Monday, May 12, 2008

The Limitations of a Sim, or, Hope for the Dwarf Fortress Addict

"Simulation" computer games grab me and they refuse to let me go. There's something about my personality that loves playing god with small collections of simulated humans, even if the simulated humans are just washing their dishes.

Along comes "Dwarf Fortress," which is not only an elaborate social sim but also caters to my OTHER game obsession: procedurally-generated worlds in which I can build and populate elaborate environments. This sort of game is the best drug ever for me. It goes straight through my eyes and into the pleasure centers of my brain. It's so good it's like mainlining breakfast, without the annoying waitress and the babies crapping on the highchairs.

But fortunately there seems to be an unavoidable flaw in all simulations. This flaw ultimately dulls the thrill and returns me to my pre-addicted, regularly-blogging self: sims are fun as long as there are more "real-world" details waiting to be exposed to the player...

...but the more detailed a game becomes, the more monotonous the gameplay ends up being, because the real-world is actually horribly dull.

For instance, I really enjoyed "The Sims" until I realized it was essentially an endless routine of getting my simulated people off to work on time, which is so realistic that it actually sucks. Likewise a game like "Alpha Centauri" where the problems boil down to getting your simulated units from one part of the world to the other; in my REAL life I finally bought a car to reduce that sort of monotony. Why should I put up with such things in a piece of escapist entertainment?

It's typical that, when I started actually having dreams about "Dwarf Fortress," my dreams were always about moving rocks from one place to another. I'd wake up in the morning feeling as though I'd worked all night in a warehouse, moving junk around from one place to another, then moving it back again later on. Most of the gameplay in "Dwarf Fortress" really comes down to that...

...and it's terribly dull and the exact opposite of entertainment...

...but that's the limitation of an accurate simulation: everyday life REALLY IS about moving stuff around all day, whether it's money or food or your body. The only reason we stay sane is because we forget the number of times we've washed our hands and the number of socks we've picked up (and believe me, the Dwarves in "Dwarf Fortress" are ALWAYS leaving their socks around).

So, my sim-hungry brain craves the most accurate "real life" simulation possible...but my brain is simultaneously uninterested in the mundane tasks that are 95% of real life. "Dwarf Fortress" could only sustain my interest if it got even more ridiculously detailed, but by doing so it would only become more tedious as a result.

I suspect this applies to the high-end modern simulations as well, games like Grand Theft Auto 4 and The Sims 2. I'm sure there's a point in the "fun sim" equation when the lines of "tedium" and "realism" meet, where the player cannot cross.

For my own social future that's surely a good thing.


Hilda said...

I'm telling you check out World of Warcraft - it's a blast and delightfully addictive.

Adam Thornton said...

My four-year-old computer is such a woeful dinosaur that it would not be able to handle WoW...and thank goodness! Otherwise my cat would literally commit suicide out of neglect.

But I'm sure the game is wonderful...I know many who are hooked.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Excellently put. This is the same reason I have trouble reading "slice of life" short stories and a lot of mainstream/literary fiction where people think a lot and nothing actually happens.

I have a real life where I think a lot and not much actually happens. Gimme some ACTION!

Explosions and werewolves are a plus, too. :)

Adam Thornton said...

Yes, it's exactly the same issue in fiction...writers have always been confronted with the question "how much do I tell, and how many werewolves should I add to make it interesting?"

Anonymous said...

have a real life where I think a lot and not much actually happens. Gimme some ACTION!

What about blogs? How many werewolves in a conga line does it need to qualify as non-boring?

Adam Thornton said...

JJ, these days you need THREE werewolves in a conga line, and they must be young goth women with tattoos.

Ten years ago it was only necessary to have two, and they tended to be seattle rocker guys. With tattoos.

Anonymous said...

As far as MMORPGS go, avoid EVE Online at all costs.

Heh, the other day I was perusing a blog by some retro gamer, and she mentioned Wumpus 2000! I was all set to tell you that I saw you mentioned, but you knew, and were pleased to see a Wumpus 2000 map in someone elses handwriting. Auntie Pixelantie.

Eve Online is a real dead end.. it is a realistic sci-fi game, when you die you lose everything. It was launched as a Libertarian Utopia.

Funny, the Libertarian Utopia, after a while, evolved into massive empires warring in epic battles in which the individual is a mere pawn. If you're clever you might learn something from that. :/