This is the first in a series of articles examining videogames and what makes them fun.
I enjoy driving games, all kinds of driving games. Driving games feed into my love of auto racing, and of cars, and put an entire class of vehicles that I can’t afford in real life into my hands. So I tend to play them a lot. One class of games is the “tune up” game: you don’t just acquire cars, but actually have to go buy aftermarket parts and adjust the shocks and choose the right tires, etc., to get your car in shape to win races. Two examples of these are Gran Turismo 3 for the Playstation 2 and Sega GT 2002 for the Xbox.
From a pure driving perspective, Sega GT is the better game. The way the cars handle is more realistic; the change in the way the cars move when you tune them feels more correct. And the graphics are better, too. So are the controls. Yet every time I want to play a “tune up” game, I reach for Gran Turismo 3. Every single time. Sega GT, which delivers a “better” driving experience, sits on my shelf, unplayed. Why?
Because with Gran Turismo, I can drive at Laguna Seca. I can drive — virtually — around a real space, a space that existed in my head before I bought the game.
In other words, a sense of place can be an important element of the enjoyment of a game. For some of us — and I’m one of these people — it’s not only important, it’s crucial. Turning again to Sega GT, the game is full of a number of interesting, cleverly designed, well-balanced tracks that allow for great racing. But if you make me choose between “drive around a perfect race course that seems to be placed in a generic-yet-unnamed European city” and “drive around a deeply flawed race course that takes place in Rome,” I’m going to choose Rome every time. Look, there’s the Forum. There’s the Colosseum. There’s the Baths of Caracalla.
Microsoft Games learned this lesson well; Project Gotham Racing took place in New York, Tokyo, London, and San Francisco. Project Gotham Racing 2 — which is, for my money, simply the best pure street racing game ever made — takes place in a raft of other cities, including the iconic Washington, DC, speedy Stockholm, atmospheric Barcelona, and the most absolutely perfect virtual realization of Florence possible, among others. I usually like the courses that take place in cities I’ve been in; I don’t think that’s an accident. (Dear Microsoft: really, Pittsburgh would be perfect for PGR3 — come visit!)
For me, this goes beyond the mere representation of a city, and even gets into naming. If Sega GT had a Rome track which had the Colosseum, and the Forum, and all the streets I’ve driven, and street vendors selling chestnuts on wet March days, and little enoteche where you could get a great wine for a few euros that even if you can find it when you get back Stateside still won’t taste as good, if Sega GT had that track and then called it EUROPE 03 instead of “Rome,” I wouldn’t like it, in the same way that I don’t like it in GTA3 how they make up names for the cars like “Inferno” instead of having a Ferrari. There’s a semiotic issue here, somewhere. At the very least, there’s an issue in my head, but I don’t think I’m alone in this.
The tricky thing is that this issue of labeling, of naming, of mapping a videogame model into the player’s model of a real-world space, has nothing to do with games qua games. Any game has somewhere deep beneath it a set of abstract rules that describe it; all racing videogames are fundamentally the same when stripped of details: move your piece in a circle, and finish first. But those details, location first and foremost among them, are what give games the element of fantasy, narrative, and drama that separate them from mere mental and physical exercise. The location doesn’t even have to be a literal real-world location. Very little separates Day of Defeat from most other first person shooters except for the fact that most of us have seen the first battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan, and so when we storm the beach in Normandy in the game it points to our memory map of that location, which was in turn given to us by the movie, which pointed to a place that, in some sense, doesn’t exist any more
I was talking to Andrew Plotkin about “platform” games (eg, the Mario games) the other day, and I mentioned that my new technique for dealing with how stale the genre has become is that I’ll play a platformer until I reach the first “lava level.” “As soon as I reach the lava level, I know that the designers are completely out of ideas, and there won’t be anything else interesting in the game.” He told me that his understanding was that as a general rule, the plot for these games is only written long after development has begun, so it’s standard operating procedure for early versions to incorporate a lava level, a water level, etc. If true, this is one example of what separates videogames, as a form of mass entertainment, from movies. Filmmakers — well, successful ones, anyway — understand that the location of a movie can be as important as the main character.
Only when it’s unheard of for a video game to be designed without its location and mise-en-scene being one of the first things considered, rather than one of the last, will it even begin to make sense to talk about the videogame medium being as mature, artistically, as cinema.
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