Feature: Hiding the strings

By Neil Merrett

Shadowrun on SNES – released 1993, Data East

As manifestations of the undead go, this one was ridiculous, the stilted run, the cape and oversized collar, the bat-themed powers. The contact in the club had been partially right – this guy wasn’t human.

He was a vampire alright – albeit one a little more Sesame Street than you might expect in a simulated dystopian future.

No secret to resurrection himself, Armitage and his crew responded in a manner suitable to their pay grade.  

They weren’t there to negotiate, this collection of hackers, mages and assassins were on the clock.  Their expertise was largely based around pulling triggers and starting fires, and there was an undead army to dispatch before they could get to the bank.

Drawing their weapons they all knew what to do.

This was not the world of Bram Stoker, but the cult 90’s videogame Shadowrun.  

Nonetheless, this cliched undead tyrant was immune to the usual tactics of persuasion afforded by modern weaponry.

It was fortunate then that Armitage had been able able to pick up that strobe lighting from the local nightclub. Despite his reputation, the fiend was clearly not one for the nightlife of the 22nd century.  The strobe stunned him in a way magic and piercing metal never could.

In the creature’s blinded agony, Armitage moved in for the kill with that conveniently placed stake he had found earlier.  He wanted information – he would get it.

It is possible to read too much into fairly straightforward videogame narratives.  Shadowrun on the SNES from 1996 was no different.

Yet the scope of a videogame that is now nearly a quarter of a century old is nonetheless impressive for how you could tackle what felt like an isometric world crammed onto a cartridge with memory capacity barely a quantum of the titles we play today.

Admittedly it was a world of vampires and relatively similar nightclubs, of talking dogs imbued with voodoo and knee high boots.

It was a game where your money – earned through gladiatorial combat or robbing banks online – could be spent building your own personal hit squads of gunman and cyber criminals to help you hack and force your way through the game.  Of course you could just do it yourself.  

Playing a character named Jake Armitage, the player could choose instead to operate as a lone crusader using public transport and rifling through filing cabinets to bring down a shadowy global conspiracy overseen by a literal corporate dragon, all whilst building your skills as a trench coat wearing cyber magician.

Combine the exploration and free flowing isometric movement of a game like Syndicate or Toejam N’ Earl, with classic point and click games like Monkey Island, and a smidgen of the targeting in Virtua Cop and there you had Shadowrun, a strangely involving and still relatively costly game to buy without an emulator.

All videogames in the end are really an illusion.  But the good or semi-competent titles can always make you believe there is an entire other world to explore, even when you can’t go into every building or run off and start your own taxi company free of the established narrative.

It was released seven years before the the hugely influential Deus Ex, which created a seemingly open ended 3D world, customizable characters and the opportunity to kill, sneak or buy your way through its many challenges.  Yet both, stand out as going beyond their limitations.

The laws of technology dictate that the capability of games and hardware to create ever more complicated, sophisticated worlds will only increase, if not necessarily improve, with time.

From incorporating refined artificial intelligence to any number of other technical innovations that are set to surprise us over the next ten years, the potential for developers to create increasingly engaging worlds is only ever going to get better.

Yet certain games – some great, some more patchy – have been able to create the illusion of living breathing worlds for some time.

Bioshock Infinite and the Assassins Creed series – specifically during the Playstaiton 3 and Xbox 360 eras – combined elements of real world historical architecture and principles with exploration and characters that would interact not just to deliver exposition or be overcome, but sometimes just to enjoy a brief musical interlude.  As in life, it’s sometimes the small things.

But games have been trying to build these worlds even before consoles and desktops became capable of incorporating full David Bowie soundtracks or realistic hair and lighting effects.

Shadowrun despite being released 23 years ago was able to build a world without voice acting, 3D graphics or even the ability to jump, all on a cartridge file that could nowadays be squeezed thousands of times over on a budget value memory card or smartphone.

Perhaps then games are a lot like puppetry. Someone like Jim Henson was able to make you believe in his creations, even when you could see the strings and mechanisms controlling Kermit the Frog or the hundreds of other felt characters his team imbued with genuine personality and life.

Even with the most basic materials, great creators – even with the long surpassed, yet not so obsolete capabilities of the Super Nintendo – can exploit quirks and mirror sufficient real life characteristics despite the limitations they work with.  Ultimately they create worlds that seem to breathe and exist around you, even when not on the screen.

True virtual reality if you will.

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