Video Games: Imaginary Space?

I’m really glad Laura brought up Riven and Myst today,  because it reminded me that I meant to make a post regarding video games and the exploration of space.  As you may have guessed from my comments, I follow video games fairly closely, and the game that’s currently receiving my attention is Fall-Out 3.

All the Fall-Out series follow the same basic plot: the world has suffered through a nuclear holocaust, and you play as one of the people who survived the fallout by residing for generations in a sealed vault.  Only, (as is the case in each game) something’s gone wrong, and you’re forced out into the ruined world.  (In the latest installment, you’ve gone in search of your father, so we’ve also got the whole Oedipus factor, although if you want to stick more strictly to your Greek epics, it’s really more a Telemachus/Odysseus thing.)

The press for the game goes to great lengths to emphasize its “sand-box” nature, that you don’t follow a strict narrative, but can go anywhere, and do anything.  The actual game is somewhat different.  As Coyne notes, there’s a series of objects that completely prevent your progress: locked doors, walls, etc.  But what’s more interesting to me are the parts that don’t block your progress, but do their best to shape it.     Enemy type and environmental surroundings work together to direct the gamer towards certain areas.    In the open, rural areas of the game, your most common enemies are giant rats and wild dogs, both fairly easy to combat.  But if you try to progress into the city areas, you are attacked by super mutants lobbing grenades and cocking machine guns–while at the same time, the open space gives way to tight alleys and cramped corridors–as we discussed in class regarding horror games, the sudden restrictions go a long way to increasing the over-all tension.  (it’s a point that connects tangentially to Stone’s discussion of phone sex–a narrowing of control and options can actually convey more information.)

The game also does other interesting things with spaces.  Since it’s a game that makes a big deal out of the ability to go everywhere, it needs to do some work in motivating the player to go anywhere.  Part of how it does this is through the automapping and zoom features.  The map of the game is generated through exploration–you know where you are and how you relate to other things by going to them and experiencing them.  Likewise, you can quickly warp to your destination–but only if you’ve been there before.  I think this form, and video games in general, encourage a very fragmented view of space: there’s no whole, just a series of connected levels that you travel among.  (Also in the discussion of virtual spaces, it’s worth noting that updatable maps, maps that track changes in your position, existed in video games long before they did in the real world.  Is virtual space more “mappable” than real space?)

But that’s all stuff that’s more or less common to a lot of video games nowadays.  The reasonably unique element of Fallout-3 is its location: the entire game is takes place in the ruins of Washington, D.C.  And it makes the most of its setting.  I don’t know if I’d go quite as far to say that it’s a detournement to place these familiar landmarks in this new world, but I think it’s moving in that direction.  Here, for example, is a comparison shot of the Washington Monument and the reflecting pools:

fallout-31It’s a particularly good example, because, in the game, the Monument has been entirely repurposed: in one of the game’s missions, your player can bring broadcasting equipment to the top of the Monument, to transform it into the amplifying station for the only remaining free broadcast radio station.  In other words, the Monument has been repurposed as a symbol of the freedom of information (which isn’t a huge stretch from its original purpose, but hey, the only minor detournement is the exact opposite, right?).  It’s one of the more clear examples, but as you wander around DC and observe the mercenary/Super Mutant gang battle in the House of Representatives, or sneak your way past laser-armed robots in the Library of Congress, or steal Lincoln’s head at the Lincoln memorial to sell to slavers, you can’t help but think there’s some spatial repurposing going on.

And thus ends another of my eccentric posts.  Anyone else have stories of video game space, cyberspace, or virtual spaces they’d like to share? (Yes, I WOULD like to hear about your experiences on Facebook!)

–Michael

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2 responses to “Video Games: Imaginary Space?

  1. I think that FO3 is a good example for video games in terms of spatial exploration and possible detournment. However, I also find it interesting the general response to the expansions for FO3 and how this outlines the ontological/ontic dimensions of video game genres.

    The first downloadable expansion was derided by many of the ‘rpg’ fans due to its linear progression. The sandbox had been removed, and the progression changed from the open spaced rural areas to the closed corridors and mountain paths. In moving towards a first-person-shooter game, it restricted the movement and possible contemplation of the user:
    “According to the phenomenological position, rather than moments of contemplation, our most typical moments are those when we are engaged, absorbed in an undifferentiated world of involvement.” (146)
    Rather than moving through the rural landscape, piecing together the spatial relations and creating a psychogeographic map of spawn zones, landmarks and quest locations, the expansion Operation Anchorage moved the user from possible ontological contemplation to the ontic relationship: the involvement is restricted, the objectives are clearly delineated in terms of orders, and the level of involvement restricts contemplation to observing fragments of the generated virtual space.

    Many online games, especially the MMORPGs, focus on ontic studies rather than promote ontological contemplation. To throw this out there, it seems as if those types of games are usually structured in a way as to avoid the loss of ‘the spatiality of praxis’ as reasons for gamers to move on to other games. By putting in place ‘grinding’ scenarios where the user is encouraged and rewarded for being ‘absorbed in an undifferentiated world of involvement,’ the game developers/publishers can keep the users involved in the game by switching ontological contemplation of open VR world-space with ontic studies and involvement with minute details of game mechanics. Of course, the interesting thing is that many of the ‘users’ actually become AI-programs that auto-grind. It also runs on the basic principle of consumerism, where virtual resources are farmed, sold and consumed in an escalating process. Once saturation/endgame consumerism is reached, the user content may be sold on ebay since, not only have the puzzles and spatiality of the VR worlds been explored, but also the ontic game mechanics and VR consumer products have been used to saturation.

    In any case, these are some brief but explorable eccentric thoughts to add onto an already eccentric post.

  2. – Alex

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