One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.
One thing that video games struggle with more often than not is giving their worlds a palpable sense of history. Sure, fantasy and sci-fi games are in love with convoluted lore, but that’s different from creating a world that feels old. We regularly play games where we traverse spaces that are ancient, from the titular tombs of Tomb Raider to the old temples of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, but as impressive as these places are, more often than not they feel like movie sets, created for the purpose of acting as a cool backdrop to the game’s action. The signs of age, the water stains and crumbling pillars and fading tapestries, seem too consciously placed to be entirely convincing. Age seems a mere veneer, because in a virtual world there is no such thing as age. The ancient architecture was designed a couple of months or years ago at most and is being recreated for your enjoyment in every moment of the present. There is no such thing as an old polygon or texture.
Yet some game spaces nevertheless manage to feel genuinely old. The ominous ruins of the Dark Souls series breathe with an ancient malevolence that existed long before you were born and that will exist beyond your cyclical, repeated deaths, and the post-apocalyptic environments of The Last of Us are filled with believable clutter and covered with patina, looking less like the work of talented artists than like real, actual places one or two dozen years after the world as we knew it ended.
Perhaps my favourite recent game in terms of presenting a world with a sense of age and historical weight, though, is Dishonored 2 – not least because the game combines the epic and the mundane to great effect. The first Dishonored game was set in a grimy quasi-London that felt like the sort of place China Miéville might come up with after bingeing on Charles Dickens. Its sequel takes place in a more Mediterranean or colonial locale, one that is in equal measures exotic and familiar. The architecture is a mix of the old and the new and the still fairly modern technologies of harnessing the energy of whale oil and air currents are an alternative take on the late 19th and early 20th century. The Dishonored games have done a fantastic job of evoking a world that doesn’t just look lived-in but that stimulates at the entire sensory array of your imagination: as you hear the cries of seagulls and the locals haggling over the prices of their wares or complaining about the latest edict of the corrupt Duke, you can almost smell the ripe air of a seaside place where the gorgeous view is marred by the whiff you get from a decaying whale carcass stripped of everything that can be sold. Throughout the game, the places you visit, the apartments you sneak into and the shops and offices you infiltrate on your way to the more spectacular main mission environments are littered with details that hint at the individuals that work and live there and the society they inhabit.
In one of its best levels, Dishonored 2 creates a location that allow the player to sense the weight of history in an ingenious manner: Emily Kaldwin, the protagonist, is tasked with exploring Stilton Manor, a derelict, ramshackle ruin that was the site of the event several years ago that sets the game’s story into motion. As you sneak through its corridors, hallways and chambers, you can imagine the place this was before everything went bad – but then you no longer need to imagine, as the game gives you a magical timepiece that can be used as a window into the past and that allows you to travel back and forth between the two time periods. Where in earlier locations you hid from guards and civilians that might alert the former to your whereabouts, you now hide in the present while peaking in on the past, making Stilton Manor a palimpsestic creation that’s rare in any media (I had to think of China Miéville’s The City & the City, even if that one doesn’t literalise its central metaphor of two places coexisting in the same space) but that becomes tangible and real because you’re the one traversing it, or indeed them. Whichever time you’re in, an awareness of the other manor – the past, vibrant yet foreboding Stilton Manor (there’s almost a touch of the Overlook Hotel of the 1920s in its hints of art deco) or the husk that nevertheless isn’t entirely deserted – always lingers at the edges.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to any fan of the genre of time travel fiction that Emily finds an opportunity to right what went wrong in the past, preventing Aramis Stilton from making the experience that renders him the disturbed, haunted figure you encounter in the ruined manor. The player isn’t prompted to do so, but if they do, the present-day version of Stilton Manor, your entry point to this particular slice of the world of Dishonored 2, vanishes, leaving in its place something new – the manor is no longer a ruin, but more than that it no longer breathes either the stifling air of the past or the sad dementia of the original present. Instead of guards, servants walk the corridors, and while they may tell you to get out – after all, you are a masked intruder brandishing a sword – you are no longer attacked on sight. A weight has been taken off Stilton Manor – yet all three versions, the madness of the original present, the grandeur combined with a sense of foreboding in the past, and the relief of the revised present, are alive in your memory, overlapping spaces of a kind that you can only experience this palpably in the virtual space.