Imagination Land

Published on May 11th, 2013
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BioShock

Playing so much Bioshock Infinite of late has led me to a rather surprising conclusion. The level to which I connect with a game is in almost direct correlation to how fantastical or unusual the setting is. Put it like this. What sounds more appealing? Grey first person shooter set in a gritty rendition of modern day northern Waziristan or primary coloured first person shooter set in a sunlight flooded flying city circa 1912. Of course, I’m talking about Battlefield 4 and Bioshock Infinite, and for me, since games are all about escapism, my natural choice would be the game set in the early twentieth century flying city. Let’s try another one. A racer featuring real world cars racing on real world tracks or a supersonic hovership racer running on tight roller-coaster tracks set in a bright post scarcity future? Forza or WipeOut. I own and enjoy both, but I only utter the L word about one of those, and it’s not the one with the real world cars.

Games have an ability, unique in pretty much all media, to immerse you in the impossible. Titles like Fez, WipeOut and Antichamber can even take you to places beyond what a layman like myself would accept to be the normal laws of physics, let alone beyond the average imagination. And while a mega budget 3D movie can show you the impossible, only games can let you experience it.

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Spec Ops: The Line

It makes me sad when some games seem to squander the worlds they’re built in. Take Gears of War as an example. It’s set on what’s
assumed to be another planet, it’s antagonists erupt from the ground and sink entire cities in their wake. Yet despite all this, it’s still for the most part a gritty urban shooter in which you’re surrounded by burned out cars, lumbering tanks, helicopters, crumbling neo gothic architecture and lots of brown. Take away the locust and it could be a war zone in any European city. All of the Gears games are great and I’ve enjoyed every one of them, particularly the third, but it says a lot about a series’ sci fi setting when it’s most memorable moment (at least for me personally) is also practically the only nakedly sci fi set piece of the entire series; the section in which you kill a giant city devouring worm from the inside out. It’s easy to forget, during the moments you’re not chainsawing Locust, that Gears is set on a different planet at all. Conversely I find, Spec Ops: The Line’s gorgeous sun drenched rendering of Dubai really compelling. Spec Ops’ developers took the usually mundane idea of a modern day city, drowned it with a sandstorm and then seemingly made every reflective surface out of gold. It’s a look and a location that is pretty much unique in gaming at the moment. The result takes what should have been just another brown shooter and polishes the brown to a blinding sheen, which is what gives Spec Ops’ realistic setting such a kick.

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Gears Of War

What I’m trying to get at here is that a game can be much more interesting if it’s framed in a way that’s not often seen. Admittedly, Gears’ success did set the formula for the brown shooter, but I’ve seen so many brown shooters since, that when Spec Ops came along wrapped in sand, bathed in blinding sunlight and drizzled with gold it felt like a breath of fresh air.

Thankfully, once you’ve pulled your eyes away from Call of Battlefield, you don’t have to look too hard to find game worlds lavished with a wealth of creativity. It goes without saying that if you want to see the most creative and original games available at the moment, then you need to look at the Indies. Titles like Fez, Antichamber, Bastion, Dear Esther, Machinarium, To the Moon, Dust or even Minecraft are unlike almost anything you’ll find in a box on the shelf of your local games shop. But even if for some strange reason you only limit yourself to boxed games, there is still a wealth of creativity out there. There’s the aforementioned sun drenched turn of the century vintage futurism of Bioshock Infinite, or the deep-as-the-ocean green tinted decopunk of Rapture of that game’s progenitors. Don’t want a dystopia in the sky? Then why not tour the bright yet totalitarian city in Mirror’s Edge. If you want to pass on dystopias altogether, then try a post apocalypse. If you think every end-of –the-world is the same, then might I point you in the direction of the criminally under rated, and exceptionally leafy, Enslaved or Naughty Dog’s forthcoming The Last of Us.

Dishonered

Dishonered

Alternatively if like your post apocalypse a little bit grimmer, yet still crave something that feels fresh, then may I present to you 4A Games’ Metro; bleak and dark as the Moscow underground that shelters the last remnants of humanity in all its tunnels. Too dark? Perhaps we can lighten the mood in the collapsing laboratories of Portal 2. Too light, or not escapist enough? How about a visit to the charmingly English land of Albion in Fable, or the icy blue tundra of Skyrim. Too much fantasy? Then why not visit the crumbling, and entirely fictional, yet surprisingly plausible whalerpunk city of Dunwall, the place that accounts for at least seven tenths of what makes Dishonoured so great. If you’re feeling more adventurous? If you haven’t already, look no further than the Uncharted games, whose fabled lost cities, once they are revealed, dish out the most lavish and awe inspiring vistas of this generation. What if you want the fabled cities but less of the shooting and more of the journey? Obviously you want to visit the golden deserts and the desolately beautiful crumbling lost civilization of the genuinely moving Journey. I could go on and on.

And I haven’t even mentioned Final Fantasy yet, whose designers, Square, are the undisputed masters of creating richly imagined worlds. Worlds dense with culture, history and story, that feel lived in and are a pleasure to inhabit. Final Fantasy VII wouldn’t have been the worshiped game it has become without that kind of imagination. It takes a special kind of mind to come up with a concept as out there as the Lifestream, but without it there would be no Mako, no Shin-Ra, no Soldier, no Materia, no Cloud, Sephiroth, Avalanche. The Ancients, with whom the Lifestream is intrinsically linked, would not have sprung from the mind of Yoshinori Kitase and with no Ancients, there would be no Aeris. Without the Lifestream, Aeris wouldn’t have died, because she would never have existed, and a whole generation of gamers would not have experienced ‘that’ moment. You all know the one. Square still have that wealth of creativity. Say what you like about Final Fantasy XIII as a game, you can’t deny that the twin worlds of Pulse and Cocoon make for one of the most compelling gameworlds of this generation.

Games are always better when game designers can let their imaginations run wild. That’s why so many indie games are so great. With fewer concerns about shareholders or appealing to the mass market, indie devs can really cut loose. But there could be more of this sort of thing if the publishers were daring enough to indulge the experimentation of developers. Would it not be great if publishers weren’t as commercially cautious? I like to think that if they weren’t, we would begin to see fewer gritty modern world war games, less dystopian cyberpunk and less stone-faced post apocalypse. Of course, every now and then a game will appear that will turn your expectations on their head. Spec Ops’ Dubai proves there is room for maneuver in the modern day shooter and the forthcoming Remember Me’s Neo-Paris does some really interesting things with cyberpunk.

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Mortal Engines

Personally, I’d like to see more of the punk suffix flying around. Bioshock-the-first may have been first out of the blocks with decopunk, but there’s a lot more that can be done within the realms of 1920’s art deco futurism. In fact there’s more that can be done with retro futurism all round. For instance, who wouldn’t love to see something based around Retrpolis? Or how about an adaption of Philip Reeve’s far future world of Mortal Engines? Whilst the novels are not strictly steampunk, their vaguely Victorian cast iron and brass aesthetics, rich back story, airships, unstoppable ancient warrior cyborgs and predatory mobile cities (yes, you read that right) could make for a pretty compelling experience. Steampunk has become almost a subculture in itself, and is pretty ubiquitous at a certain kind of real world convention, but I’m yet to see a full blown steampunk game. Dishonoured came close, but it wasn’t quite there, which is why I knocked together whalerpunk to describe it instead.

If all that seems a bit overused already, then there is also dieselpunk and atompunk to check out too. The best way to describe these would be to tell you to watch Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and check out the Ratchet and Clank series’ various robots. Or I could just say that it’s futurism that respectively focuses on the aesthetics of the thirties and the fifties. Or you could check out the Wikipedia page here. I’m barely scratching the surface really.

Games tend to focus a lot on sci fi and fantasy, and all this punk stuff is just my own narrow vision. There are hundreds of talented game designers out there with incredible imaginations whose ideas are broader than mine will ever be, who can produce out-there concepts that I couldn’t dream of. The games that come from that kind of imagination are the kind that I always love most. I’m hoping that the success of Bioshock Infinite can convince the cautious corporate sorts who have the say in the game industry that a triple A game doesn’t have to be grey, brown or a combination of the two to be successful. Hopefully they’ll begin to allow those designers to set their imaginations free. The results could really be spectacular if they do.

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