Ben Carter

computer games

In computer games, like perspective paintings, you can't literally enter the space. You can only move into the space with your eyes. But unlike perspective painting you are also able to turn within the imaginative space and move around corners.

What in painting is out of limits, because of the frontal organization of the perspective structure, is (though perhaps already hinted at in cubism) accessible in a computer games. (Different also from film since we control, to a greater extent, the manner in which we enter the space). The question then arises: what does this add to our experience of form and space?

Though computer games start to imitate action films, does this not undermine and even break up the hypnotic power of this forever turning and wending, and the sense of becoming more and more inextricably caught up in the space?

Computer games produce a new kind of image structure: one based on calculations, and where narratives evolve through the image within a set of parameters where the particular route it will take isn't predictable in advance. There is rather a field of  if/then clauses, all interlinked. The player is free to the extent that he can move back and forth and from side to side, but he is not free to move out of this mesh of clauses. This is in his own interest because beyond this, the space breaks down, and there is only chaotic seeming code.

Where in perspective painting there is (though perhaps not clearly) a relationship of subject to object, computer games seem to merge these terms in unexpected ways.

The first person perspective is strangely disorientating. Until you are well conditioned to this point of view there is a sense of being pressed up too closely to reality, like having ones face pressed against a window.

This is probably due to the stiffness of the controls with the current state of this technology. One alternative is to have a character that runs before you in the virtual world, and which you control as if it represents you; with the alarming consequence that when you suddenly turn your character to run back in the opposite direction, the character presumed to be yourself (perhaps) is suddenly running towards you, past you, until your point of view catches up, and you take up the subjectively more acceptable position of being just behind (like the camera in the recent Belgian film Rosetta which hangs just behind Rosetta's shoulder and seems to describe a trailing conscience, suddenly confronted when she lurches back - I, you, he/she merge in curious ways.

Also (psychologically) confusing are games where you are operating a number of characters. This normally means you are specifically controlling one figure while the others trail behind, but at certain moments it's possible to jump to one of the trailing figures, so that now this one takes the lead.

like perspective painting computer games are constructed out of architecture. (Nature must be put into this construction as if it were architecture). This architecture describes a space receding toward its vanishing point. When you are moving through computer space the vanishing point is constantly deferred. Nevertheless the sense of being caught inside a web-like construction, of being dragged toward the vanishing point is still apparent. (Before certain perspective paintings the viewer has the vertiginous impression of falling towards the vanishing point.)

As mentioned above, narrative in computer games isn't constructed in a linear way, but more like a diagram. Linearity and simple narrative closure reduce the potential complexity of the space which seems to be more like a space for wandering. Caught within a system of more or less apparent passages, the player comes to terms with a space constructed from calculations which, unlike in perspective paintings now completely surrounds him.

12 December 2000