Small Cog, Big Machine

To work as both a games journalist and a writer of fiction means my two styles of writing tend to merge more often than I’d like. Sometimes when I’m writing my own stories, I suddenly remember I’m supposed to be writing someone else’s stories, and vice versa.

The thing about creating fiction is that, if you’re closer to steampunk and science fiction, you’ll find you need to create universes yourself, rather than designating your work "fan fiction" and simply grasping at someone else’s. Don’t get me wrong, some of the universes I’ve written for are fantastic, and often offer me a lot more inspiration than most universes I create myself. But the thing with videogame universes is they’re not designed for someone to simply sit and read or look at, scene by scene, until it finishes. They’re designed for people to experience, and interact with.

Take City 17, a world created for Gordon Freeman and his friends by Valve. On the outside, it’s simply just another city taken over by alien forces, with a dash of Russian-esque Cyrillic font lying around the place and chunky American accents. But, if this is the case, why do I spend hours in it? Why do I sit at my software development kit and create inside this world, if it’s so generic?

Usually, with successful worlds built for videogames, I find it’s the small details that really make things so immersive, especially when it’s somewhere with a lot of realistic structure and environment, regardless of the aliens or monsters who may or may not inhabit said world. I’ve sat and listened to two Lambda resistance fighters have an entire conversation, one reassuring the other that they’ll make it through the invasion alive. It’s a touching scene, but interestingly enough, you pass them while running from the Combine.

It’s not something you’re supposed to stop and watch, or even watch on your way past. It’s background noise, in all honesty. But the fact the world continues with or without you is what makes it so immersive.

I’m going for an achievement in GTA IV that requires me to complete the main storyline of the game in 30 hours. This means painfully skipping every cutscene and getting instantaneous taxi journeys whenever I can, at Niko Bellic’s great personal expense. It’s a shame, because my favourite activity in the title is simply having him stand somewhere heavily populated, the Times Square replica for example, and just watch life unfold around him. Fan of the game or not, you can’t deny that seeing hundreds of people walk past you, having phone conversations, reading a paper or eating doesn’t immerse you that little bit more.

The oddest thing is you can follow them, and unlike most NPCs, they won’t walk past you, utter a line of dialogue, and then simply despawn when they’re out of sight. They’ll keep walking, get cabs, go sit in the park, go to clubs, buy hotdogs… endless possibilities. The reason the title’s DLC content will be so successful is because there are millions of possible protagonists in that city, because they’re all so alive. Wait till night-time, steal a motorbike, and go cruise down the highway to "1979" by the Smashing Pumpkins. It’s a one off experience and one that’s made me treasure the game forever, flaws or no flaws.

Some games never contain any realistic universes. Lost Odyssey is a great example; brilliant graphics, some really nice pre-rendered areas, but where is the life? All the people, bar a few, stand in the same place, never talking to anyone, never moving, just waiting for you to talk to them. Sometimes I wonder if the entire human population of the world Link resides in is comprised of life-long agoraphobics. In order for me to feel like I’m playing through a storyline, I need to have things happen around me that are beyond my control, but also pretty damn boring. Mundane, everyday events indicate to me how this universe works while I’m not interfering with it, and that’s something I enjoy.

I know that John Shepherd (may he possibly rest in peace, damn you Bioware) doesn’t need to be around the fun-loving humans in the Citadel for them to have a good time. Sure, I may be contradicting myself slightly due to the fact they don’t walk around much, if at all, but they dance in nightclubs, talk in bars, and all of them have at least something to say to you at some point.

This week, I’m preparing to review Halo Wars, and while I’m excited at finally getting to grips with the title past the wonderfully-executed demo content, I’m also a little saddened by the Halo universe. I think the new DLC for the third in the FPS side of the franchise will be fantastic, as it’s earth; cars, normal buildings, the works. But Halos are barren, artificial, devoid of all life bar you and the enemy, and sometimes a bunch of humans, if you’re lucky.

Some games don’t need complex universes, and while it’s saddening not to have them, the Halo franchise is one universe that seriously benefits from a lack of distractions. It’s a very active game, where there’s a very focused plot and motivational objectives that keep you on your feet and moving at all times. But what kills me is all the fiction behind John-117. If you feel like it, go to Borders, grab a copy of The Fall of Reach and read it cover to cover. Bam, you just learnt everything there is to know about the God in Green. Doesn’t that make you wish you saw that much of him, sometimes?

MMORPG titles are also another interesting way of building a universe, but mostly it’s a pretty lazy genre. Sure, the scenery is nice, you could hang around Orgrimmar, Stormwind or any one of the galaxies in EVE Online, but you’ll find the only reason life goes on without you is because you’re sharing a server with thousands of other players at once.

Titles like Prototype look amazing, and the fact they’re recreating Manhattan as Manhattan, and not the cheap Liberty City knock-off, means you’ll get a lively city based on an even livelier one. But it begs the question; what’s harder, creating a city full of life, or recreating one famous for having more people in it than an engine could feasibly render?

And, with luck, the title might actually encourage me to prefer the atmosphere of the real world, though honestly, I’m doubtful.


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Author: Christos Reid View all posts by

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