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.

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.

Studies in the Reception of Archaeology

The Tales of the Frontier Logo.  Image © 2009 Durham University Archaeology Department.
The Tales of the Frontier Logo. Image © 2009 Durham University Archaeology Department.

While I was in Durham, this year, I heard a very interesting talk by Richard Hingley on the work that he’d been doing on the Tales of the Frontier project for the last couple of years (it was, actually, one of several very interesting talks that I heard in Durham but this is the one that’s most related to my Where London Stood project). Richard’s talk dealt with the reception of Hadrian’s Wall over time.

Although the Wall had been built by the Roman army around 120 AD, this fact was only conclusively accepted in the nineteenth century. In the time between the fall of the Roman Empire and then, the Wall had been known variously as the “Picts’ Wall,” the “Roman Wall,” or “Adrian’s Wall.” So, changing theories of the Wall’s origins provide one source of instability in the Wall’s meaning and cultural significance. However, Richard’s talk took in a number of different areas: as well as the changing knowledge of the wall’s origins over the centuries, it looked at artistic and literary representations and the unique valences with which their creators had imbued the Wall. The talk’s examples included Michael Drayon’s Jacobean poem Poly-Olbion, William Bell Scott’s 1857 The Romans Cause a Wall to be Built for the Protection of the South (painting currently in Wallington Hall’s collection), Neil Gaiman’s novel Stardust and its movie adaptation, and Neil Marshall’s film Doomsday (2008). Drayton’s Poly-Olbion was (in part at least) a poem about the spirit of place and was, in Richard’s words, “slightly critical of James I’s unification of England and Scotland.” Richard interprets Bell Scott’s painting as a reflection upon loyalty in the British Empire in the wake of the Indian Mutiny. Stardust used the Wall to represent the separation of our rational lives from the mythic. Doomsday has a rebuilt Wall seal off a plague-devastated Scotland from England, while drawing on an established (even clichéd) body of science-fiction images.

Scene from Stardust, showing a hole in Wall to Stormhold. © 2007 Paramount.
Scene from Stardust, showing a hole in Wall to Stormhold. © 2007 Paramount.

I think that there were two main “take home” points in Richard’s argument. First, he suggested that academic disciplines almost always attempt to expel myth and folklore from our understanding of the past and its remains; being literary works, Drayton’s Poly-Olbion and Gaiman’s Stardust both have more freedom to combine “history and story” — they’re less concerned with establishing solid facts. Conversely, archaeological studies of Hadrian’s Wall have become focused on the driest of details, such as determining the sequence in which milecastles and other parts of the Wall were built or when particular legions would have been stationed there.

Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to establish the sequence of the Wall’s construction or dates for a legion’s presence on a frontier; in fact, this kind of work remains essential to archaeological practice. However, Richard’s second “take home” point is that this elimination of myth and folklore closes an important avenue of potential research. Archaeological understandings of Hadrian’s Wall have had a complicated relationship to popular ones. Yet archaeologists don’t examine how people perceive and perceived the discipline of archaeology, its practitioners, the work that they do, and the impact of all this on the popular imagination. As he highlighted, this is in stark contrast to the intellectual work that some classicists have done on the reception of the classical world and its history, e.g. in cinema. Now, I am sure that this will be something of a shock to those archaeologists who like to consider classicists to be theoretical sticks-in-the-mud. I am also sure that several people will reel off lists of archaeologists who have engaged with reception of the discipline. To head them off at the pass, I’ll mention Cornelius Holtorf’s recent book, Archaeology is a Brand! (off-site review), and a friend’s long-standing course on Archaeology and Popular Culture. And, of course, this is not the first time that Richard’s worked on reception studies — for instance, there’s his book on Roman Officers and English Gentlemen: The Imperial Origins of Roman Archaeology. But Richard’s point is broadly correct: it is a relatively under-explored area.

A High-Tech Border Wall from Doomsday.  © 2008 Rogue Pictures.
A high-tech border wall from Doomsday. © 2008 Rogue Pictures.

Not only was the talk extremely illuminating on the history of Hadrian’s Wall itself but it allowed me to see WLS in a new light. The theme of archaeology’s representation had been present in the project, since its inception, but I now realize how my work on representations of the contemporary city as ruin fits in with other archaeologists’ research. I had been, and still am, struggling with how to connect archaeological understandings of site formation with these imaginative depictions of ruin. Richard’s work was extremely helpful and different from the discussions I have seen of pop archaeology because, rather than dealing with the figure of “the Archaeologist” himself or herself (Indiana Jones is a popular … ummm … whipping boy in academic archaeology, while paradoxically an icon of the field), it looked at one monument and how its meanings shifted under the pressures of archaeological and artistic representation.

Three visions of Washington's Capitol Building in three different media. Left to right: Line-drawing from J.A. Mitchell's novel, The Last American (1889); movie still from Logan's Run, © 1976 MGM; concept art from computer role-playing game, Fallout 3, © 2008 Bethesda Softworks LLC.

The different iterations of Hadrian’s Wall are directly comparable to the changing representations of the various ruined Londons and other cities: these ruins become (as-yet-unrealized) archaeological sites that are subject to interpretation and reinterpretation. In some tales, there are actual archaeological excavations: Ronald Wright’s time-travelling protagonist, in A Scientific Romance: A Novel (1997), digs a number of test trenches in an abandoned and overgrown London; the pseudonymous Prof. Blyde Muddersnook’s short story, When the Zealander Comes is in the style of a public presentation of an archaeological excavation’s results (The Strand, September 1911 — reprinted online, here). But the connections to the image of archaeology in the popular imagination are stronger and more deeply ingrained than either of these examples suggest: even where there is no archaeological excavation involved, these ruins are archetypal “Lost Cities.” They are the kinds of archaeological sites that people imagine explorers finding as they stumble out of almost impenetrable jungle — futuristic echoes of Angkor and Tikal.

As with Hadrian’s Wall, a little more critical pressure can go a long way. There are the various ways in which a city might have met its end: simple abandonment, the result of historical cycles of decline and fall, devastation by nuclear or biological weapons. All of these reflect the fears and anxieties of the times in which the work of art (whether literary or visual) emerged. There is also the question of which city appears and the valences that it carries. Capital cities are frequently employed metonymically to stand for the whole of a country or civilization; this goes some way to explaining, I think, the prevalence of representations of ruins of London and Washington. And note how revealing this can be, when the artist or artists behind the representation are from another culture. In the BBC’s TV version of The Tripods trilogy, Paris stands in for France in a show which has been eager to emphasize the journey of the three boys through another country. Not only do the story’s heroes encounter the monumental structures that suggest Paris and “Frenchness” but also some extremely stylish (in 1980’s terms) denizens of the ruins and that most iconically French car, a 2CV. These, then, are the signifiers of “Frenchness” for a British audience: monumental buildings, stylish youths, and an inoperable 2CV.

The USA apparently has a more divided sense of national identity than other countries. Artists from the United States seem to employ the ruins of New York at least as often as they do Washington, DC; New York stands in as a cultural rather than political capital. However, there is yet a third example of a city that is important to US history, one that is rarely depicted in these scenarios and notable for its appearance in Terry Gilliam’s film, Twelve Monkeys. Philadelphia played a key role in the USA’s foundation, hosting the First (1774) and Second (1775) Continental Congresses. As the host of the Second Continental Congress, it saw the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In the film, it’s also the site at which a civilization-toppling plague was released. That this city played such major roles in the foundation of the United States and its fall cannot be coincidental. It’s also interesting to see what Gilliam includes as key locations for his characters to explore in the film. He avoids leading us to the Liberty Bell or any other obvious heritage sites; instead, we see the main protagonist wandering in and around City Hall and the ruins of a famous early twentieth century department store. Why these particular buildings and not others?

So, a beginning to interpretation rather than an end — but it’s a beginning that underscores the role of academic communities. It’s hard to imagine that I’d have reached precisely this point, without hearing Richard’s talk, and Where London Stood now has an obvious intellectual “home” in studies in the reception of archaeology. I’ll have more to say about the WLS project, the reception of archaeology, and the importance of academic communities in future posts.