Hitting the books. (research in creating computer games) (Column)
by Paul C. Schuytema
Gone are the days when good mechanics and a fresh idea ensured a quality game. We, as consumers, demand more from our computer entertainment, and game developers have obliged us.
A case in point is Dynamix's Aces of the Pacific. This World War 11 flight simulator pulls us into the world of sunbleached runways, swaying palms, and Quonset huts of the Pacific theater. The mechanics are there: a solid simulator with impressive graphics and a healthy dose great gameplay.
Aces is so convincing largely because of the work of John Bruning, who is working toward his master's degree in aviation history at the University of Oregon.
He began his research in typical fashion: devouring books at the university library, from secondary sources to pilots' memoirs. After he'd grasped the big picture, he worked through the Air Force archives at Maxwell Field, Alabama, where he studied microfilm records of unit histories and official listings of fighter and bomber groups.
Bruning discovered that one of the highest-ranking aces of the Pacific theater, Gerald Johnson, was a native of Oregon. He tracked down Johnson's widow and borrowed an interesting piece of memorabilia from her: the silk map Johnson carried with him when he flew. On it were all of the main American air bases, against which Bruning could check his research.
His interest in this era is evident not just in his conversation but also in Aces.
Stepping back even further in time, Electronic Arts' The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes enters the smog-draped London of 1888. The Lost Files is the largest interactive adventure yet put on a PC, and the experience it provides is a cross between a colorized Basil Rathbone movie and a long indulgence in the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
R. J. Berg, the game's scriptwriter, has been a fan of Sherlock Holmes since boyhood. When he decided to put this game together, his first step was to dive into the canon of Doyle's work, rereading the stories not only for the mystery but also for the tone of speech and the quirks of Holmes's character.
Berg didn't want to rehash any of Doyle's work or rely on explanations borrowed from the fiction. He wanted to create a completely new adventure that excited the modern palate for mysteries but also remained true to the fictional Holmes. He labored to re-create Holmes's rhythm, from his conversational mannerisms to his tendency to overuse people's names.
Berg also studied Dickens's fiction to capture the Victorian flavor of the dialogue as well as the setting, and he used the cliches of Victorian society to bring the 1880s back to life.
Using period maps, Berg made sure that place and street names were accurate, while artists worked with books of Victorian fashion and costume to create the look of the game's characters.
Berg explains that Holmes was an enigmatic individual who was generally very far removed from the Basil Rathbone matinees. He was crass, solitary, and very unsympathetic toward those who were swung by their emotions. He didn't like women very well, and he couldn't tolerate ignorance in anyone. Holmes's personality is very strong in the game, a product of Berg's endless writing and rewriting.
The result is a cinematic excursion into the smokestacks of London and a wild and believable journey with Holmes as we help him unravel the Case of the Serrated Scalpel.
The research necessary to create these games answers our demands for greater depth. Our criteria for what makes an unforgettable movie or book have intermingled with our expectations of computer entertainment. We demand much more, and thankfully, we are getting it.