The first-person video game offers a pretty robust surrogate experience; walking around, seeing what your characters sees, your hand reaching out to press a switch or the tip of your gun bobbing up and down at the bottom of the screen. And yet most of these games see you stride, armoured, through a futuristic or otherwise science fictional battlefield, eliminating aliens or evil soldiers with your magic gun. Even the historical, military genre shooters mostly cast you as impossibly bulletproof; in any case, these realities have a fantastical dimension at odds with the idea of seamless, unchecked immersion.
The indie boom of recent years has seen a number of more ‘realistic’ first-person games hit our libraries. Ever a problematic term, realism here tends to mean domestic—like the house-bound mystery Gone Home—monotonous—like wryly-dubbed ‘walking simulators’ such as Dear Esther and Proteus—and/or mundane—moving away from the first person, think of the central passport-approving mechanic of Papers, Please, or the advent of farming games, cooking games, and simulators of everything from tractors to tigers.
Those games mentioned by name above are, nonetheless, great, each nudging the envelope that little bit further and to the side. Their novelty reframes their mundane-ness, their everyday-ness as a brilliant conceit. And yet they each in truth mobilise an augmentation of the real: Proteus has its pixelated psychedelia, Gone Home its story and suspense. And the recent advent of simulation games originates from the exploitation of glitches found in what was once seen as the most risibly dull genre around. Apexing in Goat Simulator, in which your ragdoll ram trampolines, headbutts and licks its way through town, we can compare this augmentative quality to the myriad expansion packs and custom mods of the otherwise-domestic ‘life simulator’ The Sims. What started as a virtual doll’s house in which you could watch your thralls go to work, get married, take a shit is now simultaneously at heart the same and so much more on top. Like the unreal avatars of Second Life, augmentation speaks of a desire to at once replicate and improve upon the real.
Extrapolating monotony outward, to its logical conclusion, many of these counterfantastical programs are Sisyphean: unending, procedurally generated, with ever-replenishing targets levelled at the player. This, too, is another kind of realism; not a direct representation of our world, perhaps, but a stab at triangulating its futility.
The tweakable and the infinitely flat each offer the freedom of space and time that we demand of verisimilitude; unlike the first-person shooter, hedged in with cliffs, rocks and piranha-infested waters, or the heavy story, egging you ever on to the next waypoint, the counterfantastical offers something necessary to our definition of the real: agency. Agency we have, as we pilot ourselves to work and to the bathroom, and agency we lack, as our avatars sport wings and sleep with strangers.
Decision-making in games stems back to early text adventures. A good text game seems to offer an unlimited amount of choices; there you are, in a dungeon perhaps, finding your way around an imaginary map using only very basic commands. Examine this, open that, turn this way. Unfortunately, your freedom is limited to how many orders the game holds and what kind of wording it accepts—no autocorrect here, and certainly no ambiguity.
Similarly, hypertext novels (and contemporary incarnations like Twine) offer you a story of your own limited devising: like the old Choose Your Own Adventure novels, you traverse a linear trail through a middling wealth of options, navigating the ‘AND OR NOT’ gates of possibility. But then, when you reach a dead end, you redress your choice, dialling back to before your decision and trying another narrative route. Cheating or not, you’ll eventually find yourself reading the entire thing.
One of the purported inspirations behind hypertext fiction is the story The Garden of Forking Paths. Written by Jorge Luis Borges—that master of labyrinths—the plot sees our protagonist decode his great-grandfather’s seemingly confused, fractured novel. Noticing that the one word absent is time, a scholar interprets the titular text to portray its author’s belief “in an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times. That fabric of times that approach one another, fork, are snipped off, or are simply unknown for centuries, contains all possibilities.” Like Darwin’s evolutionary trees, like a mind map at the start of a project, we see the branching possibilities of agency laid out all at once, represented legibly for the linear way in which we move through time.
And yet this tree flattened can only ever be a representation; limited to chronology, we can only apprehend possibilities one at a time. Like the two-dimensional characters of Edwin Abbott’s Victorian novella Flatland, we cannot comprehend the sphere as it claims how “From that position of advantage I discerned all that you speak of as SOLID…your houses, your churches, your very chests and safes, yes even your insides and stomachs, all lying open and exposed to my view.”
Like the glowing white cinema screens of photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, who exposed his film through the entire duration of the screening, information all-at-once blanches our synapses, manifests as noise. Like the black page of Tristram Shandy following the death of poor Yorick, we cannot deal with it.
And just as we must experience possibilities one at a time on our procedural journey through time, so too we need the restrictions, the cliffs and piranhas, to make games rewarding; if necessity is the mother of invention, after all, so too is limitation the mother of innovation. God Mode, we realise, gets old fast.