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Donkey Kong, God of War, and the DNA of Games

Perhaps it is because of the incessant "DINGING" of people playing Donkey Kong constantly in the background of G4's live coverage, but this E3 has made me seriously consider the "DNA" of gaming: where we've come from, where we're going and how that growth is reflected by the basics that defined the beginning of the movement.

Of course, Donkey Kong isn't from the first video game. But it is probably near the beginning of games as a narrative device, with clearly defined characters and conflict that were lifted beyond just the abstract shapes reflected on the screen. The modeling on "Jumpman", the very name which reflects the primary action of the game, and the intricate work on Donkey Kong himself is still a marvel to watch today. For anyone who's never played the original arcade Donkey Kong, I suggest you seek it out if you can, or at the very least watch video of it being played. The balance and system of it is quite well conceived and executed, mostly because of a young Shigeru Miyamoto's obsessive need for precise gameplay. There is no sense of cheapness in the game, which doesn't exclude it from being insanely difficult. The actual gameplay is just responsive and simple: press a button to jump and avoid objects that can kill you and clear gaps. This is why people like Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe can really grok onto this and excel, along with some basic hand-eye coordination.

So to see this relic and grandfather of modern games held up in the same breathe as God of War III really drove home for me the maturing the genre has gone through. Not maturing in the sense of graphical fidelity or adult content (whether the actual narrative of God of War is intended for the mindset of "grown ups" is up for serious debate), but rather that while the key player action has remained the same, the amount of weight to those button presses has become more dramatic. The variety of inputs has significantly increased, allowing the player to participate in gorey cinematic moments with minimal actual effort. Kratos is a bad-ass, in a sense, as our proxy, in the same way Jumpman is our proxy in battling the maddened gorilla. The amount of finese required to truely succeed in God of War is dramatically lower, and the story acutally has an inentional end, but the same core mindset of allowing the player to participate in something exceptional with extremely simple input.

Of course the elephant in the room is the new mind-set that "You are the controller", and while it is Microsoft's catchphrase, the same philosophy runs through each of the three mainline console developer's motion-controlled strategy. The promised land seems to be one-to-one response between translating your movements and actions in real-space into the digital world. There is a certain cyber-reality hopefulness, operating under the assumption that the only thing better than offering that proxy is to allow you to actuall exist within the game world yourself, burying the "barrier" and allowing you to become the actual actor.

The issue with the one-to-one analog philosophy is that it creates the question of "Why?" Why play Tony Hawk Ride, when you can actually skateboard? Why play Wii Sports when all of those sports can be just as easily enjoyed in the real world? The element of fantasy and wish fulfillment is at risk the more you move into the territory of forcing the player to actually physically excel at what they are attempting to accomplish. And some games have answered the question of why pretty well. Yes, Guitar Hero is less satisifying than playing a real guitar, but you also get the wish fulfillment of the rock star experience. Yes, having a personal trainer would be nice, but EA Active offers you a lot of that same benefit while not coming with an additional monthyl or weekly fee.

As this new movement (no pun intended) in gaming continues to develop, the question of "Why?" will need to be at the forefront of the mind of developers, press and consumers. It can be answered, but it is an additional challenge. Meanwhile, traditional proxy gaming answers the question of "why" pretty well. It offers experiences outside of the mundane, providing a sense of escapism and excitement. By acting as the prime motivator for Kratos or Jumpman, I can accomplish something through them that I otherwise would not be able to. Robert Ashley's description of the God of War series' success sums it up nicely: "It allows you to feel like a bad-ass with the minimal actual effort on your part." And when talented game developers step into design with this as the core to their process, they create the best that games have to offer.