Tuesday, 9 August 2011

À la Recherche du Jeux Perdus: La Troisième Partie

In the last installment of À la Recherche du Jeux Perdu, I spoke about how I wanted to pilot spaceships, and how that dream withered when I realised what that would actually entail.

So imagine how I felt when I first saw this:

This is a screenshot from Wing Commander, which I discovered at a friend's house at some point in the early 1990s. The first time my friend grudgingly stepped aside and let me play* was a watershed moment, as it was then that I realised that computer games could be more than just electronic simulations of board games. They could be portals to another world.

Whilst the mesmerising Mah-Jongg allowed my brain to wander, Wing Commander, on the other hand, gave me something else altogether. The game puts you in the position of a nameless pilot (though you could choose your own name and call sign) and gives you first-person control of a small fighter. Yes, there was skill involved, and yes, there was a tangible objective. But for me, the most exciting feature of the game was finally being given the ability to do what I'd always dreamed of doing: flying a spaceship in the midst of an interstellar battle.

The unique way in which games can put you in control of an unreal situation is not something that it's easy to explain to a non-gamer. Surely you should be able to pilot a spaceship using imagination alone? Can't you read a book about it? Yes. And yes. A child's imaginative play and the journeys that books can take us on have their own value, and can neither be replicated nor equalled. A game cannot and should not be a substitute for these things, but a good one can enrich our inner lives.

When I returned home after playing Wing Commander, something inside me had changed. I had been given a tangible aid in my quest for imaginary space travel, and it had made me feel as though someone had finally understood what I meant when I said I wanted to be an astronaut.

That someone had not only built me a spaceship, but thrown me the keys and created a world for me to explore. No longer was I passively watching imaginary characters do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, but I was piloting the spaceship myself, and taking it where I wanted to go.

From then onwards, I was compelled to explore this digital world and take advantage of the opportunities it afforded me. If I could pilot a spaceship, what else would I be able to do? Though it was a few years before I explored the lost city of Atlantis, or commanded an army, or fell in love with an alien, a fire had been lit and I realised there was a way in which my own imagination and desire for independence could meet with the creative vision of another person.

In books, we absorb the perspective of another whilst interpreting it in our unique way. During imaginative play (something we should never stop indulging in, even as we age), we are isolated in a shifting universe of our own creation. Whilst gaming, we are allowed to explore the minds of others in our own ways, at our own pace, and with our own agendas.

Though I was not able to articluate this as I usurped my friend from his gaming chair, this is what has kept me enthralled by games ever since. It is the desire for ever more freedom and ever more crystalline visions that has kept me returning to digital worlds. It is what fills me with almost unbearable excitement when I view concept art and hear designers aticulate their desires for their fledgeling universes.
Which is why, in retrospect, I found the next few years so confusing.

*Translation: He went to the loo and when he returned I wouldn't let him have his seat back.

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