The Gravity of the Situation

Chris Plante of Polygon has in the lede of his Angry Birds Star Wars review this understated gem: “the Angry Birds games, in the most basic sense, are about gravity.” It’s a profound and subtle statement that kind of sneaks up on you with its succinct critical analysis. Whereas most people (rightfully) associate green-tinged pigs and birds of various levels of indignation with the Angry Birds series, simply go a few layers deep and it’s easy to see that it’s less about avian vs. porcine and more about you vs. gravity.

Angry Birds is a game all about physics, but it’s actually only about that one particular aspect of physics. There’s nothing in the way of air friction, and energy transfers only serve to put things under the purview of gravity. The drop (or arbitrary manipulation, as the case may be in Space and Star Wars) of launched birds, the weight serving to inform the momentum, and so on. Angry Birds is a series all about gravity.

It’s something we can easily identify with because we deal with this natural phenomenon each and every day; it is, after all, a physical constant—well, here anyways. We understand how it should look that things fall under the watchful and vigilant eye of gravity, how that 9.8m/s2 has universal practical implications for the earthbound.

Even games that somewhat defy these experiences but still fall in line with expectations are usually memorable for this exact reason. The Halo series, for example, has an odd contrast. Master Chief himself is actually a rather slow-moving, plodding fellow, especially for such an accomplished war hero such as himself. His steps are chunky and heavy and his pace is almost painfully sluggish. But look at his actual movements and it’s almost graceful. He seems to glide across the world, slipping and sliding from grunt to grunt, and this extends to his jump.

Master Chief’s jump is the polar opposite of his gait and yet almost the same. Both are a bit on the slow side, sure, but his jump has the odd characteristic of being gravity-defying. By and large, an object free of outside forces will display a perfectly mirrored rise and fall in terms of velocity. Master Chief, however, springs upwards like a little bouncy ball but falls back down like a feather. It doesn’t make a lot of sense and breaks pretty much every past experience we’ve ever had with gravity, but it makes Master Chief and the Halo series super memorable.

Compare that with the likes of Assassin’s Creed. Aside from the odd left-field twist of an ancient alien/ethereal race and an end-of-the-world plot development, that series is very much grounded in reality. Historical figures seem to come out of the woodwork like those subscription cards that fall out of magazines (is that still a thing? Do magazines even exist anymore?), languages and regional idioms are spot-on, and objects and places that existed back then are likely in the game. While unlikely, it’s not entirely impossible that a human being is capable of climbing cathedrals sans mechanical assistance.

This strong base in reality extends to the gravity of the world. When you jump, you fall in that familiar parabolic arc. When you fall from somewhere really high, your experience tells you that the speed you are gaining as you plummet towards the hard, unwelcoming ground is right, and because of that, it’s going to hurt when you land. Like, a lot. And it usually does, draining you of a full health bar straight to desynchronization. For being so familiar and “correct,” it’s no surprise then that we would find such accuracy so less memorable than something as alien Halo‘s gravity.

Being weird, though, isn’t always enough. Being weird isn’t always being unique. If you look at Need For Speed: Most Wanted, this becomes apparent. Watching how cars sail through the air, you get a bit of a Michael Bay sensation. While the falls you take in Assassin’s Creed hit somewhere deep in the pit of your stomach and carry on straight to your adrenal glands, crashing a car off a ramp, into a billboard, and back onto solid ground is a much more superficial affair in Most Wanted. It has the classic action movie rhythm of immediacy followed by slowdown followed by real time again to give the illusion of a speedup.

Of course, it only feels that way because of how the gravity works. The initial takeoff is fraught with speed, carrying on as you had before but with a complete lack of control. The fall—its speed combined with a subtle camera shift—attempts to enhance this feeling of sailing unabated, but the landing is where it makes the big break. That’s dishonest phrasing, though, as you don’t really land so much as stick to the pavement. There is no bounce and there is no rattle; you simply land. This gives a very immediate feel to the last stage of the fall and a heavy weight to the car, as if it was too heavy to bother with another break from terra firma.

This, however, disrupts expectations. All three stages undermine our understanding of how real world gravity works but falls well within the operating constraints of an action film. And while there is gravity, there is also very little gravitas, so we forget it. Most Wanted‘s otherwise strange perception of how physics works is out of our heads as quickly as it enters them.

Gravity is a strange thing to gamers. We experience it on multiple levels all at once, from the real world to the games themselves to the expectations we set from playing other games, watching movies, and understanding elementary physics. Just like what makes a video viral, it’s a mystery what makes gravity in some games special and memorable while others are just another reason not to jump. At least until you can view it in retrospect. Then let the assumptions and analyses fly!

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