This April was a religion-themed month over at videogame blog The Ontological Geek. I wrote the final article in the series, and mused a little on how concepts of religion, God, and particularly The Holy, can be incorporated into videogames. For perhaps obvious reasons, it’s easy for games to tackle and represent the more mundane sides of religion and faith, but they seem to struggle somewhat when it comes to matters more transcendent. In “Sanctifying Games”, I try to explore why that might be.
It is a discussion that crops up from time to time: what is a game? This would be a fairly academic definition question, were it not that it finds a much larger battleground mostly outside academia, where consumers and critics of video games are the participants.
The direct catalyst for the most recent iteration of this discussion was the release two days ago of Proteus, a game developed by Ed Key and David Kanaga. This work, as I briefly explained in my piece on Noctis, is all about free exploration of an island and its flora and fauna, about building a soundtrack by moving around. It is limited in its interactivity compared to many other video games, and this has sparked the discussion on whether or not Key and Kanaga are right to refer to Proteus as a game.
There’s something to be said for the idea that art can find expression in any medium. For Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy of Cardboard Computer, their medium is the strange blend of audio, video, text, and interaction of digital games. As their earlier game Ruins showed, the studio has a penchant for the poetic and the dreamlike, and you’ll find those elements in spades in their latest (and currently ongoing) work Kentucky Route Zero. It’s an adventure game in five parts — the first released in December 2012, with later instalments to follow this year.
Communication is the weirdest thing. It just kinda works, unless it doesn’t. In practice, it works not because the connection between thought, intention, and language is perfect. It isn’t. It works because we usually share large parts of our worldview and knowledge with the people we’re speaking with, and because our minds are really good at filling in conceptual gaps wherever we see them. In cases where there are minor hitches in communication, we’re also very good at pretending there aren’t any. We ignore them, or we aren’t even aware that someone else might not understand exactly what we’re saying in the same way that we do.
Remember Groundhog Day? It’s that 1993 film about Bill Murray’s character, Phil, who keeps reliving the same day, February 2nd, in the Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney, where on that day, the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil will predict when winter’s going to end. […] It’s an awful lot like the way we tend to play video games these days. Faced with challenges in a game, we have the quicksave and quickload buttons close at hand, ready to revert to an earlier point in the game to try again. If you get to replay a section of a story over and over again, any challenge inherent in the original situation quickly morphs into a matter of trial and error. Like Phil in Groundhog Day, we get to try out every interaction, every conversation option the world allows us. More importantly, in a typical collapsing together of character and player, Phil – like us – retains (meta)knowledge of everything he did earlier.
Videogames can sometimes be a very arcane medium, and it can often be difficult to comprehend what they’re all about for people who never or seldom play them. Of course entertainment is often the main ‘use’ of a video game, but many of them have elaborate themes and stories, and the way in which video games deliver those narratives and themes is often unique to the medium. Today my own piece on Planescape: Torment was published, and I try to explain how the game uses exploration and conversation to allow you to reconstruct the protagonist’s tortured past.
Through the years I’ve had so many reasons to ignore her, always telling me where I could and couldn’t go… – I was following a pretty bird, and I got lost. I wanted to go for a walk by the lake. I wanted to pick some flowers that only grow in the forest. I was secretly meeting a boy. I wanted to check out the creepy graveyard. I needed to get away for a while. Besides, the real reason she doesn’t want me to stray is because she doesn’t want me to grow up and make my own decisions and not listen to her all the time. That’s why I went off the path and into the forest. It’s made me who I am.
If there is one thing astronomy has taught us, it is the realisation that a planet like Earth, with its abundance of life, is incredibly rare in the vastness of the universe. We do know that there are billions of galaxies each containing billions of stars, so it is probable that life is to be found somewhere else in space; yet we are lonely all the same. We could - in a manner of speaking - travel for an eternity in any direction without encountering any sign of life. That overwhelming sense of loneliness on a cosmic scale is what strikes me the most while playing Noctis.
This is the third time I’m writing about a digital work by Flemish duo Tale of Tales, and that alone says something about the capacity of their releases to inspire discussion. I started with the peaceful MMO The Endless Forest, and also did a short bit on The Graveyard. Continuing the chronological trend would leave The Path as my next subject - arguably their best and most game-like work - but writing about that fascinating psychological horror piece still seems rather daunting. Instead, I’m sticking to the slightly more manageable FATALE and exploring a bit of what it has to say about the figure of Salomé and how she’s been treated throughout history.