Part Five: Gaming Across the Fifth Dimension
Revolutionary ideas in science, technology and philosophy don’t exist in isolation in academic institutes, government think tanks, or corporate R&D labs, they touch all aspects of our culture. The ideas of Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin undercut millennia of oppression, giving rise to concepts like literacy, democracy and equality. Relativity went hand-in-hand with the dismantling of objectivity in art and literature. Today, as scientists unravel the many-worlds interpretation and similar theories, we see a simultaneous blurring of the boundaries between the online universe and the physical universe. Our sense of the immediate here-and-now is altered by the layer of the internet, its systems, data, and users. This new sense of reality is reflected in our art – and our games.
Who is ‘there’ when we play Left 4 Dead? Am I hosting the server? Is he? Did it migrate? Is he there or is that a bot? Has he joined another game? Am I alone? What does ‘alone’ even mean where worlds overlap and relocate, and characters’ bodies are intermittently inhabited or automated. We don’t think twice about these things when we play L4D, but the hyperdimensional structure of the game reflects a culture that similarly doesn’t give a second thought to navigating with stitched together photographs taken in different months or years to rendezvous with friends geo-tagging their tweets only to find out they have already left – leaving us in the physical company of one set of friends and the psychological company of someone absent. Even if L4D’s feature set had been technologically possible in 2000, no one would have accepted it. Today, we take it for granted.
Fifteen years ago it was interesting to set up a LAN in a room full of PCs so we could play co-op Rainbow Six. Today, pop-up notifications that friends have come online, or joined your game are not just normal, they are banal. The New Interesting is not having to grind for twelve hours to be able to safely play Crackdown in co-op. We were too long handcuffed by a wrongheaded desire to protect the coherence of the fiction of our game worlds, and this made allowing players to play co-op games difficult. But our shifting cultural perceptions have loosened those bonds. The story of Crackdown doesn’t break if my friend helps me level up, and we don’t need to explain it with some kind of complicated and fictionally justified side-kicking system. If the system you contrive to protect your fiction is so complicated that it stops people from playing, you’re doing it wrong.
Demon’s Souls gives us a fantasy realm where the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the damned overlap strangely. I see the apparitions of other players fighting enemies I haven’t yet encountered. I witness the ghosts of their demise like footprints in interdimensional snow. In System Shock 2, these apparitions needed to be explained as neurological side effects of the upgrade system. In Demon’s Souls, we need no such explanation – not because it makes better sense, but simply because we ‘get’ the idea of overlapping universes and are willing to explore those ideas in our art.
Captain Forever runs in your browser. Conveniently, so does Twitter. Captain Forever saves your entire game history on a server and allows other people to launch a new game using your ship at any point in its history simply by clicking on a tweet. “That’s not fair,” we cried in 1999, “players should have to earn that ship.” Bullshit.
In order to make the grade as a Captain, Commander Shepard has some things to learn, I think. I’d way rather have a dozen friends playing Mass Effect 3, all playing different characters, and be able to click on their tweets to populate my crew with their leveled up characters and all the relationship history that was developed by them over time than have cleverly authored characters filling out my roster in a branching narrative.
Mass Effect story die-hards and fanboys will, of course, disagree. Probably so will EA and Bioware. And people will continue to wonder why gaming has such a hard time climbing out of the cultural ghetto inhabited by schlock sci-fi and superhero comics. The answer is simply that until we make more games that address the current human experience using the central voice of the medium we belong in that ghetto.
Most ‘AAA’ games today use story and character to explore themes we have explored before in other media that – simply put – use story and character to better effect. Demon’s Souls, Left 4 Dead and Captain Forever all explore the way we experience and perceive the very fabric of our world as individuals and collectively through our culture. And they do so using the uniquely meaningful properties of interactive games.
These are games that have something to say that can’t be said in other media.
These are the games that are pushing human culture forward.