Ruins in Video Games – Introduction

Recently, I’ve been thinking about Chernobyl and the abandoned city of Pripyat in the exclusion zone around the nuclear power plant.1 More on that, in another post. As a result, I’ve started playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. I’ve not progressed far in the game and I’m still stuck in the outskirts of the Zone of Alienation. However, my exploration of the fictionalized spaces around Pripyat and Chernobyl led me to three other ruined (contemporary) cities in video games.

If you’re new to this blog and wondering why an archaeologist would be interested in video games, I’ll direct you to Studies in the Reception of Archaeology from September 2009. If you’ve read that and are still at a loss as to why I’d be interested in these games, consider the following:

  • Modern video game systems, whether on desktop computers or gaming consoles, are capable of rendering incredibly detailed environments. A representation of a ruined city can be just as rich as that in a prose narrative, an oil painting, a television serial, or a film.
  • This, when in combination with the active way in which players interact with those environments, can make video games a highly immersive experience. They are capable of generating a strong and immediate sense of “being there.”

I certainly do not buy into the idea that they require more engagement on the part of the “consumer” or “reader” than any other artistic form. But I do think that it’s a different kind of engagement and worth investigation in its own right. For instance, the gamer is often free to explore a virtual site as he or she pleases, with no pressing need to advance a plot; effectively, the gamer can control the rate at which the story unfolds. I think that this presents interesting possibilities for representing the ruins of contemporary cities.

Also worth noting:

  • The economic impact of the game industry is enormous – it “took in about USD$9.5 billion in the US in 2007, and 11.7 billion in 2008.”
  • Partly as a result of this, recent years have seen the rapid growth of Game Studies as an academic field. One other probable factor is that an increasing number of academics grew up playing video games and are taking this interest into their professional lives. Academics do tend to study those things that interest them most.

Video games and games studies are becoming respectable.2

In the next few posts, I write about three different games: Hellgate: London, Fallout 3, and Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon. Note that I have not played any of them yet. Fragile Dreams hasn’t been released in the USA, so I’m off the hook there; in the case of Hellgate: London and Fallout 3, I have less of an excuse. This is potentially highly embarrassing. Please be merciful — the posts are initial impressions, based on promotional videos, my previous experiences of other (similar) games, and the occasional comment pulled from reviews. I intend to post about my actual experiences of playing these games, at a later date.

Why have I chosen not to discuss S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl in these posts? Well, in the not-too-distant future, I’m hoping to put together something about the different media in which people have represented the Pripyat. In addition to the video game, I want to write about traditional photography, web-based photo-narrative, Pripyat’s appearance on Google Maps, and even an art installation that evokes the abandoned Soviet era town.

1 I originally only intended to write this series of posts after I had written the material on Pripyat. Best laid plans, etc.
2 Well, respectable-ish, at least.

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