The ugly, The bad, The good, The list™
Not one, but two new articles by my hand were published today in the fourth issue of Five out of Ten, a lovely mag that pays its writers according to a very honest model: the writers split the revenue evenly.
The first article is a semi-close reading of three games published recently: Dear Esther, Miasmata, and Proteus. If you’re familiar with the games, you’ll realise they have a common theme, and that is that they are all set on an island. As I try to argue, there are more similarities between the games than at first appears, but interesting differences too. In the article, I try to get at what kind of places the islands in these games are, and what that means for the overall meaning and experience of the games. On the way, I cover themes like isolation (and its etymology), memory, and death.
The other article contributes to the issue’s central theme: storytelling in games: how do they do it, and are they any good at it? My perspective deals with the concept of virtual worlds and spatial presence, and how that relates to story in a game, and to our experience of games in general. Long story short: I try to rehabilitate the concept ‘world’ as occupying a central position in the study of games, with reference to some smarter people who’ve written great things about this subject.
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.
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.
What a chimera of a book this is. It has one foot in plain old fantasy, with quite a few battles, some spell-slinging, and a hero on a quest. The other foot is deep in myth. When I first read this book, around seven years ago, I didn’t quite get it. I was already quite familiar with Planescape, the Dungeons & Dragons setting that forms the backdrop for this novel. However, in the novel, I found little of the vast vistas and wide-eyed wonder that typified the setting for me. Instead, the book’s narrative is almost completely confined to a labyrinth, which offers only a few passing glimpses of all the imaginative places that make up the Planescape multiverse. However, upon a second reading and some brief reflection, I think I now see what Denning tried to do here.