Wanderlust and Gaming

Posted by Alex Jordan on

An odd quirk of the advances made in game development and art direction is that players often find themselves visiting locations of untold beauty and blowing them right the hell up. Given how shooting and warfare-oriented most popular games are, it must be a natural extension of the old U.S. Army adage about "going to far-off places, meeting exciting new people, and shooting them." As it happens, I've long since realized that running and gunning my way through various utopian landscapes often saps some of the joy from them.

Take Uncharted 2. The game brings you to gorgeous locations throughout south and southeast Asia, yet for most of the time you're trying to stay alive while fighting hordes of murderous thugs. It's telling how infrequently a game like Uncharted 2 is willing to slow down and let you just enjoy the scenery, given how jarring it is that one level in the game lets you do only that. No shooting, no killing. Just languid exploration and idle chitchat in a Himalayan village. Other reviewers have described this moment as "letting Nathan Drake just be Nathan Drake", and that is accurate. However, that phrase should also read "letting the player just be Nathan Drake", as that point in the game allows a player to well and truly step into Drake's shoes and experience not just the constant gunfighting and ledge grappling that is his life, but also his reverence for beauty and his travels to amazing places.

The impact of the shooter genre is very aggressive in the video game market, and its effect is often to crowd out other entrants that approach gameplay and atmosphere differently. What game would you play if you just wanted to visit the Himalayas or the Bavarian Alps or Macchu Piccu and just enjoy the scenery, as opposed to killing people there?

The answer is often found in the adventure and horror game genres. Adventure games will frequently allow you to solve puzzles at your own pace amidst an interesting background. (I will forever love the Monkey Island series for its depiction of the 17th century Caribbean.) Horror games will usually not allow you to do things at your own pace (and frequently involve a little of the shooting I was just bemoaning), but the designers' attention to atmosphere - so important in effectively scaring a player - pretty much always dovetails with an environment that is positively dripping with character. (Although Innsmouth, Massachusetts is most definitely not French Polynesian, there's something to be said for experiencing a dim, dingy, post-Colonial New England town with a dark secret.)

I guess it's ironic that I cut my teeth on violent first person shooters while supplying those development teams with fairly idyllic levels. Honestly, my fondness for trying to create beautiful environments means that I will happily experiment with non-shooter genres given time, tools, and resources.

Translation: I really want to! But I can't right now. But rest assured that my video game wanderlust takes me to places that I want to show others.