Sunday, 1 April 2012

Wheeeeeeee!

When I started writing this blog, I had just finished my degree, and I wanted to write about video games with the same intellectual rigour as I had been writing about books for the previous three years, for all the good that did the world. I don't know why I'm reminding you of this, since it's so incredibly embarassing, but the slogan under the Well-Rendered logo at the time was "On a quest to re-shape the language of video game journalism".

Ugh.


I mean, it's not just the arrogance of that statement that's so cringeworthy, given that at the time I'd never read a word of Steven Poole, who'd been doing brilliantly for years what I'd been doing ineptly for weeks, but the fact that I thought that trying to extract the same level of meaning from BioShock that I'd managed with The Things They Carried was a worthwhile thing to do. It isn't. Not because video games aren't as valuable to the cultural sphere as novels (I hold that they are), but that video games just don't contain meaning in the same way that books do.

Instead, they do something entirely different, and though analysing what that is is of interest, trying instead to extract the same kind of depth from a game that you do from a book is, as a general rule, pretty futile. Yes, there is symbolism in games of the kind that anyone who's ever read "Literary Criticism for Dummies" will recognise, but I honetly believe that games are just as important when they're fun than as they are when they are "deep".


I can say Silent Hill 2 and Shadow of the Colossus are profound, but then so will everyone else when they're scrambling to namecheck literary games, because they are pretty much the best of a very few examples. After many, many years of searching, I can still only name a handful of games that achieve that level of narrative depth.

But so what? Does that make them any less transcendent? I maintain that it's far harder to write something that's fun to read than it is to write something perceptive. The whole point of venturing away from the real world to go and explore a fantasy one, for whatever reason, it because it's fun.

And this is where Flower, whose screenshots illustrate this post, comes in. When it came out, everyone was falling over themselves to proclaim it an artistic triumph. It was even one of the games that someone used to try and convince Roger Ebert that games were art, as if his opinion on the matter was of any value. From what I can deduce, this is for three reasons: Flower is built around creation, rather than destruction; nothing you do is quantified; there isn't any user interface to speak of.


But for all its beauty, it's still very linear, and you must still accomplish a clearly defined goal that's as old as any fetch quest. You control the wind, and you must blow a single petal from a flower around a landscape in order to "bloom" the buds of other flowers, each of which gives up a single petal to your zephyr, so by the end of the level you're left with a glorious trail of multicoloured petals. You find and collect petals in the same way that you collect Sonic's rings, it's just that Flower is an altogether more serene experience.

It's a beautiful, joyous game that, despite having no words or plot, is moving. Much has been said about how it explores the tension between the urban and the natural - later levels see you re-fertilise arid urban wastelands - but really, it's just a lovely experience. You control the wind using the PlayStation 3's motion control, which makes the whole thing extremely tactile. I didn't learn anything, I didn't grow as a person, and I don't even have anything particularly interesting to tell you about it, I just had a really lovely time.


This weekend, I went to a theme park, something I haven't done for years. There's nothing that epitomises human extravagance and peversity like several million pounds worth of steel, technology and engineering expertise sunk into an enormous machine that flings people around at eighty miles an hour before depositing them back exactly where they left off.

I went on this particular roller-coaster that takes you from 0-80 in under two seconds, using that incredible momentum to launch you 200 feet up a vertical track before shooting you back down again at an incredible speed. The entire thing lasts about fifteen seconds, and to move at that speed, in that direction, goes against every instinct you posess.

Of course, roller-coasters are fun because they give you the illusion of danger. They let you enjoy something that should, by rights, kill you, except they're (almost) totally safe, so your brain lets you enjoy it.


In that way, they're quite similar to games, which let you do incredible things in a risk-free environment. But while a good roller-coaster is easy to quantify - fast, varied, smooth, surprising and spectacular -  a good game is a harder to pin down. This is, of course a good thing for anyone who gets paid to talk about games.

But what I find fascinating about them both is the fact that so much technology goes into giving people a good time. Of course, they make me feel guilty, because I am fortunate enough to be able to enjoy them, but more then that they fill me with wonder.

Roller-coasters, video games, books, drugs, and even music are all testament to the human brain's lust for stimulation, excitement and escape from a world that is already miraculous.


As a species, we're altogether too intelligent. The things that most threaten our survival are those which we once created to make our lives. And although the things that bring us most joy will always be free, our desire to test the limits of experience in a world where we (at least in the west) are safe from most tangible threats means we must create artificial experiences.

Like many wonders, this is too complex for me to simply declare it good or bad. It is just a quirk of our existence, and since I have ever known anything else, I cannot begin to imagine a life lived entirely in the real world.

And I honestly don't want to.

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