Reader wish: Video games, space combat simulators in particular. :-)

[This is a one-off request from the most recent readership poll.]

I’m a gamer myself, so I’m tempted to venture out. But there’s some stuff to discuss.

Let’s first distinguish between interfaces in cut-scenes, which are very much like the sci-fi interfaces I review here, and the interfaces of the games themselves.

Cut-scene interfaces are very much like the sci-fi interfaces reviewed on this blog. They might be a candidate for reviews. Except they don’t exit in isolation, they’re most often quite tied in with the game-itself interfaces, and those are entirely different beasts. The rest of this post discusses how different those beasts are.

Game-itself interfaces answer to different masters than sci-fi interfaces, even if on the surface they share surface similarities.

  • They are subject to pressures of usability, but the game is not meant to be perfectly usable. (That would be a button saying “win game.”)
  • They have to work exhaustively, meaning that if there’s a button it has to do something. sci-fi interfaces often have parts which actors are told work and parts they’re warned won’t.
  • Makers of sci-fi interfaces often tell the actor to just do their acting thing, and the makers will go back in later and backfill the interface around the actor’s motions. This of course affects the interface. Game-itself interfaces never backfill around users.
  • Sci-fi interface designers may have had no formal training in interaction design, and more around art and motion graphics. This makes those interfaces a kind of outsider art, which is kind of why they are sometimes brilliant and sometimes shite. (Even as more and more sci-fi interface studios are also doing real-world projects, they are clear about which one they’re working on.)
  • Game-itself interfaces are limited by the inputs of the gaming system: Keyboard or handheld controller. Sci-fi interfaces have little restrictions.
  • Sci-fi interfaces only occupy the full screen for at most seconds at a time. Game-itself interfaces are up the whole time during gameplay.
  • Sci-fi interfaces just always work. Even if the actor does something wrong, the effect that the story needs still happens.
  • Game-itself interfaces are customizable, so different people will be using different instantiations of the same thing.
  • Sci-fi interfaces have as their goal to tell the audience something, and can fudge most of the other semiotic layers beneath in the service of that. They mostly convey narrative information. A caused B change. C is happening. D is the intended plan. E is how F is doing this cool thing. The audience never has to use that information except in the service of understanding the story. Game-itself interfaces are about both the knowing and using that information directly.
  • The reviews would be different: we want to evaluate sci-fi interfaces for being believable, for how they contribute to the narrative, and what we can learn from them. game-itself interfaces would be reviewed for usability, for they equipped you to play the game. Just not the same thing.

So it’s because they are such different beasts, requiring a whole different conceptual framework, that I don’t think it’s right to include them here on this blog. There was a fellow a few years ago who started his own blog about game interface reviews, but I can’t find the blog URL in my inbox, or via search, but anyway I don’t think he was able to keep it up. Maybe he or someone else will be able to pick it up sometime.

But if someone started a blog on this topic (or wrote a nice in-depth article about it), I think it would be informative to analyses here. And heck, space agencies and sci-fi makers should pay attention to the lessons learned there.

Also I’m loathe to give too much attention to reviewing warfare and weapons interfaces. Hollywood already glamorizes war a little too much.

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