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Reasons to Look Around

Sinan Kubba | 12 Mar 2012 09:00
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There's a particular kind of impact that comes from exploring the psychology of a real-life city. The most interesting depictions of real-life cities are those that visualize our surroundings in a way that is unfamiliar, but still resonates. Robert Louis Stevenson's gothic image of London, the gritty "New York at night" of Gotham, and countless other settings engross us because they bring to life the underlying psychology of our reality. In contrast, gaming's real-life cities usually feel soullessly accurate, too real to stimulate.

Why can't we explore real-life cities in the abstract ways we explore the worlds of Katamari Damacy and Flower?

The World Ends with You presents a strong exception to the rule. The DS game made by Square Enix is set in Shibuya, a Tokyo district intertwined with youth culture and fashion. Shibuya's psychology is central to the plot which deals with themes like peer pressure and self-image, but it also pervades through every facet of the game. Shibuya is in the sharp lines and bold colors of the comic book visuals and in the decorative pins and fashion accessories that give the characters their powers. Shibuya's make-up suffuses TWEWY to the point where it feels like it couldn't be set anywhere else.

Gaming can go even further, though, to present fresh perspective on our everyday surroundings. Why can't we explore real-life cities in the abstract ways we explore the worlds of Katamari Damacy and Flower? While it's not set in a real-life city, de Blob provides a fine example of how gaming can let us explore and interact with cityscapes in new and interesting ways. In de Blob I'm able to infuse a lifeless grey metropolis with color, music and life just by bounding around it. I dip myself in the paint of my choosing and then simply bounce off the buildings, coloring them how I want, and as I do the whole city transforms into a place of joy and vibrancy. In a way de Blob is also a primer for psychogeography; explore and interact with our surroundings and they'll transcend everyday monotony.

I'm not asking for GTA Vto let me bounce around Los Santos with a paintbrush, but there's a terra incognita between TWEWY and de Blob that gaming has largely ignored. Accuracy is all good and well but games can do more than just copy. In fact, gaming is arguably best equipped to bring the psychology of our surroundings to life and to let us explore and interact with the places we call home in ways we otherwise cannot.

Games like The Path, Dark Souls, TWEWY, and de Blob show that exploring a virtual world isn't a mechanical process but a psychological one. If game designers want us to explore their ever-expanding worlds, fictional or otherwise, then they need to make us want to, not have to.

When Sinan Kubba isn't getting lost in the back alleys and dark corners of London he's freelancing for places like G4, VideoGamer.com, and play.tm, hosting the Big Red Potion podcast, and tweeting too much about Super Mario Kart"

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