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Playing the Dream

September 23, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Blair Martin

(Warning – this article contains evidence of a grown adult getting a little excited…)

When I was kid I owned a Commodore 64. Even though it was 25 years ago, I still remember a lot of the games I played on it. One of them was The Hobbit, an adventure game based on the novel, consisting of pages of text and low-pixel pictures – the kind where you type ‘E’ to go east, or type ‘Kill Thorin’ to get your skull cleaved in two. For a seven year old it was quite difficult, and I even sat down a few times with a sheet of graph paper and attempted to draw a map as I went along. The furthest I ever got was being told, in blocky grey text, that I had been ‘burned to a crisp’ by Smaug, over and over again.

My imagination was important throughout this game, as I couldn’t actually see anything – just those basic pictures, one per ‘room’. I had to envision the dragon’s red scales flashing in the light, the trees and mountains of Middle Earth, Thorin’s huge axe. Something my juvenile mind had no problem with.

Two decades later I discovered Oblivion. My Xbox 360 was brand new at the time, and all I’d played on it was Halo 2 and Ghost Recon. I didn’t really have any idea what I was getting into when I put the disc in the tray, and once I’d battled my wimp out of the Imperial Sewers, stepped into the blinding daylight and looked around, I was hooked. Looking around at the mountains, seeing the tower of the Imperial City, jumping into the water, opening up the map…I felt like a child again, filled with excitement and awe at the world around me. It was the moment I realised just what the 360 was capable of. Four years later I still enjoy the odd trip to Cyrodil. The last time I played it, my wife (who’s also partial to the occasional day trip) said jestingly that we should move to Africa and live the life of pillaging caves and gaining admiration from questing.

Comparing The Hobbit to Oblivion would be like comparing Sputnik to the Mars rover Spirit. But in the same way that Sputnik realised the potential of a generation, The Hobbit was an early building block for the current industry. Oblivion is pretty much how I always wanted the Hobbit to be. Instead of pressing ‘E’ I just walk wherever I want. Instead of my skull being cleaved in two, I can give an NCP the thrashing of his life. My childhood imagination is there to play in glorious detail.

On a personal level, every open world game has its defining moment: Fallout 3, when you emerge from the vault; GTA4, when you take your first chopper ride; Assassins Creed 2, when you climb your first tower…That moment when you realise the extent of the world open to you, and that you can explore every nook and cranny is, if done right, jaw dropping.

To me, this is a unique attraction of current generation consoles. While previous gens have all had some magnificent games and defining titles, it is this one that has the power to open up the game world like never before. I wasted many hours aimlessly driving around in GTA4, taking in the sights and sounds of Liberty City. In Assassins Creed 2 I managed to find the street in Venice where the hotel I stayed in was located by retracing my real life steps. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to do the same in Fallout: New Vegas. While these virtual experiences will never replace the real thing, with the current economy it’s good to know that I can still take little trips out of Scotland, even if it is to a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

But what is really intriguing is the way these vast worlds are being taken advantage of, and what they signify for the future. It’s with a little embarrassment I admit that, during Oblivion I sat and debated with myself whether or not to join the Dark Brotherhood, as I was not entirely sure I wanted to take the ‘evil’ path. As it turned out I was simply slightly ahead of the times, as a few years later Fallout 3 placed the player in exactly that predicament, with different endings to the game depending on the choices made throughout. Mass Effect (more open galaxy rather than open world) used the same mechanism of the player having to make choices that affect the game. Whenever Nico received a call, I felt guilty if I turned the friend down, and found myself actually trying to make it up to them once I’d finished the job in hand. Throughout these games I consistently found that I wanted to be the good guy.

It was during Fallout 3 that I started to think a little differently. I live my life as a good person. I try to be considerate, honest and reliable on a daily basis. So why should I be the same in the virtual world? Why not take this opportunity to be nasty, to rob, steal and cheat, things I would never do in the real world?

So I took it. And for a while I enjoyed my little jaunts. I laughed when I placed a grenade in the pocket of an unsuspecting Megaton resident. I benefitted from killing people and robbing their worldly goods. I selfishly didn’t give my pure water to the parched unfortunate outside Rivet City. But soon I began to suspect that I was missing out. People were scared of me, and didn’t respond in the same was as when I was a nice guy. I got the feeling the rewards weren’t as numerous as when I was good. So I switched back, and started raising my karma score. Before I knew it, strangers were approaching me to offer items that would help me on my way. People were happier to see me, and more eager to help. I realised I preferred being liked.

So while it was fun experiencing the dark side, the rewards were better when I remained un-corrupt. I think there’s a small life lesson in there somewhere.

As for the future, while I’m not about to criticise Oblivion (in my opinion, one of the greatest games ever made), one thing began to bug me slightly – the inhabitants of Cyrodil are morons; absolute idiotic, daft, fumbling half-wits who think that by teaching you a Novice spell or handing you a crappy dagger they’re doing you a favour.

But imagine if they were real people, as in World of Warcraft (a game that I found a little too basic for my taste). The opportunities would be endless. A rainbow of human behaviour – betrayal, honour, trust and friendship to name four – would be observable. And I would probably be grey-skinned, malnourished and single, similar to what happened to me after I discovered the Halo 2 deathmatch, only worse. But that is a real possibility with the next gen. Five years ago we had no idea of the power that current-day consoles would possess. PC’s are already doing it, and there is every chance that the next Xbox or Playstation will do it even better. That’s an exciting prospect.

Throw in the facts that tellies are getting bigger, 3D is well on the way to becoming mainstream, and that motion-capture is already here and I have to stop myself salivating. I reiterate the fact that virtual experiences should never replace the real thing – if that happens then we’re all in trouble – but I am never going to move to Africa to pillage caves; I’m never going to rob a Liberty City bank, and hopefully I’m never going to find myself walking around a post-apocalyptic Las Vegas.

I don’t need to be reminded that these are just games, but the opportunity to experience a life I’ll never know in photo-realistic 3D is one I’m relishing. In fact, I’m looking forward to next gen consoles, 3DTV, and a home cinema screen in the same way I used to look forward to Christmas as a kid. It’ll be like having physical control over a dream, and I’ll be in charge of what happens. I can’t wait.

Copywrite Blair Martin 2010

Categories: Essays
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