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There is a sense, in the modern world, that we are always being watched. Our web browsers, our phones–nearly everything we do in our daily lives is monitored to some degree. For the most part, we manage to push this knowledge aside by making jokes (“I just said ‘bomb’ on the phone: they’re listening now”) or supposedly acceptable rationalizations (“I don’t do anything illegal online anyway”).
But then something happens that forces us to reevaluate. Something like Edward Snowden revealing the staggering breadth of the NSA’s international surveillance practices in 2013 demonstrates the frightening extent to which the average, supposedly private citizen is being watched. When we’re reminded that we’re living in a world where so much of our lives are recorded, tracked, and monitored, the effect is chilling. We are forced to confront the fact that true privacy is gone–that it seems to have vanished without us truly noticing.
Camouflaj’s République is meant to shake us in this way. It’s meant, in the tradition of all dystopia fiction, to show us how bad things could be if the reality we live in was exaggerated by only a minor degree.
There’s something nearly sacrilegious about trying to describe the sensations involved in moving through NaissanceE‘s world. It is a game of measured exploration–of private, lonely introspection. Whether squeezing past low openings in piles of cube-shaped rubble or dropping from one barely visible precipice to another down an enormous grey-scale pit, the pace of understanding and navigating the game’s bizarre architecture is slow. And because NaissanceE‘s setting is comprised of such unearthly sights and sounds, the time it provides for personal reflection often leads the player’s mind to strange, numinous places where awe and terror commingle.
I first played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time when I was 12 years old–still very much a child. It was the first Zelda game I went through on my own, which was a very different kind of experience than trying and failing to penetrate the 8-bit dungeons of the series’ debut one week at a cousin’s cottage. Ocarina of Time, its colourful world rendered in (what was then) astoundingly full three-dimensions, was a more inviting kind of adventure. Its version of Nintendo’s grand monomyth dropped the player in a land where strange fantasy creatures and secret temples hid beneath placid lakes, behind cracked stone walls, and on plateaus that hung just out of reach overhead. Exploring and uncovering this world was the draw back in 1998.
Now, returning to it almost 20 years later, Ocarina of Time feels like a different game, appealing for very different reasons. After brushing away the cobwebs of nostalgia that covered the first few hours, Link’s journey to save Hyrule (yet again) from the evil Ganon+ is filled with less of a sense of environmental mystery–it’s tough to see beyond the mechanical framework of the world design as a grown-up–than a bit of commentary on the process of growing up.
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.