun to live in one.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.