Standing in a digitally pristine room composed of a corner on one end and an infinite expanse on the other is Peter Molyneux. There’s a bit too much bloom on him in a strange, mid-2000s video game-y kind of way, but he’s really not the point. Or maybe he is. He hasn’t really finished talking yet. All we know right now is that we’ve been waiting for this moment for 24 years.
This is, of course, the ending to Curiosity: What’s Inside the Cube?, the first game/experiment from Molyneux’s 22Cans studio. For the past seven months, five million players have chipped away at a cube. Layers upon layers were slowly whittled away as people pecked out curse words, smiley faces, and oddly heartfelt messages to either someone in particular or just humanity as a whole, all of which was done on Molyneux’s word that at the center was something life-changing.
That isn’t an exaggeration, either. Nearly a year ago in July, Molyneux told a room full of Rezzed-goers that what the cube contained would be “so valuable, and so life-changingly important,” creating both a word and drama in one fell swoop. He summarily and jokingly dismissed the idea that a dead cat would be there, but that didn’t stop the snide and cynical remarks from flowing forth this weekend as the end to Curiosity drew undoubtedly closer. In its final moments (and especially as it was revealed that a winner was in the process of being verified), dead cats, severed heads, and lazy jokes seemed to be the soup du jour.
Waiting to see Molyneux follow through on some lofty promise isn’t all that new to us, though. 24 years ago, the now legendary game designer created both the game Populus and the entire god game genre. Within the seminal title, you were tasked with undertaking the role of a god. Through manipulating terrain and the forces of nature, you were to increase your number of followers to destroy those set against you. It was quite the revelatory experience back in 1989.
And since then, we’ve been kind of waiting—waiting for Molyneux to recreate this magical moment of pivotal import. There was Black & White which was good but still another god game; there was Fable, a game that promised to let you craft an entire life through choices and actions but ultimately barely let you pick a pet; and there was Project Milo, the Kinect tech demo that faded away under cover of over promising and Microsoft-flavored pipe dreams. Each one of those was the product of a promise that we would get something we’d never seen before.
Technically, he was right. Technically, we’d never seen those games before, but that’s not the same as when the actual words “it’s gonna be the best game ever” come out of Molyneux’s mouth. But we’ve been waiting for him to come through ever since then. For 24 years, we’ve waited on him to fulfill his promise in one form or another because he’s always produced potential if not anything substantial. He just stores all that energy but never lets the hammer fall.
In that way, you could compare his words to that of a typical crossroads deal; the implied is never preferred to the explicit, the discrete. The “winner” of Curiosity (if you can claim a winner in an experiment; that seems like a more game-oriented notion) was 18-year-old Bryan Henderson of Edinburgh, Scotland, who actually had never touched the app until an hour before his royal crowning. As his prize, Henderson will dictate the rules and morals by which all other players will follow in Godus, the second of 22 experiments from 22Cans (hence the name). (You might recall that Dan Marshall of Size Five Games called this back in December.)
He will also earn a portion of whatever money Godus makes as a retail product, but that is infinitely less interesting than being able to play god among gods. Measured on any level, this is technically life-changing (notice the trend?) as now Henderson will partake in the financial success of a company he otherwise would have zero connection with. But consider this: he will also play a game no one else will ever get to play.
The god game has obvious limitations: you control a computer. You are putting up gates and tearing down walls within a maze that is navigated by a box of silicon and copper. But introduce the same mechanics over people and you suddenly have something very interesting. Apply the Stanford Prison Experiment on some digital inmates and you have Prison Architect, but apply it on humans and you have one of the most fundamentally telling studies on human psychology ever conducted. Similarly, if we apply the god-like constructs to a virtual world and we have a money-making genre, but once we apply it to humans, we have something else entirely.
It will, for the most part, be the first of its kind, which is important. Conduct the prison experiment again and your results are tainted by those that expect the outcome either on the lab or the subject side. But Henderson’s experience will be raw and somewhat of a maiden voyage into the realm of human-computer interaction that somehow maps back onto humans. Henderson gets to be Deckard and all of us will be taking the Voight-Kampff test.
But of course, this is far less glamorous than we’d imagined it would be. For all the lack of details that Molyneux’s promises usually entail, we still fill the void with delusions of grandeur far more impressive than anything that could be possible. For as important as it was that he created Populus, it was still just a game that simply served to open the door to Spore and Dungeon Keeper. And we know, at this point, to understate the words of Molyneux. We know, even to the point that there is a fake Twitter account that shoots out nonsensical game designs and inspired a nonsensical game jam in its/his honor.
We know all this and we still expect the Moon. The words never leave his lips but we fill in the blanks that were never there and now we’re wondering why we’re not among the stars (though to be fair, the aforementioned words have been spoken before, but I guess some media training taught him the differences between promising and inspiring). But realistically, what could have been in the center of Curiosity‘s cube that could have satisfied everyone? World peace? Perpetual motion? How do you box up worldwide inspiration? How do you box up a dream?
Reactions, natch, were mixed. Ian Bogost and Markus Persson both fell on the negative side of things while folks like Nathan Grayson (who also conducted this fantastic interview with Molyneux) found the experience rather enjoyable. Others, however, found it better to make jokes or point out the obvious. Coping mechanisms or standard Internet snark? Who knows.
They may, however, all be missing the point. Curiosity itself was a stripped down interaction of what the rest of Molyneux’s oeuvre has been, a study on how easily people can be manipulated and pointed into desiring and achieving something. And at the center of the cube, the core of the experiment, was the man himself, a living, breathing vessel for considerations beyond the game. Yes, Curiosity may not have been much more than a gamed-up marketing stunt for Godus and yes, Molyneux still fulfills his promises on that not-quite-but-okay technicality, but that may be because his games are not about us. That’s him, after all, at the center of that shining white room, talking as much to himself as he is to us.