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Things in games are having a moment

I half remember a brilliant review from the old, old days – which in games probably means it was around ten years ago at most. This review was for a shooter sequel of some kind, back in that period when designers were starting to experiment with putting physics objects into their games for the first time. The shooting was fine in this particular game, the review stated, but the environment was a problem. All those physics objects, those parts of the background of games which were suddenly, emphatically, promoted to being parts of the foreground. They got underfoot. They got in the way. They turned a John Woo ballet into a prolonged Laurel and Hardy pratfall. I wish I could remember the game, but in truth, the date alone would do. The date that games first encountered things – properly encountered them – and then discovered that games and things had to coexist.

Some games have made this relationship seem easy from the start. Half-Life 2 had things pretty much nailed from the moment that cop first told you to pick up a can back at the railway station in City 17 and then put it in the bin. But other games have had a harder time of it. For many years since Half-Life 2 – and, actually, for many years before Half-Life 2 – games and things have not always known what to do with each other. This cup is a physics object, this plate is not, however. This bit of trash in a racer is there to be driven through, while this mailbox is seemingly made of concrete and bolted to the floor with adamantium. Things give games the chance to be tactile, but they can also fill them with clutter – and with inconsistencies. They give games a chance to talk about stuff that is real, and yet I remember a disappointing moment rooting through a corpse’s jacket in Bioshock Infinite and finding a pineapple in one of their pockets. Imagine! A soldier taking a pineapple to work! What a delightful glimpse of the extended universe, hinting at a mad dash to get the kids off to school in the morning and then, just headed for the door, snapping on the gun belt, a thought occurring: “Oh, must remember to take that pineapple with me!” But on further consideration? That pineapple was not real. It was a bit of text, a tiny health boost dressed up in fancy clothes. In its artifice, that pineapple only served to make a thin game seem thinner, more inconsequential. Pineapples are like that.