Search Engines: Second site Escape from the labyrinth

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The Independent Culture
A COUPLE of years ago there was a fad for the idea that the Web should be like television. This largely petered out in the face of evidence that the Web was pretty poor at being television, but was getting pretty good at being itself. In the world of computer games, though, there's a lot more mileage in trying to look like another medium. They have characters and scenery, so they like to pose as movies. And no computer game has tried harder to behave like a feature film than Outcast (Infogrames, pounds 39.99, Windows 95 PC CD-ROM), the first major release from Appeal, a Belgian- based software developer.

Much of the action in games such as Quake or Doom takes place in corridors, emphasising the similarity between the protagonist and a laboratory rat in a behavioural experiment. The basic plot is lifted from the ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur: find your way round a labyrinth; kill monsters. But similar challenges can be posed without claustrophobia, and Outcast presents a striking range of wide-open spaces. If Outcast were adapted as a human drama, rather than one driven by artificial intelligence, it would have to go on the big screen. This point is underscored by the soundtrack. If you shut your eyes, you could swear you were in the cinema.

Unlike most other action games, Outcast is based on graphic rendering techniques which don't require the computer to have a 3D accelerator card. They do, however, allow a character's skin to flex when it moves. More imaginatively, there are also wrinkles in the hero's character. Cutter Slade has the lantern jaw but not the pedigree of an action man. His parents were left-wing Democrats active in anti-Vietnam campus protests. He was raised to value tolerance and justice. Something went badly awry, though. Slade joined the US Navy and was selected for its special forces. He took part in murky covert actions but, troubled by the brutality and morality of his missions, he took to the bottle. Then a vindictive politician ended Slade's career by blaming him for an accident in which a civilian died. In short, it's a Nicolas Cage role.

Meanwhile, scientists have been working on a machine capable of making contact with a parallel universe. In 2007, they send a probe to the planet Adelpha, whereupon it is damaged by an alien intelligence and a black hole opens up at the site of the project. In time-honoured fashion, a flawed and disaffected maverick is judged to be the ideal candidate to be entrusted with the job of saving Earth. Slade deploys to Adelpha to recover the probe.

At this point, we flip from the movie treatment to the computer game. The nuances of Slade's family background disappear, and we're driving a hero made of pixels around a course in search of magic crystals, health resources and weaponry. It's not all shooting and seeking: Slade has to secure the co-operation of the locals, who will run away if he strides around brandishing a weapon. But, like the classic experiments to which lab rats were subjected, the basis of games like these is the behaviourist principle of reward and punishment. Game designers are still working at a level of psychological sophistication a rat would appreciate.

Outcast breaks away from the dank dungeons of action gaming with its broad vistas and its character sketch. To take the genre beyond behaviourism, though, the people who write artificial intelligence software might do well to borrow from game theory, which models what happens when individuals co-operate or cheat on each other. That, rather than wrinkling skin, is what the gamers' quest for "realism" should really be about.

Outcast was reviewed using a Carrera Sirus M400 PC (0181 307 2800). You can contact Marek Kohn on secondsite@poptel.net

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