A fascinating aspect of the television show Star Trek, The Next Generation is a technology called "the holodeck". This is a large room with futuristic projectors that can create fully animated 3-dimensional images. The entire arrangement is operated by a computer of breathtaking power. The user of the holodeck, before entering, tells the computer what type of environment the user wishes to experience. The computer then creates and projects the environment.
The holodeck was not particularly interesting at first. The show’s writers presented it as primarily an environment simulator, a place where trees, birds, and babbling brooks could soothe the tired space traveller. But midway into the season, something changed, and the holodeck took on a new life. In so doing, it offers we game designers much food for thought.
The most striking thing about the new holodeck is its emphasis on characters. Yes, there are still exotic places and things, but they now function more as backdrops. The emphasis is on the characters created by the computer. In one episode we see Captain Picard going back to Paris to confront an old flame. In another, Commander Reiker creates and romances a sultry woman in a New Orleans jazz bar. And one episode is built almost entirely around the holodeck. Picard and friends travel to 1930’s San Francisco to play out a pulp detective story populated by an entire cast of exotic characters.
This transformation from environment simulator to character generator is profoundly satisfying to me. I have always maintained that characters were the key to the future of computer games, and this seems to buttress my beliefs. It seems perfectly natural and reasonable that this is the way that adults in the future will entertain themselves. It certainly makes more sense than the thought of Captain Picard playing Space Invaders.