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.
The psychogeographer searches for new value in his city but has to battle against urban innovation with its GPS, street signs, and relentless squaring of the maze. Meanwhile I, as the gaming adventurer, want to explore large open worlds, but they are presented to me with compasses, golden breadcrumbs, and marked-out maps. Even Skyrim, a game designed to inspire straying from the main quest, still leads me by the waypointed hand to almost all of its secrets. Games want to make me feel strong and autonomous yet they strive to do the legwork. Worst of all, I let them because it’s easier, and games take up enough time as it is. It was not so long ago when Zelda put me in an overwhelming world with no map and no waypoints, just a sword and a shield, and that was exactly what made it exciting.
There are too few modern games that truly challenge me to get lost in them.
There are too few modern games like Dark Souls that truly challenge me to get lost in them. It’s not just that there’s no orientation or that the punishment for dying is so great; it’s how exploration is rewarded psychologically. Dark Souls is so challenging that it forces me to observe its topography if I want to progress, so within no time at all I’ve learned the world by heart. But I’ve yet to discover it all. There are huge new worlds that hide behind outwardly trivial side paths or even behind walls that fade mockingly when struck. While these hidden worlds offer some material return, it’s the finding of them that’s the most rewarding, the discovery of a whole new realm in a place I thought I knew like home. It’s like finding a secret tray of chocolates in a box I was about to throw away.
Compare this to the majority of today’s games which still reward exploration with treasure chests and dead ends – or just dead ends. The Path and Dark Souls should show game designers that there are more psychologically gratifying ways of rewarding exploration than with material minutiae, and that we players should be more encouraged, and more eager, to discover the rewards for ourselves.
Reimagining the Urban
How I explore and even interact with a world can be stimulating in ways that feel unique to gaming. It might be the method of exploration, like floating through Flower to bloom a garden, or rolling around Katamari Damacy and making everything stick to me. Even when exploration is more traditional, how I experience the setting can still be uniquely affecting. BioShock, for example, constantly contrasts Andrew Ryan’s utopian vision against the dystopian Rapture reality. It makes the city feel symbolic of Ryan, a man who put his ideals ahead of even his own welfare. From Wander’s violent intrusion into The Forbidden Land in Shadow of the Colossus to restoring Hyrule across epochs in Ocarina of Time, games can dream up psychologically rich worlds that feel unique to the medium. When it depicts real-life cities, however, gaming seems to fall flat and lose all individuality.
Games like GTA IV and L.A. Noire present technically faithful replicas of real-life cities, but when I explore them I’m not experiencing the settings’ psychology like I do in Rapture. When I navigate Liberty City I feel impelled to do it in an everyday way, to wait at traffic lights, to walk rather than run, and when I don’t, the realness breaks. This might be impactful were there something of value beyond the technical accuracy, something to challenge my everyday perception of the city, but there isn’t.
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“