This week marked the end of our Special Topics In Gameology series on the empty spaces in games. Patrick Lee, perhaps better known around these parts as caspiancomic, brought us an essay about Flower banishing all traces of humanity—including your own character—to showcase the beauty of its unsullied fields and the bleakness of its crowded cities. This reminded Fluka of some recent travels:
My husband and I just spent the last week on a long road trip through the Western United States, mostly in Montana and Wyoming. It was amazing how much vast empty space still exists in that part of the country, whether in the Rockies or in the utterly flat plains and farmlands. After a few hours of this, my brain managed to completely separate itself from work and other stresses, and I settled into a happy contemplative state of just staring at the scenery.
What’s funny, however, is that at some point in the rocky foothills, both of us independently came to the same conclusion: “Looks like Skyrim.” (Or in the more desert-like areas, “Looks like New Vegas.”) In retrospect, however, adding in a bunch of enemies and robots and busy-work quests would destroy that happy feeling of desolation and disconnect. Like in Flower, as the article mentions, I much prefer the idea of just being the wind.
PaganPoet, on the other hand, was reminded of some odd computer animated movies from the ’90s:
This game always reminded me of those Mind’s Eye videos from the early ’90s. They were basically extended music videos for easy-listening electronica accompanied with computer-generated, sometimes surreal, sometimes nature-based images. The early ’90s being the vanguard era of CGI, they’ve aged horribly, but I remember being fascinated (and a little bit scared) by them as a kid. (I think a Discovery Channel store or something at my local mall had them playing on loop to sell them.) That’s the same feeling Flower gave me.
Patrick contrasted the lack of damage the player does to Flower’s environments to the likes of Tomb Raider, where you destroy and kill your way through abandoned ruins. This got CNightwing thinking:
How about we design Archaeological Dig Manager, the game about finding, carefully excavating, and preserving ancient sites and objects! You start as a lowly graduate student, fresh on the excavation scene, given your own square meter of dirt to intricately map and uncover. Separate modern trash from old trade goods! Publish your findings in thrilling peer-reviewed papers! Work your way up to assistant professor and build your own team! Manage your own budget and relationship with volatile foreign authorities! Eventually tour the world exhibiting your findings, lecturing, and trying to earn that precious tenure. Bonus content includes 19th-century mode, where artifact damage, ignorance of local custom, and an imperialist narrative provide an altogether less challenging game experience.
And Angry Raisins dug up a relatively obscure empty space that was especially impressive:
This is probably too niche for a column, but a great example of the use of emptiness is the Aliens total conversion for the original DOOM. One of the most ambitious and best fan projects (back at the dawn of the notion of a “mod community”) it adjusted the graphics, sounds, and levels for DOOM to turn it into a pretty respectable Aliens game (a film to which pretty much every “abandoned facility infested with shootable enemies” game owes an obvious debt). One of the most memorable parts was the first level, where you’re nervously wandering dark corridors, listening to Apone say “check those corners,” and in the end it turns out [20-YEAR-OLD SPOILER] there aren’t any enemies on that level at all. They don’t show up until level two, which was kind of unprecedented at the time and works great as a piece of atmosphere building. You’re tense as hell when it finishes.
In an On The Level article, Sam Barsanti applauded the “real world” portions of Assassin’s Creed IV for facing up to the inanity of the series’ framing device and turning it into a deep meta-joke. Ocelotfox didn’t appreciate the change:
Somehow, I think I hated the meta-framing device more than all the odd Desmond-focused stuff from the first five Assassin’s Creed games. It just felt insincere, since the various Ubisoft studios that work on the series spent five whole damn games telling that dull, mediocre narrative. I understand that the “meta” nature of it all can be amusing, but given that it cost me five purchased games to get the references, it seems more derogatory than self-aware. I still wish there were no “you’re really just a guy in virtual reality” framing device at all, because it has been wholly unnecessary at best and narrative-shattering at worst.
For example, in AC4, I constantly felt as if trips to the real world were undermining the stakes of Edward Kenway’s story. It’s a large part of why I felt there was such a disconnect between the main story missions. Sure, sailing around listening to shanties and looting ships was great, but there was a good story in there about the rise and fall and rebirth of this amusing rogue. However, the breaks just ruined the story’s pacing, and the impact of certain events just came off as hollow instead of meaningful.
I’m still going to buy Assassin’s Creed Unity (I’m a sap), but just like after AC3, I’m waiting for Ubisoft to actually realize a complete AC narrative in a way they have yet to.
Elsewhere, the discussion turned toward the video of a faux-market research report embedded in the article. In it, employees of the in-game company critique the main characters of the prior Creed games and deem most of them unfit to star in their own projects. This led to some defense of the much maligned hero of AC3, the half-Native American Connor. Christopher Mei, though, thought the game’s developers missed an opportunity to address the treatment of Native Americans throughout America’s history:
The devs were also very shy with the American side. For 80 percent of the game, the main drive for Connor is to kill Lee because he thinks he has destroyed his village. Then he discovers that George Washington gave the order, and nothing comes of it. That’s it. Killing Lee remains the main thing while you just never see Washington again until some meaningless add-on content where you begrudgingly help him for some reason. It’s like they wanted to make some bold statement, but at the same time, they couldn’t go too far for fear of alienating the Americans. It would have been better to portray Washington and the colonists just as bad as the English and the Templars, but they couldn’t really commit to it. Instead they went halfway and that contributed to making Connor super bland and wishy washy. Don’t make a Native American your protagonist if you don’t really want to explore the darker side of American history.
That does it! Thanks for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all next week.