Fragile Dreams

The third video game is Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon. As with Hellgate and Fallout 3, I’ll start with the video, make a few observations about that video, and then follow up with some thoughts based on preliminary chasing up of material online.

The following is a trailer is for the upcoming US release:

And here’s the same trailer, but with Japanese voice acting:

I’ll put my cards on the table: I’m really cheating with Fragile Dreams, as I don’t think it’s set in any one (or more) real cities. It appears to be a generic contemporary ruin — a sort of “Every-city.” Despite this, of all the video game footage that I’ve seen, this is the one that comes closest to the thoughtfulness, melancholy, and feelings of loss that we traditionally associate with the contemplation of ruins.

Note that the trailer’s opening is loaded with representations of communications technology. Abandoned railway tracks feature early and prominently. I was immediately convinced that the “red tower” (given as a destination in the first ten seconds, possibly represented as a drawing at 0:17, and possibly actually appearing at 0:47) is some kind of radio mast. And the crude drawings (0:17) that we see are oddly reminiscent of prehistoric cave art.

As the trailer stresses loneliness and isolation in a post-apocalyptic world and sets a goal of finding other people, it’s unlikely that this foregrounding of communication technology is accidental. The railway tracks point to the networks of communications and transportation in place since the nineteenth century, the tower to the ultra hi-tech, and the paintings to the earliest recorded human communication. The three together suggest “connectedness” as a human constant, something that defines what it is to be human.

The trailer moves from these technologies to scenes of the protagonist exploring the world to, in the last few seconds, reconnecting with other people. The last lines spoken are a question and answer:

“Who are you? Tell me.”
“My name is … Seto.”

I freely admit that the following claim might be pushing this a bit too far: I think that this exchange supports my notion that the trailer’s emphasis on connections is really about the larger question of human identity.

Next, Fragile Dreams is apparently a third person rather than first person game — that is, the player’s view of the world includes his/ her avatar (Seto) rather than seeing through the avatar’s eyes. After the Fallout 3 example game play trailer, I find this slightly disappointing. In my first post on games and ruins, I suggested that video games could create a sense of immersion — of being in a virtual world. I have to admit that I instinctively find first person games more immersive than third person games.

So much for initial impressions; further investigation turned up a few more hints about the game.

I was chuffed to discover evidence that the red tower is some kind of communications tower, in Gamespot’s screen shot gallery. It was a nice not to have my theory about the role of communication in the game immediately shot to pieces.

Part of the Red Tower. © 2009 NAMCO BANDAI Games Inc.

Meanwhile, additional details in the official US website and this Gamespot preview suggest the game might actually be a very immersive experience for players.

Although the characters are cartoony, the world itself looks realistic and rich in detail. I don’t think that this is untypical of anime and manga.1 As the trailer suggests, the game is predominantly in the third person, although one can enter a first person mode to get a better look at something. Further, the preview praises the use of audio effects to locate animals, other characters, and events in a location. Soundscapes can really suck the player into the game world, even where the graphics are no longer considered state-of-the-art. In some games, I have found myself straining to hear where a particular noise is coming from — essentially tricked by the illusion of three dimensional space created by a flat screen and two speakers. (I’m thinking in particular of “first-person sneaker”, Thief: The Dark Project.)

Fragile Dreams is a game for the Wii and people rarely discuss games for the Wii without mentioning the motion-sensing controller. I have one working theory to run by everyone: the Wii remote’s motion sensors produce a stronger sense of “being there” than traditional game controllers. As with many Wii games, the remote is used to control a weapon (and the website’s list of sticks, crowbars, hammers, hatchets and bows suggests that there’ll be a lot of wild swinging of the game controllers by the player). It can also serve as a flashlight, metal detector, and even a microphone to amplify otherwise almost inaudible sounds in the game world. The player directs these devices by pointing the remote, much as one might use them in the real world. By having the player’s body actually move as it would in the spaces represented in the game, I’d expect this to increase the impression of actually being in those spaces.

Yeah, I know — it’s just a hunch and I have no idea how to test it. Yet.

The official web site and the Gamespot preview also suggest that the game will gives more “airtime” to exploration and investigation than combat.

Staying on the topic of the game controller for a few more lines, I wonder whether using the Wii remote as flashlight, metal-detector, and microphone helps to de-emphasize combat. This design decision seems to give at least as much significance to these exploratory tools and associated actions as to weapons and violence. Two technical precursors of Fragile Dreams which also used the Wii remote as a torch suggest this. Both Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Calling use the remote as a torch or a cell/ mobile ‘phone. Both these survival horror games made combat a much smaller part of play than others in the same genre (cf. Resident Evil), with the Wii’s adaptation of Silent Hill removing combat altogether (one can shake off monsters but then one must run).

One of the “eerily calm and beautiful ruins of a civilization lost” (in the words of the official website). © 2009 NAMCO BANDAI Games Inc.

Fragile Dreams is not meant to be a survival horror game, although it does share the genre’s emphasis on exploration and investigation. Instead, the producers claim that the game’s focus is on “human drama.”2 The website names and gives brief sketches of several eccentric characters we can expect to meet.3 To reveal these characters in a game’s publicity seems highly unusual to me and more in keeping with what we might expect from a film. Normally, we would only discover these non-player characters during the course of the game. This, I think, draws our attention to and helps emphasize the relationships that we’ll build as we explore.

One final interesting detail: the game world is apparently full of the ghosts of the world’s previous inhabitants. Sometimes, these are traditional ghosts (ephemeral images of people); other times, they are the lingering traces of their emotions (blobs of light). In addition, certain found objects contain the last thoughts of their previous owners. These ghostly traces are perhaps reminiscent of the stone tape theory of hauntings. But we mustn’t forget that ruins have been haunted by former inhabitants at least as far back as Volney’s The Ruins (here, for the original French text).

Inevitably, the final proof will be in the pudding but, based on all this, Fragile Dreams promises to be an extremely interesting rendering of ruins in a video game.

Yes, I have actually pre-ordered a copy.

1 The combination of detailed backgrounds and cartoony characters brings to mind Scott McCloud’s critical work on comics in Understanding Comics. I hope to write about this, his thoughts on Japanese traditions of storytelling, and Fragile Dreams in another post.
2 From the “Features” section of the official site.
3 I do wish they’d given Ren — the “mysterious young girl with a talent for singing” — a more practical (and less revealing) costume.

Fallout 3

On to the second game.

The following teaser trailer for Fallout 3 gives us a slow build up to the big reveal of Washington’s major landmarks, the Washington Monument:

The trailer makes a fascinating series of moves. The “camera” takes us from the old valve radio playing the 1940s standard (nostalgia), out and up to the Hula Girl dashboard ornament (kitsch), out and back along the interior of bus, passing a lunchbox and bottle before our eye falls on two children’s toys (traditional, if hackneyed, indicators of the pathetic — in the formal sense of evoking pathos). As the camera travels along the length of the bus, we catch glimpses of pre-war advertising in the interior and ruins through smashed windows, before we find that the bus itself has been torn in two.

The camera rises, and we see the Washington Monument in the distance. It’s a ruin that we’ve seen in post-apocalyptic science fiction films, e.g. Logan’s Run. However, being modeled on an Egyptian obelisk, it also brings to mind the larger tradition of representing ruins and Eighteenth century notions of the sublime (see also this WLS page).

From this point, the music fades into the background, the sound of the wind rises, before being joined and itself drowned out by some rather ominous music. Finally, a power-armoured figure steps into the foreground — a visual representative of the forces that brought about this destruction. These forces are industrial, technological, military, and as utterly beyond the control of the individual as the natural forces typically represented by the Romantic ruin.

In summary, we move from:

nostalgia –> kitsch (post-modern fragment) –> pathos –>
–> sublime (monumental fragment) –> the war machine

Each of these moves undercuts and destabilizes our expectations of that preceding it, in some way. We expect warm nostalgia and we get kitsch;1 we’re amused by the kitsch factor only to be brought face to face with the suffering of children; this again shifts to a monument that represents one of the founders of the USA, the hopes and aspirations for a rational Enlightenment-inspired world order; finally, we’re confronted with the forces that tore all this down — forces unleashed by the rational world order. Notice also how the video balances the post-modern fragment (elements out of time; kitsch; playful) with the sublime monumental fragment (the unimaginably awesome represented by a fragment that suggests the larger whole).2

I’ve been a fan of the Fallout games for many years, with their combination of B-movie S.F. tropes, retro-futurism, a satirical take on the 1950s and the Cold War, and the way in which a player’s choices seem to make an impact on the game world. But as much as I loved the games, I never felt that previous entries in the series really delivered a sense of being in the cities in which they’re set. For instance, in Fallout 2, one can visit the San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, Wharf, and Chinatown, as well as Reno’s Arch but all are rendered in a two-dimensional isometric view.

On the left: The photograph of the Arch itself comes from Wikipedia's entry and Lvtalon (the photographer) has made it public domain.  On the right, a screen shot from Gamespy's Planet Fallout Photo Gallery.
On the left: The photograph of the Arch itself comes from Wikipedia's entry and Lvtalon (the photographer) has made it public domain. On the right, a screen shot from Gamespy's Planet Fallout Photo Gallery.

Even though I’m not someone who insists on the most up to date or photo-realistic graphics in videogames — I still think that Fallout 1 and 2 are great examples of the CRPG genre; my home console is a Wii3 — I feel that the experience of Fallout 3 benefits enormously from game technology advances. What follows is the first of five promo videos from Bethesda. There’s no need to watch all five; the first should give you a reasonable enough impression of the experience, although double-clicking on the embedded video will take you to the YouTube page with links to the other four:

The initial brightness of the outside light as one emerges from the Vault is a nice touch. And I think that I can spot the Washington Monument but I may be mistaken. If I’m right, it’s visible on the horizon at about 1 min 23 secs into the video.

The overall effect of the switch from a third person to first person perspective — the contrast between this and the still of Reno’s Arch — is impressive, no?

1 These images are hardly unambiguous. The 1940s standard evokes the Second World War. The Hula Girl might bring to mind U.S. imperialism of the early- to mid-twentieth century.
2 I suspect that there is something to be gained from an exploration of the differences and relationships between the sublime and post-modern fragments; at this point, I’ve no idea what such an exploration would uncover.
3 No comments from the peanut gallery please.

Hellgate: London

Following on from my previous post, the first game up is Hellgate: London.

Ray Girvan sent me a link to this YouTube video, drawing my attention to the fantastic view of St. Paul’s, the Houses of Parliament, and Westminster Clock Tower at the end:

I’m unclear whether this is an official promotional video for the game or a fan effort. It looks official enough, but I can’t find a source for it online that confirms this impression. If it’s a fan machinima, it’s an interesting mashup1 of game footage and Finnish metal track (a German-language version of David Bowie’s Heroes).

The video is action-packed and it doesn’t look as though there’s much time for the thoughtful contemplation of the decline and fall of civilizations among the hail of bullets and mobs of demons from another dimension. The IGN review backs up this impression:

There is no shortage of combat in Hellgate: London, so from the instant you step into your first level, you’ll be fighting against a range of zombies, flying brains, gun-toting demons and pale ladies with electric tentacles. Every place you go is packed full of enemies who have nothing better to do that to sit around all day waiting for you to show up and kill them. In fact, you can barely walk twenty feet through London without being confronted with some sort of hellspawn that you can hone your skills on.

I’ll tactfully say nothing on the subject of footwear most appropriate for exploring ruins — much less performing acrobatics. And let’s stay of steer clear of discussions of the form-hugging properties of high-tech body armour. Still, it’s artfully constructed. It’s also utterly convincing as a metal promo video, for reasons that I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it’s something as simple as putting the song title and performers’ names at the beginning and end of the video. I have to admit (rather guiltily) that it brings out my inner metalhead.

A quick search using a Famous Unnamed Search EngineTM turned up some other promotional footage for the game. hosts a large collection of trailers and fan videos. Here’s one trailer showing some ruins around Covent Garden:2

This time, there’s no narrative holding these scenes together and the aim of the video seems to be simply to showcase the game’s locations, characters, and monsters. Oddly enough, in its presentation of these locations and their inhabitants, I think it has more in common with the ways in which, historically, we have viewed ruins of contemporary cities. The lack of action leaves us more room to reflect on the changes in places that we might know (e.g. “Oh! That’s Covent Garden Market. And that’s Covent Garden tube station. I met a friend there, once”).

Unfortunately, many (if not all) of the locations are apparently randomly generated and populated so as to make replay more rewarding. For me, as both someone interested in imaginary ruined London and a former Londoner, this is disappointing. I can’t re-visit and explore the places that I’m acquainted with.

But is this really a problem? How geographically accurate does a representation have to be, in order to communicate a sense of place? And do we expect geographical accuracy in other media? Anyone who lives in a city that is the setting for a blockbuster movie might have a good idea of what I mean. For instance, one can have endless fun comparing a famous city’s places as they’re arranged in a film with how they’re actually laid out.3 Does strict geographical and architectural verisimilitude actually matter?

Definitely, something that I’ll have to ponder …

1 If using only one video and one music source can count as a mashup. I’m more vague on my terminology than I should be, here.
2 I’m linking to a YouTube version of the video, so that I can embed it in the blog post more easily.
3 For instance, San Francisco residents might remember the short time that Harry Callahan has to run from ‘phone booth to ‘phone booth in Dirty Harry — and the remarkable distance that he actually had to cover in that time, if one locates the various landmarks on a map.

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.

TAG 2009

TAG 2009 Conference Poster.  © 2009 Durham University.
TAG 2009 Conference Poster. © 2009 Durham University.

Just a heads up that the 31st meeting of the Theoretical Archaeology Group will be at Durham University, next week, running from Thursday December 17th to Saturday December 19th. This is, admittedly, rather late notice and, if the reader has any interest in this kind of thing at all, then he/ she most likely has the dates circled in red on his/ her calendar.

For various reasons, I will not be able to attend. I’m terribly disappointed about this, as I was hoping to catch up the old-fashioned way (i.e. face-to-face) with Durham colleagues from the Binchester project.

In addition, there are panels being organized and papers being presented by friends and colleagues that I’d really like to see. If you happen to be at TAG this year, be sure to drop by:

The plenary session on The Death of Theory also promises to be unmissable, with speakers including Richard Hingley and Lynn Meskell.

Two other important conferences coming up, this time stateside: the 124th meeting of the American Historical Association and the 111th joint meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and the American Philological Association.

Both are in early January 2010 and on the same weekend. Fortunately for those who might be interested in attending both, the two conferences are at least in the same part of the same state. It is perhaps an indicator of how long I’ve been in the USA that I now consider a one-and-a-half hour drive a relatively minor undertaking …