The Digital Toy
The most significant leaps forward for gameplay, supported by the interest and enthusiasm of
the gaming community for such things, have been toy components. And this is where the future
lies, both for games as pure entertainment, and games as a critical artist‟s message to the
The kind of „game‟ that is referred to herein is rather well defined in on Game Design
(Rollings & Adams, 2003, p35), “Other kinds of entertainment are not games. A toy is an object
that you play with without rules. You can play a game with a toy if you make up some rules to
play by, but ordinarily a toy does not come with rules… Some computer games have no victory
conditions… Rather than trying to “win” by achieving the victory condition, you can set your
own goals for what you‟re trying to achieve. Or you can just play around with the game without
trying to achieve anything in particular… These kinds of games are sometimes referred to as
software toys.” While some games feed the player a pre-written or even branching story, and
others have no attempt at story whatsoever and, like a sport or a basic board game, the players
simply play to win, on the other hand the toy offers the opportunity for the player to become the
author in creating their own unique story every time they play, and anecdotally share their
stories with others afterwards.
This concept has rarely been put to use in isolation, but has often been a component of a
conventional game with a linear or branching narrative. For example GTAIV contains a main
storyline and many mini storylines in the form of RPG-like optional side-quests, but the main
appeal of the game is its letting the player do almost anything they can imagine with a corrupt
city as their playground. While players do not often talk to others about what happened in the
storyline or what certain characters did, they instead often talk about the mad adventures that
they instigated and were unique to them. The makers have even facilitated and encouraged
this „player authoring of stories‟ and anecdote sharing by including the ability to record and edit
the in-game events like a movie, and by creating the GTA club which users can log into and
view other people‟s screenshots, movies and talk with them.
As games have developed, particularly in recent years, there has been emphasis put on
these toy components of the game and on increased player choice and control. The game
Frontlines: Fuel of War had all its campaign maps and objectives designed to give the player
free reign of how they would like to go about tackling each problem. Such was achieved
through use of wide open, sandbox-like maps and by having multiple objectives open for
completion in parallel (and in whichever order and by whatever method the player deemed fit)
where possible. Carmageddon was one of the early games to have open sandbox maps that
made possible the fun that players bought and loved the game for, and the kind of „play‟ the
designers wanted in the game (having sandbox maps was entirely necessary and unavoidable
for the kind of game they wanted to make).
The game Half Life 2 gave players the „gravity gun‟ with which to do what they would with the
physics system. The game even got a fan interested enough in the physics toy to create
Garry‟s Mod, which has no goals or rules but gives the player (or players if played multiplayer)
all the tools necessary to create and manipulate any and every object and character in the
game. This mod is immensely popular and has even received awards
The Black and White series by Lionhead Studios was also much anticipated and well-liked
for its toy components more so than any narrative or even the actual competitive game that
was played against other gods. Players were much more interested in interacting with the pet-
like AI of the creature and creating and managing the populated villages
(http://au.gamespot.com/pc/strategy/blackwhite/review.html). They were also very interested in
the freedom and intuitive control of the hand which was the player‟s only method of exerting
their control as a god on the world. Black and White is recognised widely by the gaming
community as the spiritual descendent of Peter Molyneux‟s earlier work with Bullfrog, titled
Populous was a game that sort of naturally grew out of experimentation and spontaneous
ideas as to what would make the system more fun (http://www.edge-online.com/magazine/the-
making-of-populous), starting out as a simple creation and manipulation tool rather than a
structure game design with goals and rules.
Prior to this, games such as the Petz series (consisting of Dogz, Catz, and Babyz), Little
Computer People, and arguably even the physical world toys such as furbies, tamagotchis and
the robotic dog AIBO, were helping highlight the potential of the unscripted toy to mainstream
Dynamic interactive-automated toy-simulations are applauded and craved by the current
gaming community, as evidenced by the popularity of Will Wright‟s The Sims, Spore, the Far
Cry and Crysis series, Garry‟s Mod, the GTA series, Viva Piñata, Nintendogs, city builders such
as SimCity series, and other simulations and sandboxes. And by the awe, hype and excitement
inspired by the Endorphin/Euphoria technology from NaturalMotion, Havoc physics, ecosystem
simulations, and realistic daily lives lived by the AI in Bethesda‟s Oblivion. (In Oblivion the
player could even pick up forks. Was there a point or purpose to doing so? Did such
pointlessness even affect players‟ desire to have that freedom?) And by the online flash games
created for the hell of it like Interactive Buddy (where the player has a small doll that behaves
with some basic AI and physics, and whole list of tools, toys and weapons with which to please
or torture him), and Tri-achnid (which attracts attention mostly for its unusual control system
interacting with the physics of the two-dimensional flash world, with rocks, spider webbing, wind
and water to interact with and affect each other).
In fact, the focus of player as author was explicitly specified for games like The Sims and
Spore, in which creation and customisation is considered by the developers as „play time‟ just
as much as the game itself, and in which games the emphasis is quite clearly put on the player
creating their own stories, with no real pre-written story existing to drive them onward.
The future for purely entertaining games will be the massive toy, where a „game‟ is simply a
fictional world capable of reacting to any interaction a player can think of. The desires of fans of
the „Avatar‟ movie are not really about the story, but about living in the world. Games such as
The Sims and Second Life exemplify this.
Undoubtedly, this is where games are headed for the near future. The real artistic potential
for the medium of „games‟ (at least in regards to mature themes, issues, philosophical
questions and intellectual discussion through the medium) is not in how they tell a story, but in
putting the player in control, allowing them to experiment, explore, discover, criticise, question
and seek answers. With the medium of games, the artist‟s audience can learn by doing – the
message can be conveyed through the player‟s own decisions.
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