After a fairly brisk contemplation games like Uncharted, Watch_Dogs, Far Cry 3, and Heavy Rain come to mind. But I am also starkly reminded of Beyond: Two Souls and Persona 4 because although they are not realistic games in the literal sense, their backdrops and especially the non-gamey bits try to reflect real life places and simulate the surroundings of an “average” person. Or do they? A closer look suggests otherwise.
One must acknowledge that the age of internet and international business has facilitated access to entertainment like video games for millions across the world – it is no more a conceit of a select few. BUT developing such widely played video games still is largely a conceit of the selected people from specific geographic regions. For instance the scale and standards of video game development that takes place in Japan, the USA and parts of Europe (France, UK and Sweden) are hardly matched by the rest of the world (ROW). So no wonder, most of the realistically imagined video games use these places as natural influences and backdrops. And this is where my (me being from Southern-East Asia) gaming experience differs from yours.
My notion here highlights the little regional endorsements that games contain that are actually only relevant to a specific – often geographically closer – audience that have been there, done that. For example, I am unfazed when I hear that I can climb the Space Needle in Infamous, because I have no associations to the place. Honestly, I had never heard of the place before really. Similarly I am oblivious to the fact that Ubisoft was able to replicate parts of Chicago in exquisite detail in Watch_Dogs because I have no reference point for the city.
Surely experiencing the digitized version of something real in a video game and then eventually witnessing the real thing is quiet something. For instance: playing Fallout: New Vegas and then later visiting Vegas was an odd yet enjoyable scenario punctuated by déjà vu and inundated by imperfectly recalled details. While marveling the Stratosphere (Lucky 38), the Hoover Dam and the Freeside (Fremont Street); I was quietly amusing myself with their supposed secrets and stories – as learned through the game – while in reality there weren’t any.
Anyhow, this is not just a Western phenomena. How many times have we been surprised and even baffled perhaps by the idiosyncrasies of the latest Japanese game, where the seemingly foreign cultural nods and representations create this uncanny valley. Surely there are many Japanese game enthusiasts who have never stepped foot in the Land of the Rising Sun and therefore have never experienced their culture firsthand, thus experience this culture shock of sorts.
Sometimes few of these video game references may feel fundamentally flawed to a certain audience: For example not everyone is my vicinity has a smartphone or a social networking ID or even a social security number for that matter. So the aspect of being accounted for and moreover tracked by an NIS-esque organization – as is portrayed in Watch_Dogs – is too far-fetched (which is usually a point of discussion when discussing ‘privacy’ specifically in the Western hemisphere but not so much in the East).
To further juxtapose two differing representation of ‘journeys’ in video games here is an example. In the land of Lordran (of Dark Souls) you travel a lot and that laborious task of journeying towards the Kiln of the First Flame feels long and tiring because you are physically moving across the map. Moreover Lordran is a product of someone’s imagination, providing no room for prior referential bias and thus painting every player’s experience of this journey with undertones of deftness and physicality. Something quiet opposite to this is the way The Last of Us portrays a journey. I have no idea how far Pittsburgh is from Jackson and thus no way to gauge the efforts it took Joel and Ellie to make that journey. I am sure many of the players do, but the game’s tendency to not mention the actual miles travelled or any such hint thereof, does not help the audiences (like me) who are unable to estimate the struggle of covering over 800 miles in this desolate rendition of America.
[Digression: The usual trend of casting famous names from cinema and television in video games is also sometimes jarring. For instance – and I know I am the minority, and I know I should do the needful – I have never seen the Game of Thrones, and the hullabaloo about Peter Dinklage’s voice in Destiny felt almost like a non-news to me, it was just a fact and I didn’t care much. Similarly, the casting of House actor Hugh Laurie in LittleBigPlanet 3 is totally uneventful for me and I am sure many others who will play the game not even realizing who the voice is. It is safe to assume that video game loving audience don’t care much for celebrities in their games, they are more than content – and even happy – with Nolan North (alongside other famous ‘professional’ voice actors) playing their Nathan Drakes and Penguins]
My argument is not entirely centered around the fact that regional nods have become largely irrelevant because the medium of video games have expanded in outreach. Rather a productive way to look at it is: Why invest precious time and investment in replicating something that’s realistic when the same can be utilized for creating something creatively disruptive. Anyhow the endorsements are only relevant to a small audience, but a novel setting with its imagined and creative antics are almost universal and can go a long way in creating illusions and fostering interpretations.
Maybe that is why high fantasy settings are so desirable in video games. They are inspired by reality, sure; but don’t try to ape anything that might be close to reality and break the notion of fantasy. They are open to exploration of the unknown without any preconceptions, they present the possibility to discover the unexpected and have an ingrained quality of being known only to the creator and thus not providing any reference point to the players.
The Saints Row series solved this dilemma excellently as it progressed from entry 3 to 4. It changed genres and converted the game’s style from being a realistic crime sandbox to a power-fantasy superhero sandbox becoming more accessible and fun in the process. The fourth entry wasn’t overly referential to the Western eccentricities and whimsy, but in-turn became more approachable through the readily-aspirational subject of being a hero (not a crime lord).
While I am contemplating this I cannot help but admit that some of the developers understand this West+Japan versus ROW fragmentation and are looking towards varied locations for inspiration. For instance Sleeping Dogs‘ Hong Kong and Max Payne 3‘s representation of São Paulo, have lent fairly unique flavors in the otherwise Japanese or Westernized modern settings. Another such upcoming representation (that I associate most with) is Ubisoft’s Far Cry 4.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egrtMng83RU]For starters it’s set in the fictional Himalayan city of Kyrat, with the protagonist: Ajay Ghale returning from the USA to experience the South-East Asian shenanigans. The difference here is: these are not shenanigans for me, it’s the kind of things I have seen and experienced before (been there, done that). I’m not referring to the violence or the murders; I mean the monkeys and the elephants, the temples and the colorful sand art (that beautifully adorns the Ubisoft logo). A recent trailer features a surprisingly well written and sung Hindi song too that I understood every word of (a cheery love song with rather non-conventional accompanying music).
For you it may be an exciting unknown location for a game, for me it’s like a game is coming home. It is exciting, I won’t lie. Maybe that is how you feel when a game is set in your country or vicinity. But this November when you wonder why a cow is garlanded in the game and why a pyre is lit in the temple, you should know that I know why, and I will secretly rejoice in that knowledge I have and you don’t.