They create worlds: Imaginary gardens, real tourists

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.

I am currently replaying one of the Assassin’s Creed games, in which players are invited to go back in time and hobnob with the likes of Queen Victoria, Leonardo da Vinci and Cleopatra in 19th century London, renaissance Florence and Ptolemaic Egypt. They’re wonderful games for tourists – but they’re also shallow and repetitive, filled with busywork and ludicrous plots about ancient conspiracies and precursor civilisations. For a long time, I would buy each new Assassin’s Creed and play it excitedly, like the history nerd I am, but almost always I would get tired of them before I was even close to the ending.

Nonetheless, when I’ve got a phase where I’m tired from work in the evenings and don’t want anything that engages me too deeply, I often revisit an Assassin’s Creed game, because of the sightseeing. I don’t always need deep, engaging gameplay or storylines – sometimes what I want to do is climb the clocktower of the Palace of Westminster and look out over Dickensian London, smog, chimney sweeps’n’all.

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They create worlds: Pentiment

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.

In the early years of video games, their aesthetics were limited mainly by technology: by the resolution of the graphics or the number of colours that a system could produce and display on the screen at the same time, or by CPU speed. The best programmers and artists could do wonderful things within those limitations, and you can enjoy great pixel art even today, when computers can produce real-time visuals that are vastly more complex.

These days, video game graphics are much less limited by the tech the games run on, so a lot of games – especially in the so-called AAA segment, i.e. the games with the biggest budgets and the largest teams of developers – aim for photorealism. At the same time, smaller developers who don’t necessarily have the resources to create virtual worlds that visually are getting less and less distinguishable from reality, have a vast range of possibilities to work with those very different limitations: they might create games that use different kinds of stylisation, that look like vintage animation or paper cutouts or jagged fever dreams. In modern games, we may find aesthetics that don’t harken back to the ’70s and ’80s, with their blocky pixels and four-frame animations, but to times when video games were entirely inconceivable.

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They create worlds: Little Orpheus, and the limits of running left to right

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.

Little Orpheus is gorgeous to look at. It is what we used to call a jump-and-run game; usually such games are called platformers these days, the various Super Mario titles probably being the most famous among them even to non-gamers, but ‘platformer’ is really less fitting in the case of Little Orpheus, which is all about running and jumping – and, as is customary in such games, running and jumping to the right most of the time. The character you’re controlling is the cosmonaut Ivan Ivanovich who finds himself in one pickle after another: pursued by pterodactyls and a Tyrannosaurus Rex in a take on the centre of the earth that is part Jules Vernes, part ’50s B movie, or navigating the innards of a giant while, or racing against the odds in mysterious Lemuria. Or actually, he’s telling these stories – which he may be making up on the spot – to the increasingly impatient General Yurkovoi, who is trying to find out what happened to his atomic bomb and how exactly this ridiculous little man sitting in front of him was involved.

Little Orpheus is undoubtedly beautiful – and yet, I felt less immersed in these worlds than I have in some technically and artistically more primitive ones. Is it that jumping and running doesn’t lend itself to immersion?

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They create worlds: Firewatch

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.

A lot of gaming is about power fantasies. Okay, perhaps most of us don’t fantasise about being a mustachioed plumber jumping on the backs of turtles or about manoeuvring oddly-shaped blocks in order to form lines, but the clich├ęs are still true a lot of the time: you play in order to become a fantasy hero with a big sword or a soldier with a big rifle or a space warrior with a big raygun. These games can be tremendous fun (and not all power fantasies are as Freudian in nature), but the longer I’ve played games, the less they’re the ones that pull me in most. There are other fantasies (no, not that kind – at least not in this post!): games that let me exist in places where I could never be in real life. For me, it’s one of the main draws of the Assassin’s Creed games: not that they let me become a super stealth assassin with some cool threads and hidden blades, but that they let me explore revolutionary Paris or Victorian London or Ptolemaic Egypt.

And sometimes the fantasies are much more mundane – but fulfilling them is no less fascinating. I mean, how many of us have had the opportunity to become a fire lookout in a North American national park?

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They create worlds: Return of the Obra Dinn

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.

There are certain experiences that would only be possible in video games – or perhaps in some medium that doesn’t even exist yet. In view of my woeful ignorance of this unknown future medium, I will come out and say that Return of the Obra Dinn could only exist as a game, in more respects than just one. And in the process, it is a wonderful example of how video games can be entirely unique and different.

And that’s before we even get to the – ah, but that would be a spoiler.

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They create worlds: Tunic

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.

There are video games that strive to recreate the real world in one way or another: the Grand Theft Auto series, for instance, which satirises modern America in many respects, but in others it has been pushing for a more and more intricate, realistic representation of the urban everyday of New York or Los Angeles; or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, where a Shropshire village in the 1980s constitutes the naturalistic setting for a cosy apocalypse that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Wyndham novel; or Dirt Rally 2.0 and its rally courses that have struck fear into the heart of this gamer without ever leaving the realm of the real.

Then there are games that create realities distinctly different from our own everyday reality. The likes of Paper Beast, which puts the player inside a virtual world with its own rules and its own forms of life coming to an end, or Device 6, which thrives on the kind of worldbuilding that is possible only with the written word, or Fez, combining the two- and the three-dimensional in ways that wouldn’t be possible outside the virtual spaces inside a computer’s memory.

Tunic is firmly in the latter camp, but that doesn’t make the world it evokes any less impressive.

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They create worlds: Dirt Rally 2.0

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.

Every now and then, I will play a horror game. Not often, since I don’t regularly feel the need to be scared, and because so many horror games will mainly run on atmosphere and jump scares, the latter of which I’m not particularly interested in, regardless of the medium. Still, every now and then, I want to be scared. I want to feel dread at being in a place that clearly doesn’t want me there. That is vast and uncaring, and if it is out to get me, that’s just because I am so small and insignificant, yet foolhardy enough to venture there and therefore it’s all my fault. The danger to me is incidental. I went to the dark place, so anything that happens to me while I’m there is entirely on me.

And when I’m there, I suspect that the words I will hear are “Turn, one left, don’t cut.”

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #23: The Guardian

Okay, to get this out of the way first: no, this entry in our weekly Six Damn Fine Degrees feature is not about the centre-left British newspaper famous for its idiosyncratic spelling abilities. Instead, it is about the main antagonist of several instalments of the classic series of computer role-playing games Ultima, a transdimensional being of immense power bent on conquest, a villain to match the likes of Marvel’s Thanos, DC’s Darkseid or the First Evil from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Or, as some fans of the Ultima series like to call him, the big red muppet.

This was the face that emerged from my screen when I started to play Ultima VII.
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They create worlds: Paper Beast

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.

So many video game world I’ve experienced were inspired by the aesthetic of cinema, and mostly by a fairly narrow range of movies: Star Wars, Aliens, James Bond, the Lord of the Rings movies and these days obviously the Marvel behemoth. Which isn’t a bad thing: I’ve greatly enjoyed inhabiting movie-inspired pastiches of New York and Los Angeles, I’ve had good times fighting my way through space stations, mansions and snowy castles. I’ve been wowed by the worlds that games create for their spectacle, but mostly it’s a familiar kind of awe: this is the best-looking Nazi stronghold or Death Star-alike I’ve ever sneaked through, this feels just like Blade Runner‘s futuristic Los Angeles or like Peter Jackson’s version of the Mines of Moria.

It is rare that a game world feels truly different, unexpected and surprising.

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They create worlds: Hades

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.

Stroppy teenagers. Authoritarian dads. Absent mothers. Intrusive family. Oh, and myriads of monsters, mythological creatures, divine powers, mythological weapons, snark, flirtation, style, and the best tunes this side of the river Styx. Who’d have thought that the underworld could be this much fun?

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