One of the most beautiful video game moments for me came relatively recently, courtesy of post-apocalyptic roleplayer Fallout 3. Technical problems (eg computers are EXPENSIVE) meant I came to this biggie some four or five years after most everyone else, but it was one of those games that everybody mentioned, everybody still remembered.
While everyone I talked to about it still recalled it fondly, I never really felt involved in Fallout 3; all the characters pissed me off, and solving their problems felt like chores. Collect 30 bottles of cola for your girlfriend? Well, I am if nothing else a diligent gamer, and as such I played on.
I ported back into a previously-saved position, an indiscriminate spot on the huge wasteland of a map – scorched earth and debris stretching for miles in all directions – only to make out, some distance ahead, the like respawning of one of the game’s goofy robot adversaries. The robot was already dead, by my hand, its reappearance into the gameworld really only a testament to continuity; I had killed it, there, and that’s where it would be. But I had killed it on the ground, and it reappeared in midair.
It was truly sublime. The robot entered the world as a cloud, and fell like a ragdoll from the sky; it tumbled, it flumped unhurriedly down til it hit the barren ground, scuttling sideways a little after impact.
In a sense, 3D games started indoors. I don’t mean the tech dens of anemic programmers or the stale bedrooms of teenage gamers; rather the indoors of dungeons, of corridors, of cramped and labyrinthine space stations. As Tom Bissell points out in gaming memoir Extra Lives – pointing to 1993 FPS Doom – inside spaces were once a necessity, a tactic in view of technical limitations; boxed-in spaces meant less to process, their squaroid logic matching the simplest level of 3D design, utilising walls, models, and textures that could be reused ad infinitum.
Jump ahead to 1998 and the watershed Half-Life, the lion’s share of which sees you schlep around laboratories, corridors and pipes. You know there’s going to be a loading screen when you turn a corner in a pipe or corridor – suspiciously featureless, suspiciously devoid of threat – then turn another, identical but for curling back in the opposite direction.
In a way, you’re always indoors in a 3D game. An entire Generation X of games – from that first blue-ceilinged courtyard to the resplendent sunsets and mountain ranges of today – demonstrated that ‘outside’ was really just a bigger box. Remember how the moon was always in the same place, or when you could see the corners of the sky? Like so many things in video games, even now, outside is a symbolic gesture, a promise. There are tactics games use to keep you on the garden path – to keep you on the straight and narrow, even in an expanded, natural world, so you don’t notice the seams; obstacles, heights, water, enemies – fear – all are used to sustain the illusion. They’re there in Half-Life, there in Fallout 3.
Half-Life didn’t just teach me the S-junction loading point. It also taught me noclip – the cheat which allows you to fly, to move through objects, through walls. Cheating on Half-Life didn’t just mean I could zip across toxic waste and vertiginous chasms, it also meant I could overlap my point of view with enemies’ heads, expose them as glitchy little papier-mache bastards; like the one-sided coin in Borges’ story The Disk, they can only be seen from the other side.
A player running noclip doesn’t trigger the loading screen as they wind their way through an S-junction. By stepping out from the strictures of space, you betray these curves their elaborative capacity and transgress instead into an appendix of corridor, a nub of pipe that was only ever meant to be seen from afar. There is no choice left after that: no choice moving forward but to blip through a wall and out, into the infinite pitch-black void that surrounds the gauntlet of rooms I ought to be fighting through. The further away I get, the more the level looks like an architectural model or a murderous little doll house, but the black goes ever on, changeless. I shoot and my muzzle lights up, but the bullets are nowhere. In noclip I’m immortal, but I’m also impotent. I go too far and I’m lost forever.
Games are bigger now. Some go on forever, regenerate eternally. But this black still waits in excess behind every perimeter in every game, ready to break in and flood the world. It’s a secret, endogenous woe inside each rock, each unsmashable crate, each poorly realised character. Every identical, tremulous egghead in Half-Life, every boxy asshole in Fallout 3 that wants to talk about their feelings or get me to clear giant ants out of their town is uncanny with the stuff, plodding around, sated and ready to rupture at the least stress.
Best, perhaps, to play outside.