May-June 2013 Roundup

Abstract image evoking bird silhouette

May-June’s topic for Blogs of the Round Table was ‘One With Nature’:

"Where videogames once had ‘levels’ like jungles, an ice world, lava world etc. their environments increasingly resemble real-life: players can now explore whole islands or peninsulas and even make their own worlds and ecosystems.

What’s the most convincing natural world you have explored? What unexpected encounters have you had in a simulated ecosystem? What can games do with environments and nature that the real world cannot?"

Last week, I visited the Eden Project in Cornwall, where an old quarry has been transformed into two artificial biomes. Underneath the hexagonal dome, seemingly inside a rainforest, I thought “hey, this is a bit like Crysis!” before I was distracted by a roul-roul and then spent five minutes crawling through the jungle trying to photograph a partridge. Videogame environments are increasingly like artificial biomes, whether you’re playing *Far Cry* or *Pokémon Snap*.

It seems a lot of modern games unapologetically go for expansive environments. The Witcher 3 is reportedly ten times the size of The Witcher 2 (is that meant to help us understand the size?) Skyrim famously promised no invisible walls across its wilderness, and Andrew Linder writes about its sense of scale. Unlike say Fallout 3, which was appropriately barren for a post-apocalytic landscape, Skyrim is bursting with life from every valley, river and cave. Yet it still feels big and expansive, which is an important part of enjoying the environment.

Wei Jia writes about the depiction of Tatooine in Knights of the Old Republic. One difference in game depictions of environments is that unlike film or books, your imagination can’t fill in the blanks in the same way. Artists and designers have to create a world that is approachable from many perspectives, since the camera is generally unrestricted these days. I really need to replay KOTOR some time. Also, looking at the title of this piece- is a ‘hexa-annual video game critique’ a six a year, or once every six year occurrence? Let’s hope it’s the former.

Morgan Brown draws a distinction between ‘unnatural’ and ‘natural’ design in games. He’s really talking about what makes for a convincing environment, and what factors in a game world cause the seams of design to show. Morgan mentions Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, a game that covered most of its seams (and scenes) in thick layers of fog. It’s also interesting that he doesn’t rate the world of Far Cry 3 very highly, a game I haven’t played but received critical acclaim in that regard. Please send your spare copy of Far Cry 3 to the Critical Distance Orbital Ludodecahedron and I’ll give it a blast.

For Jamey Stevenson, “a convincing portrayal of nature is one that encapsulates some kernel of truth about the properties of natural systems”, and I agree. He highlights something quite important that I think has been lost a little in the modern age of gaming, which is that feeling of fantastical, mysterious worlds ripe for the investigating. Increasing the ‘realism’ of a game through detail of all kinds is detrimental to abstraction. However, if you’ve picked up a 16-bit game for the first time recently, you’ll also know that mystery has its downsides. Especially if you like to know what you’re doing.

The equally mysterious psepho has looked at the landscape of Howling Dogs, another game I haven’t played. Am I meant to pretend that I’ve played everything? Unfortunately, this article does spoil the game completely. You’ve been warned! As a Twine game (cf. ‘real game’), Howling Dogs is much closer in its world building to a novel than the other games discussed in this roundup. It is imagination fuel. Hopefully it is never adapted to another form, since graphics never seem to live up to the possibilities of the imagination.

Finally, Sebastian Atay takes a deep look at the Ruined Fountain in Metroid Prime, which is great because I love Metroid Prime. It’s not just the visual detail of bugs scrabbling around the rocks and slime oozing from walls that separates Prime from its contemporaries: it’s the attention to detail in the placement of every object and room to form an intricate web of areas only conquerable through backtracking and sheer resolve. It’s one of the first games that springs to mind when I think about truly ‘immersive’ environments, actually.

So that’s it for this month. Thanks again to all of the writers who participated. Next month’s Blogs of the Round Table is up and it’s a big change in format from our previous instalments. Take a look and get involved!