essay

Do games have ‘gods’ in their engines?

I freely admit that title was written to purposely provoke the idea of divinity. However, I don’t mean in the sense that there is some mystical force behind or even within video game. No, I’m suggesting it within the idea that the engines that run games, the very platforms that hold the rules of how worlds work, are made. Teams of people code how certain decisions are arrived at and there exists, even below the mechanics of a game itself, rules that govern internal logic. These are the ‘gods’ I am talking about.

A better word for it might be ‘authority’, if you want to use Marxist theory to talk about the power dynamics at work, but there exists a series of algorithms that tell a higher level of mechanics how to interpret player interaction. And I don’t just mean at the hardware level, although there is certainly a case to made for that too. No, I’m talking about the software that runs between the game itself and the hardware. That which talks to the player more directly than the game’s rules and in less of a manner than the controller they might be holding. In many cases, this is middleware or just a game engine that is positioned as a framework that interacts with all parts of a system and controls how developer-written code is run.

As an example, I am thinking about the .Net framework for XNA and some Windows-based games. It would be the underlining level of code that talks to the operating system or even directly to the hardware itself (depending on the environment). On some level, it directs how code can be run and when. It establishes rules for how to interact with certain software objects and in what manner. It is a language, in a way, that programmers have to follow in order to use it and develop their code for certain systems like the Xbox 360 — especially the indie scene there.

My point then is that, from the perspective of the characters or even players in the game, it is a type of divine force that is behind their worlds. No matter the modifications used or even cheat codes enabled by the player on their end, there exists some rules that cannot be broken and that seem to be upheld despite all efforts. They are also those rules that interact with the player on a world-building level, yet even the characters in the world are not quite aware of themselves. For as much as a fourth wall might be broken by characters saying things like “Press X to jump,” they are not aware of the limitations placed upon them.

I am, of course, thinking about my own extended series on looking at if the code that governs the morality in Fallout 3 might be seen as a ‘god’ that punishes any who step out of its established set of commandments too. Because, it is the player in that game who can steal and murder — both seen as ‘bad’ karma acts — and is punished without anyone else being around to see her actions. Even in New Vegas, where that global system is mitigated, factions learn of your deeds against them at an alarming pace. (The Gamebyro engine, in both of those cases, handles those decisions.) Of course, this is not limited to these two games and is part of most open world games too, even MMORPGs as well.

There is, under the rules of how the game works, that of scoring points or getting to a goal the quickest, mechanics that say when collision detection works and when it doesn’t. It is those rules I am addressing here. Even beyond how to progress in a story, there are often overlooked parts of games that are built from the engine level upwards, that of guiding how a character might be animated or even walk down a street. The physics of the world, for example. Such variables might be tweaked by settings, by the player, or even via objects in the games, but they cannot be broken completely. It is these rules that exist on the level of a ‘god’.

I use that term because I want to again bring up the point that they were created, placed and connected by other people. In other words, the engine is created and handed to another group, maybe a middleware company or even the developers of a game themselves, and they use those rules to create new ones. While the engine might handle the basics of maintaining the world, how animations might happen, and other things might collision detection, it also establishes its own touches on those worlds that run the same systems; those semantics that it uses to say how different software can interact bleed into other systems and ultimately make their way up the chain to the player.

The touches of this ‘god’ that runs a virtual world can be seen, yet are often overlooked by the player on most occasions. The glitches that manifest in the world and then trigger other reactions are great examples of this. Most of the characters in many games might overlook a character passing through a wall or some other action on the part of the player. One though might comment on it, according to its own awareness in the world, and set off a new precedent. In creating greater character complexity in our virtual worlds, however, there also opens the opportunity to reflect, within the world, myths as glitches.

As players continue to poke at systems in order to see their borders and express mastery, the chances of edge case behavior rises. As they test the game’s limits, they see the rules that even the game must follow. In the hidden parts and with treasures forgotten, the fundamentals of the world reveal themselves in strange ways. In questioning the rules of the games, players might even be able to see the ‘god’ behind it — and use it for their benefit. Knowing that engines are shared across games leads to even greater mastery, not only in one game, but possibly more as the small details bleed through moments in games are used for the player’s benefit.