The larger gaming worlds become, the more I invest myself in them. The more time I sink into places like Skyrim, Liberty City, and Azeroth the more their geography becomes familiar, and I soon learn how to navigate them like I do the streets of my own city. The settings may be fantastical but the hours upon hours I invest into videogames can make traversing them feel as everyday as my journey to work.
We can gain fresh perspective by looking at how we navigate our virtual worlds.
Psychogeography considers the impact of urban geography upon everyday behavior. The term was first defined in 1955 but traces its roots through a history of city-based wanderers, particularly in London. Many of London's leading authors have drawn inspiration from shunning the main streets and losing themselves in the city's back alleys and dark corners, there finding new perspectives on the capital and new ways of visualizing its underlying psychology.
We, too, can gain fresh perspective by looking at how we navigate our virtual worlds, and by considering how the experience can be enhanced by taking lesser-travelled routes. In return, games can give us new ways to explore and interact with real-life cities, but before exploring that we should first revisit Tale of Tales' 2009 psychological horror The Path.
Curiosity Fulfilled the Cat
Echoing Little Red Riding Hood, The Path features a young girl on her way to visiting her grandmother. The instruction is to "go to grandmother's house and stay on the path." So I walk the path but nothing happens; the game ends after a few minutes. Straying off the path, however, leads me into the unmapped forest. As I probe deeper into the forest it slowly reveals itself as a mental landscape of the girl. I discover isolated landmarks strewn around, like swings and a shed, and each discovery inspires the girl to disclose a thought about her past. One example: "A serenade in the woods. Somebody is playing my song. Long slim fingers gently caressing the keys of me."
As I delve further, I realize that the disconcerting source of the girl's rumination is sexual abuse, and yet this discovery is enlightening. By straying from the path I've been able to explore the darkest recesses of the girl's psyche. The journey I've made is empathic.
The Path is a primer for psychogeography: Stray from the path, confront the unfamiliar. It shows how the line between the psychological and the physical can be blurred to striking effect in games. It also underlines the conscious subversion in leaving the path, which in turn highlights a parallel between today's psychogeographer and me, today's gamer: our joint struggle against modernist constraint.