Praying, Swearing, Cheating Death: E3 Gamers Explore New Frontiers On Day Two

Game designers heeding few boundaries about what a game should allow players to do.

LOS ANGELES — You've experienced video game controls that involve pressing a button or angling a stick to make someone jump or shoot or tackle. But how about one that makes an interactive moment out of praying, turning up the heat in a car, or even figuring out, from an American perspective, "Why they hate us"?

(Take a look inside the E3 madness with these pics — including ones you won't see anywhere else.)

Forget charges that creativity has been sapped from the game industry: On the second day of E3 '06, the wide variety of games on display across the Los Angeles Convention Center proves that game designers are heeding few boundaries as they determine what a game should allow players to do.

For some creators, the most ordinary activities proved extraordinarily fresh. Consider a rough demo of a 2007 version of "Alone in the Dark," the horror series published by Atari. In a darkened booth at the far end of the convention center, the game's developers demonstrated how players, who are controlling the game hero's initial bleary-eyed awakening from a first-person perspective, tap a button to keep blinking the hero's eyes and clearing his vision.

Another scene, shown through the perspective of the lead character's eyes, lets the player manipulate the dials and switches of a car's dashboard. Players have controlled steering wheels, brakes and even headlights before. But the new "Alone in the Dark" allows the pursued player to flip down the sun visor, fiddle with the door locks and even turn on the heat to fog up the windows and provide camouflage from pursuers.

On the other end of the convention center, a front-runner for the E3 Awards' Game of the Show, Ubisoft's "Assassin's Creed," was also making innovation out of the mundane. The setup was exotic: an assassin named Altair must acrobatically scour the bazaars of a 12th Century Middle East wracked by the Crusades. But the executions were made exciting by the harnessing of next-generation physics and animation to render things like the crush of bodies in a crowd suddenly alarmed by a throat-slashing in their midst.

"Crowds become obstructions you have to [surmount]," producer Jade Raymond explained, showing how running through a congested mass of people — with bodies realistically giving way, heads turning to cast suspicious looks, and dozens of arms hampering movement — might constitute a humdrum moment in the real world, but a triumph of processing and cutting-edge design in a virtual one.

Underneath the Ubisoft booth and the rest of the big-name publishers in the convention center's South Hall is Kentia Hall, a place where small publishers show independent-minded games and quirky products like the BodyPad, a full-body suit that lets players kick and punch in real life and see those actions rendered digitally in popular fighting games like "Tekken."

Among the companies in Kentia this year was Left Behind Games, the video game endeavor affiliated with the massively successful Christian "Left Behind" novels. There, a team of blue-shirted employees staffed a small booth to demonstrate "Left Behind: Eternal Forces," a game based on the books that they hope will prove to be the first high-end Christian game. "We want to provide an alternative to the gratuitous violence that's in video games," said marketing manager Greg Bauman. The demonstrated game pits the forces of good against those of the Antichrist at the time of the rapture. The game is set in New York, and the gameplay might remind a gamer of action games like "Command and Conquer," what with a bird's-eye perspective used to marshal flocks of troops into combat with enemy forces.

But a Christian game does things differently than the classic "C and C." Soldiers can be charged to shoot — in fact, they must be directed to unleash the game's bloodless violence, but players must keep an eye on the troops' spirit meter, a gauge whose numbers can plummet from wholesome highs with every killing act. What keeps that number from dropping is the player's decision, mid-firefight, to send some of their legion to the side to pray. Strategically clicking on an icon that shows two hands pressed flat together, the spirit of the gunners can be held high. Bauman noted that players can control the forces of evil in the game's multiplayer mode: The option for praying becomes an option for swearing, censored into family-friendly muttering.

"Left Behind" shares the ability to digitally trigger cursing with EA's 2007 Xbox 360 and PS3 game "Army of Two," though the mega-publisher's game handles things a bit differently. Far from censoring the swearing, the game pumps it out in full four-letter force and even adds an accompanying hand gesture for emphasis. EA's game was shown only behind closed doors to select industry professionals, in a controlled environment that let demonstrators explain the game's focus on two-character cooperative adventuring. Missions involved a player's mercenary character and his digital partner parachuting into a firefight, with a split screen: for example, one side focuses on one character's control of the parachute, while the other is from the perspective of his buddy, strapped in front, who is looking through his machine gun sights at the enemy below. Another moment had the player running up the deck of a sinking aircraft carrier while the partner character waited in a hovering helicopter at the opposite, uplifted end.

To demonstrate the advanced artificial intelligence of the computer-controlled partner, a representative showed a level set in what could have been a cave in Afghanistan. The human-controlled soldier was made to set his sights on a kneeling non-threatening man in a head scarf. The computer-controlled partner gruffly barked, "We can't shoot civilians," and then raised his gun at the player exhorting him to drop his weapon. After the player backed off, the partner huffed, "That's why people hate Americans." As in "Left Behind," there was an interactive conscience at play here.

"Army of Two" can also be played by two players. That's how the cursing comes about, as one player can trigger words and gestures that let their counterpart know how they feel about their assistance or lack of it. Another scenario involves some of the more unexpected gameplay seen anywhere at E3 2006. When one player's character is shot and collapses, the other can resuscitate him by pumping on his chest. The reviving player steadily stamps the thumb-stick straight down on the Xbox 360 controller. The other player, the demonstrators explained, can't be left to do nothing. So the designers found an action for them: avoiding death. "[Player 1] is going to be doing chest compressions," said EA producer Reid Schneider. "[Player 2] has to run away from the light." The afterlife was beckoning, but a rapid mashing of the controller buttons was letting the dying player resist. A silhouette of his character turned slowed his march toward a glow in the distance.

A gamer was cheating digital death, via video game controller. Add that to the list of things video game buttons may never have triggered before that made E3 2006 a showcase for breakthroughs big and small.

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