176: Postcards from the Road

Postcards from the Road

For a medium that so often sends players trekking across continents in heroic quests, videogames don't portray the experience of travel very effectively. Allen Varney imagines how developers could better simulate the globe-trotting lifestyle.

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Another "travel experience": Helping the Somali woman seated next to you on the airliner fill out her visa application while you try to discern whether the dots swimming in front of your eyes are hallucinations induced by your malaria medication or a result of sitting on airplanes/in airports for 26 hours. I smell a mini-game! Or maybe a quick-time event.

Perhaps it's because I read your article immediately after Tom Endo's, but I see your call for truly jarring experiences as a possible remedy for the player fatigue referenced in his piece. At the same time, I think many players go to games for a comforting or reassuring experience: "I have learned the rules, and by following them I receive this little rush of endorphins on completing a task." Hence the appeal of multiplayer and the validation one receives from the group upon doing well.

I think that, upon the creation of these varying virtual worlds you mention on Page 3, you might see a result similar to what happens in real life: Many players' stories would be told within the bounds of the world in which they are comfortable (no doubt a rich experience in itself), while a relative few would strike out into the unknown. It's a theory, anyway.

There's a problem with this: Far Cry 2 encompasses realistic (i.e. lack of) travel, the chance of getting malaria and the struggle to find a cure, etc. These happen to be the things most often bemoaned about the game. There are three obstacles to including this kind of experience in games: one, games are meant to be fun, and this might not always be so amusing; two, how exactly would you express any of those moments in gameplay (not cutscene, gameplay), particularly the last two; three, in the current 'political correctness' climate you'd have to be extremely careful to avoid anything that could be construed as offensive or racist.

While I agree that the first one in particular would make an excellent game moment, I don't feel the lack of cultural experience a massive detriment to games. I daresay if it existed and was then suddenly removed, I'd feel its loss, but among the most interesting and involving games I've played have been those pretty much devoid of other characters.

There's Bioshock, populated only by cannon-fodder NPCs and yet evocative and eerie (at least until you get fed up of its gameplay, but whatever). In fact, a Bioshock without the omnipresence of Atlas and Tannenbaum and Fontaine would probably have been *better* - more emphasis on Rapture's ephemeral mystery, devoid of anything living and sane until at least half way through, and get rid of half the splicers and security cameras for god's sake. Piecing together the history of Rapture through discarded diary recordings, pictures and letters was, for me, the most interesting part of the entire game. Would this work quite so well for a deserted town in the southern reaches of China? Possibly. Probably not.

I do know that it's Bioshock's world that holds the interest. I wasn't really concerned with Jack's motivations or Bioshock's much-touted plot twist. Atlas had a pleasant-sounding accent but was merely the boring "go here do this" character, at least in-game. Sure, that changed with the twist, but I'd pretty much worked that out for myself by then, and after the twist the game dipped downhill quite sharply. In-game, Fontaine and Ryan were just dicks, regardless of their roles in the backstory. No, it was Rapture's history that held me, in a way that you can only get from a made-up 1960s underwater city. And, I guess, the culture of the 60s that influenced and shaped the environment, and was a major player in the ways Bioware made Rapture such an enthralling place to pretend to be in. I dunno. It could work in the real world, but only in certain places. Where those are, I don't know.

There's Portal, which contains a sum total of two characters, one of whom is mostly just a voice and the other of whom never speaks. (Interestingly, from what you see of her, Chell - the quiet portal-wielding protagonist - looks quite Oriental.) Portal's environment is neutral-grey and minimalistic, including nothing but what's necessary. There is no culture whatsoever, no enemies, no backstory aside from the barest hints, and no motivation given for Chell's test-centre incarceration. None is needed. Portal is a game at its most refined; slimlined, trimmed-down, innovative, ever-changing, with rising complexity and difficulty, and of course a healthy serving of its famous dark humour. In a way, it's like any of the games you'd find on Miniclip - there's no massive overarching plot arc, evil nemesis or anything else for TVTropes to feast on. It's just a lot slicker (and has much better graphics, obviously).

Then there's Doom 3: a place that omits cultural references almost entirely and yet manages to evoke Mars very well. Maybe we can just identify with the characters. It's like Bioshock in its own way; almost deserted, but populated by memories, these ones recorded in the form of emails. They have rivalries, friendships, annoyances, spam mail, the lot. Doom 3's protagonist, another nameless space marine who just kills demons in the dark, isn't what makes the game interesting, just like how I found Jack in Bioshock rather a nonentity of a protagonist (FPSs can be like that). When you think about it though, the characters could fit pretty much any cultural mould you wanted them to. Sure, I saw them as Brits, but that's because I'm British (Welsh to be precise). There's no religious references in the messages at all (besides the odd thing about satanic stuff, but that's plot-related, obviously) and no real cultural memes. I daresay you get spam mail anywhere you have the internet, whether it's in Tokyo, Taiwan, Texas or Timbuktu. (Doom is set in 2145 anyway. We're on Mars. I daresay the culture we know today would be very different by then.) You can identify with the characters no matter where you're from, I think.

*thinks of more games* Hmm...

I haven't started S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl yet, besides a brief testing period. From what I've heard and observed so far though, the deadness of Chernobyl has a sort of culture all of its own. How well this is realised and built up in the game though, I know not. What about The Suffering? That game gives you a little more idea of what it's like to be in prison - even though a lot of the prisoners are dead by now and there are daemons popping up everywhere. (What can I say, I like games where you can shoot daemons. Anyway, The Suffering's available legitimately free online, so I downloaded it the first chance I got.)

Son of Makuta:
There's a problem with this: Far Cry 2 encompasses realistic (i.e. lack of) travel, the chance of getting malaria and the struggle to find a cure, etc. These happen to be the things most often bemoaned about the game. There are three obstacles to including this kind of experience in games: one, games are meant to be fun, and this might not always be so amusing; two, how exactly would you express any of those moments in gameplay (not cutscene, gameplay), particularly the last two; three, in the current 'political correctness' climate you'd have to be extremely careful to avoid anything that could be construed as offensive or racist.

1) Why can video games, which chiefly deliver experiences to the player, only be about fun?

2) If you're no longer concerned with making everything fun & happy, there are unlimited numbers of game designs that could deliver any range of experiences.

3) Why? Movies, books, and songs deal with controversial issues all the time and they step on toes while they do it. Again, if I'm not obsessed with making everyone happy, then why is this a problem for video games?

Thanks for the thoughtful responses, everyone. Son of Makuta, you discuss some ways to get at experiences of other cultures in gaming, but what I miss is the experience of transportation TO those other cultures. It's also hard to simulate a convincing culture in a single-player game; it could be more convincing in an MMOG environment with content provided by players from different cultures.

As for L. B. Jeffries' contention that all this becomes possible once you decide your game doesn't have to be fun -- well, I'd hope the experience of travel could be made fun!

I think that once a game becomes an exercise in frustration (as I have come to see many new games these last few years) that the fun goes away, and so does my desire to play them. I understand the desire to recreate the visceral(sp?) experience of the realistic, but at the same time, I think the further you go towards realism the less enjoyable it may become.

I actually like being able to play a game without the lingering threat of death or defeat looming over my head like the Sword of Damocles just waiting for me to screw up so it can fall and end me. I know a lot of people don't seem to understand that enjoyment or even agree with it - I've had a number of people tell me that if you can't die a game isn't fun, and that without "challenge" there is no point to a game. But to that I say no, because it isn't the challenge of the game that entices me, but the exploration and the overall experience of what I can see and do in the game.

To that end, realistic exploration would be very enjoyable and interesting, but if we were to try and hold back a bit on the "harsh consequences" of it all, it might be even more so. At least render them mostly non-fatal, but only debilitating.

Allen Varney:

As for L. B. Jeffries' contention that all this becomes possible once you decide your game doesn't have to be fun -- well, I'd hope the experience of travel could be made fun!

I'm sure it could be, I just think you corner yourself into a lot less design options and experiences if you say that the person has to be having fun all the time. You said yourself in the article that pushing someone outside their comfort zone was a part of travel. I think people could learn to appreciate that, but I'm not sure fun is going to be the first reaction.

I wonder has Allen Varney ever played Shenmue? Because if there was ever a game that made me feel like I was traveling in a foriegn land, it was that one. I don't think it was intentional either. I think it is because it was created by Japanese people for a Japanese audience.

Unlike some other games (Resident Evil for instance) it was basically "SIM Japanese Guy" for most of the game. In fact, if you've played it, you might remember the old woman who was lost. You had to find the right house, but the signs were all kanji until you examined them and they gave you the English translation. I have no doubt if I had been Japanese it would have been fairly easy, but every time I play it seems I wander all over looking for the right house.

I liked Shenmue 2 better, it was more action packed, but for that reason it failed to capture some of the tedium of exotic travel. Real exotic travel is a mix of endurance and exitement.

Encourage players to group in some pleasant, non-threatening way that honors their heritage. Give all the Ukrainian players incentives to create Ukrainian NPCs, missions and architecture near one another. Do the same for the Scandinavian players, the Chinese and so on. They don't need wildly various terrains or textures - even in an urban environment like City of Heroes, players could create cultural enclaves like San Francisco's Chinatown or Singapore's Little India. Provide a community feedback system to rate and promote fun cultural stuff. Reward players for visiting each other's locales. Just be ready to ban griefers.

Banning griefers won't do. If I'd accidentally abused someone whose culture I didn't understand, I'd be horrified, apologise and plead my ignorance. And if I'd griefed a culture I did understand, I could just as easily plead ignorance. So you have to ban naive and ignorant people too. The alternative might be that, until a player is trusted in a given culture's community, they are ghosts who may look but not touch.

K3n.

Allen Varney:
Players don't want to get lost trying to find the train station, nor dodge traffic on the way there, nor figure out the schedule, change currency or watch for pickpockets.

Funny enough, those experiences are so there in FPS for me, especially TF2. Let me change it around a bit:

Players don't want to get lost trying to find the cap point A in CP_Steel, nor dodge trains (Oh TF2 train, how many times have you splat me!) on the way there, nor figure out the schedule, change currency or watch for Spy.

I know it's not the same, but I just couldn't shake similarities.

Hiroshi Mishima:
I think that once a game becomes an exercise in frustration (as I have come to see many new games these last few years) that the fun goes away, and so does my desire to play them. I understand the desire to recreate the visceral(sp?) experience of the realistic, but at the same time, I think the further you go towards realism the less enjoyable it may become.

I get lost a lot in games, but usually I play a game because I like the action aspect of the game somehow, so getting lost is a plus for me. Trying to overcome puzzles though, sucks. In real travel, this would equate to trying to order drinks in languages you do not speak. It can be fun, it can be frustrating, but you don't want to do it in China, no offense. So far, my experience tells me that true Chinese aren't exactly trained in the same manner with most of us, and I'm from Thailand, which inherits a lot of China's culture. It's just outright frustrating when the waiter doesn't even care that you're paying them. It's you who needs the water--they control the resource, and you have to beg them. Personally, I don't see how you can work in a restaurant frequented by foreigners every day and not understand the word water, or beer, but that's how my experience went in China. It's almost like running to a glitch in a game--it just doesn't care to cater to your need and revels in your frustration.

 

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