Famed Metal Gear designer Hideo Kojima once told me that there was something beautiful he'd been striving his whole career to create in video games: The perfect sunset. I recently asked John Carmack what his sunset is.
Carmack, ever the programmer, didn't immediately tell me what his sunset would be. Instead, after I described Kojima's desire, the legendary Doom programmer responded as follows:
"You could totally do a good job of that today," he said. "You could do all the post-processing effects and the color biasing, and you could run through all of that and it would be a bunch of work. But, if somebody said: 'Go give me a glorious, evocative sunset,' I might say, 'Nah, we've got more important things to be working on.' But we could totally do it."
My conversation with Kojima had taken place in April of 2006, in his work apartment in Tokyo, a couple of blocks from Kojima Productions' offices. He was still making Metal Gear Solid IV then and recalled, through a translator, the limitations of early game consoles. The more primitive machines had challenged him to achieve his goals.
"How can we give users a feeling of walking [by a] beautiful sunset with 16 colors?" Kojima remembered wondering. "That was what we were trying to aim for as designers at that time...A couple of years from now, maybe games will have an implementation of scent or touch or feeling. And then I'll want to probably implement that in to meet my final goal. So I think this will be a never-ending story. And, well, I think that's OK, because that's what creation is all about."
Ever since that interview, I wondered if other video game creators had their own sunsets, their own goals that they hoped their talent and the world's technology would enable them to attain.
During our conversation in Texas a couple of Thursdays ago, I asked Carmack a second time if he did have a sunset. "I really don't think there's something I look at in my mind and say: 'This is what we're striving for,'" he said. "There is lots of stuff that I know are not done particularly well, with different levels of ambient occlusion and distributed light sources… I went through a phase of this at the beginning of [id's next big game,] Rage — the graphics geeky stuff of "'Oh, I'm doing shaped highlights." Or, you know, \I'm doing parallax mapping. I'm doing this or that.'"
Carmack's lighting experiments didn't motivate him to do more, he explained. But I was worried Carmack was still taking my question too literally. I feared he thought I only wanted to know about actual sunsets rather than metaphorical ones. But he wasn't just talking about sunsets, after all, as he proved to me right before we wrapped up our conversation about this stuff.
"I did some demos [of those lighting technologies in Rage] and it's just not that big of a deal," he said. "Maybe if you put them together, lump them all together, you get something that comes out and makes you say: 'This is a big step above.' But there's not many little things that matter that much anymore in terms of a game. If you're trying to do a simulation, there's tons of stuff that you can continue to do better. … In terms of what's going to matter to a person playing a game, there's not massive stuff to be done. We're going to continue going; we're going to continue making it. But it's past the v of the curve. The more important stuff is making sure that it's going to be easier and faster to do better stuff like this."
If John Carmack has a Kojima sunset in his mind, it's one that involves speedier processes for creating video games. But there's no thing, no object, no emotion the veteran game creator seems burning to create.
I left the interview wondering: What are the sunsets for the rest of the industry's video game creators?