1.2K words about Havok physics
April 25, 2020

If youíll permit me to ramble a bit, Iíd like to talk about a particular dumb bit of videogames that consistently makes me grin. No, not bullet time - dumber. Iím talking about that little orange saw logo that sometimes pops up at the start of your games. Yeah folks, this is a whole rave about how the Havok physics logo makes me excited.

You see, for as much as Iíd like to be some super-refined arbiter of gaming excellence, I am, in fact, a monkey who thinks that any game can be improved with the ability to make desk lamps fly across the room. Not only that, but Iím exactly the kind of monkey that thinks said desk lamps breakdancing on the floor due to buggy physics is hilarious. And of course, the poster child for this nonsense is Havok. Other physics engines have powered games before (GeoMod springs to mind,) but none are as ubiquitous as Havok, and - most importantly - none of them appeared at the start of Motorstorm.

Of course, I now realise FEAR, Max Payne 2 and Motorstorm all feature both slow-mo and Havok physics. Turns out mixing those two elements automatically makes me like a game because Iím just that basic.

Sudden realisation of my own shallowness aside, it really is that particular title that brought Havok to my attention as a scraggly teenager. For many of my formative years, I always yearned to play a game where every single part of any given item was, for want of a better word, real. I wanted a game where you donít just drive a car around a track; I wanted a game where ďrealĒ explosions inside a ďrealĒ combustion chamber moved a ďrealĒ piston, which turned a ďrealĒ crankshaft, which interacted with a ďrealĒ axle, and turned ďrealĒ wheels, which physically interacted with the track. I didnít necessarily want the car handling to be realistic, but I wanted that complexity to be there, and as time has gone on, Iíve realised that physics engines are what I have to thank for that dream getting closer to reality. And thatís where Motorstorm comes in. Now, Iíd come across physics in games before, but I can distinctly remember the first time I crashed in Motorstorm, because, my friends, crashing in the first two Motorstorm games is MAJESTIC. My impressionable teenage eyes widened as my 1960-something dodge charger hit something, and the game went into slow-mo to show off the crash in all of its glory. Springs and bolts flew asunder, and body panels sailed through the air. Wheels bounced and rolled and the chassis - now likely on fire - crunched and bumped to a halt. It wasnít totally procedural like, say, BeamNG, but at the time, this was the destruction that Iíd so desperately wanted to see, realised before my eyes. Thanks to Havok physics, my car handled in a predictable manner in the air, ploughed through buggies, screeched around corners, and got totally pancaked by the big rigs. Crucially, though, it was all in service of fun.

Itís that last part that I think makes Havok so dear to me. Again, there was physics before Havok, but I know Havok as the FUN one. A quick glance across wikipedia backs that up, too. Turns out, across the fairly exhaustive list, Havok was involved in just about every game where Iíve had some real fun flinging things around, including Mercenaries 2, Battlefield: Bad Company, Worms 3D, Alan Wake, Condemned: Criminal Origins, Goldeneye: Rogue Agent, and Half-Life 2. Of course, there are a few exceptions, one of which features in a game I plan on reviewing later this year, but the overwhelming trend is that Havok = fun.

In fact, thereís a case to be made that unlike many elements of a videogame that can break, physics bugs can often be endearing. For example, while it wasnít a Havok title, the addition of ragdoll physics that could be toggled on command elevated Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX from an otherwise desperately dull Pro Skater ripoff to a goofy sandbox. That game was trash, but my friend and I once stayed up until the small hours abusing the physics engine, and that should count for something. Other things like Haloís props flying around and killing players at random, or Battlefield 1ís myriad, truly wacky physics issues, frequently bring a smile to my face. In fact, even when theyíre working as intended, the little inaccuracies inherent to physics engines makes them just that little bit goofy in their own right, to say nothing of when developers deliberately play fast and loose with their physics. Looking at you, JC3. By extension, there are even games out there that deliberately rely on janky physics as part of their core mechanics. While often derided, thereís no denying that exploiting, and often fighting against the physics engine in Goat Simulator is fun on a base, dumb level, while Octodad explores the simple concept of ďwhat if every limb of a character was physics-enabled and controlled individually?Ē In Goat Simís case, I wasted hours flinging and bouncing my goat around, and Octodadís fruitloop-bonkers control scheme meant that by the time I finished the game, just accomplishing normal tasks with relative ease made me feel like a controller ninja, to say nothing of the more challenging setpieces the game throws at you. At their lowest level, these games are based on the idea that physics in-and-of-itself can be a game mechanic, and that inaccuracies therein can become gameplay. While again not a specifically Havok thing, there are even some games where a certain physics implementation becomes so closely associated with it, that said physics becomes part of a gameís whole identity. Worms Armageddon, for example, features such a particular implementation of physics that Team 17 listed a faithful recreation of Armageddon physics as a feature on Worms WMD. Minecraft, on the other hand, features such a sparse and abstract physics system, that modifying it would just seem wrong to dedicated players.

I guess what Iím trying to get at here is that physics play a big part in numerous games, and often goes unnoticed until it totally breaks. Havok is, of course, just one such engine, and is far from perfect, but I canít help but love it for the fact it has an identity. Havok doesnít just make physics happen; it makes a particularly strange, often goofy version of physics happen, that seems to exist mostly between 2005 and 2015. Havok is still around, these days, but itís been a while since Iíve seen a game draw attention to its physics in quite the same way as some of the best games with Havok ever did. Thereís one exception I can think of, but when that game featured physics in the way that it did, it just made me nostalgic for a time when seeing the Havok logo on launch meant that I was in for some fun. Iíll be covering that game in due course, donít you worry.

So, in conclusion, if youíve ever had fun with a physics-enabled game, youíve probably got Havok physics to thank for that. Good on you, little yellow saw logo.

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