Pictured above: Linden Labs’ Second Life
As we heard last summer, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas ships with many “special bonus features.” My favorite, however, may be the least controversial: a camera. Early in the game, you’re given a single-lens-reflex camera—with zoom—that you can carry instead of a gun, and you can use it to take pictures of anything in the game’s urban world. Your virtual photos are stored in a gallery on your hard drive. So far I’ve shot landscapes, street scenes and portraits of the people shuffling through the city—and not to brag, but I think I have a pretty good eye.
Designers are always looking for the next bell and whistle to set their product apart, and one of the most intriguing is the idea of letting users express themselves—not to score points or satisfy an objective, but just for the fun of it. In one of this fall’s most anticipated simulations, Activision’s The Movies lets players run a movie studio from the 1920s into the future. While the game hands you many of the sets, starlets and other resources, you can write your own screenplay, choose the final cut, and even screen your work online.
Expressing yourself through a video game is nothing new. Hackers have modified and customized their games for years; I remember hacking Ultima II to change the name of the “HOTEL CALIFORNIA” to “CHRS DAHLEN RULZ.” Cyberartists also use games like Halo to make movies, or “machinima,” by enacting a story in the software and capturing it on tape (Red and Blue is a popular example). But titles like The Movies offer something simpler and more accessible: without cracking the hood and tinkering around inside the software, you can enter a game’s world and immediately begin leaving your creative fingerprints.
This trend may lead to more software where creativity is the only point—like Linden Labs’ cult fave Second Life, which isn’t a game so much as an online lucid dream. Second Life is an expansive multiplayer online experience, like World of Warcraft or EverQuest, but unlike its more popular cousins, it has no missions or quests, and you don’t have to fight anybody: the sole objective is to make the world that you want to live in, where—with the help of 3D modeling tools—you can design a house; build an island theme park; dress yourself with wings, movie-star hair and rainbow-colored skin; and create and sell sculptures, hoverbikes and whatever else you can imagine. (Be warned: some of the players have “mature” imaginations—if you have kids, steer them to the new teen version.) It’s strange at first, but once you get the hang of it, exercising creativity can prove even more fun than blowing things up.