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Stories are how we make sense of our world. They’re what we use to explain the lives we lead and the places we find ourselves living in. And sometimes, a story can lead into another story. This is the case with Never Alone (or Kisima Inŋitchuŋa), a game that uses a young girl and arctic fox’s journey through an Alaskan blizzard to tell the story of both Iñupiaq traditional culture and the way its mythology contextualizes this peoples’ lives.
There’s a brief, computer-generated video that plays after The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings‘ credits have finished rolling. In it, a rural man collects wood in a forest glen. He spots a rabbit hopping through the brush and following a (much appreciated) fade to black he heads back home with the now-dead animal hanging from his belt. As the man starts to cross a wooden bridge he hears the thunder of approaching horse hooves, and a group of mounted knights in black armour ride pass him. The man hurries onward to his village only to find it burning and a sea of troops marching toward it from across a river valley. The game pulls out from the scene to show a map of the area and the sweep forward of the invading Nilfgaardian Empire’s army. Coloured a menacing black, the Empire’s borders extend upward to swallow the regions to the north of it, shading their multicoloured nations with darkness.
This moment sounds innocuous outside of the context of the game–it’s one fantasy nation taking over another. Those who have played through the previous twenty-odd hours of The Witcher 2 and invested in its fiction are more likely to understand the dramatic import of the moment, though. Players who think back on the history of Poland–the home of CD Projekt RED, the game’s developer–may react even more strongly.
I don’t like camping. For the longest time I felt like I was supposed to because, I mean, there are a lot of things about hanging out in the woods and fending for yourself that are immediately appealing. Building a bonfire, constructing shelter out of a bag of loose poles and canvas sheets–these feel like decent enough accomplishments when we’re more used to the convenience of sleeping in beds and adjusting thermostats to meet the same basic needs. But, after one night in Cape Breton a few years ago–one night I remember most for its awful heat, clouds of black flies biting at my face, and skin made sticky with layers of ineffectual mosquito repellant–I allowed myself to admit that I’m too accustomed to the easy life to get much enjoyment out of camping.
Just the same, I’m fascinated by the wilderness. I stand out on a cottage deck, looking at the lakes and dense forests of Ontario and I still think about how I’d do at fending for myself out in the wild. I know it wouldn’t go well, but it doesn’t stop me from wondering. Maybe, if the stakes were high enough, I’d get past my discomfort and figure out how to make a lean-to and catch food. I’m one of many people, soft-palmed from a life spent living in towns and cities and typing on computers for a living, that subconsciously assumes–despite all evidence to the contrary–that I still know how to survive like our common ancestors. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
Videogames are fond of constructing imaginary versions of real world locales. The Grand Theft Auto series invites open comparisons between its Vice City and the actual Miami; Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare takes place in an unnamed Middle Eastern nation that is Iraq in everything but name; The Banner Saga‘s faux-Scandanavian setting is meant to evoke Viking era Northern Europe. Everyone who plays these games knows that the fictional places they’re exploring are only stand-ins for somewhere that really exists in the world. Because of this, it’s possible to, say, offer a new spin on the Norse sagas by breaking away from what we already know about them. It’s even possible to make commentary about the legitimacy of Coalition forces occupying Iraq and Afghanistan by abstracting elements of these nations into a single imagined one. That being said, an unwillingness to set fiction in real locations isn’t always motivated by a desire to make interesting art. In some games it may serve as nothing more than cultural cowardice.
I shot a gun for the first time about two weeks ago. I mean, I shot a real, physical gun for the first time– I’ve been shooting digital ones for years now. It was an interesting experience: one that has stuck in my head, and has made me think about my relationship with the many, many firearms found in videogames a bit differently.
I was nervous to head to the range, but I was going with a cousin who has been hunting since he was young, has a gun license, and knows how to teach an anxious novice how to shoot. Just the same, I felt like a visitor to an alien world when we bought our day passes from the front office and headed through a shop stacked floor to ceiling with boxes of ammunition. Hearing shotguns blasting at clay pigeons and rifle shots crack in uneven intervals had me stifling flinches as we drove down the path to the firing range. The body’s instinctual reaction to gunfire is probably to hit the ground or run like a maniac, but this is obviously discouraged at a professional shooting venue so I tried to keep as calm as possible. Still, while my cousin unzipped his two rifles from their carrying bags and took off their trigger locks, I was transfixed by the row of people to our left. They seemed so relaxed–maybe a bit excited, but still relaxed–as they unloaded rounds from the sort of high-powered weaponry I’d only seen in movies and games before.
Amidst all the excitement of the two new consoles launching this month, there’s a very good chance that an important article detailing some of the more deplorable aspects of the videogame industry will be quickly forgotten. The piece, ‘You Can Sleep Here All Night': Video Games and Labor by Ian Williams, highlights what many of us who read, write, or care about the medium likely already know, but often choose to put to the backs of our minds: most videogames, in their current state at least, might be awful for the people who create and play them.
In university I had an English professor who taught a third year criticism and theory class. On the first day he handed out the syllabus with a wry smile on his face. When we looked at it we understood why. The class was broken up into lectures that steadily progressed through a long history of Western literary criticism.
This meant that we’d be spending the rest of the semester reading dense text from Horace and Longinus to Baudelaire and Foucault.
“I know that you’re probably not looking forward to the reading,” he said. “But you have to work hard at dry material to get a proper understanding of literature. My class is about doing that. It may be more enjoyable to read more exciting texts, but this semester we’re not having cake. We’re all going to have to eat our hay together.”
That turn of phrase has stuck with me ever since. In some classes the reading was pleasurable, the syllabus filled up with Alice Munro short stories and Mark Twain novels. In others, like this criticism/theory class, I spent nights trying to unpack huge ideas from intricately written essays and drinking heart-stopping amounts of coffee in an effort to stay awake through gargantuan Victorian tomes penned by Britons who were paid by the word. Just the same, by the time I graduated I appreciated what I had taken from all the effort.
I’ve tried to keep eating my hay on personal time. Since graduating I’ve supplemented a diet of “easy” fiction with bales of James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, David Foster Wallace, and Leo Tolstoy in an attempt to keep my reading as full of nutrients as possible. I’ve also found that trying to do the same with both listening to music and playing videogames has been valuable.
Just the same, experiencing the classics isn’t always easy.