On A Rail

 

 

On a rail is a level from Half-Life that has received mixed reviews over the years but is most generally less liked for a number of reasons that I’ll broach on later. I say broach, because today’s article is less about the actual level, or overall game itself and is probably only tenuously linked to video games, I promise you it’s a link nonetheless though!

For what I intend to do is to reiterate to you, the musings I’ve been having, on a life lesson I feel I learnt partially from gaming. A statement on life which I wish to proclaim to you, using this particular level as some kinda segueing analogy.

So now that’s out of the way I shall digress.

 

Why On a Rail?

The title is a play on words regarding the ‘rail’ aspect of video games in general and the starkly obvious fact that you are on a literal railway line, do you geddit?

If you think about it, for the most part, what are games but predetermined tracks for you to traverse and triumph over? Even beyond the most obvious and extreme examples of these, such as rail shooters and platformers you cannot escape this element anywhere. In games with the highest level of autonomy afforded to the player, to actually play the game, you’re still confined to the encoded conditions of the rail that’s set before you.

I’ve learnt many a thing from the time I’ve poured into gaming, from history and politics to the more niche facts of life like, Tails of sidekick fames real name is actually Miles  or violence is actually okay and I should shoot up schools (kidding it’s just what yank politicians and the media would have you think.) There are a myriad of lessons about the real world we can find through gaming, alone or with others.

I’ll give an example of one I learnt with others;

My Dad got to the last level of Sonic Spinball and paused it whilst he went to work. I came home from school and excitedly ran over to our Megadrive when I saw it was on, firing up the screen to see what was on it, instinctively and stupidly I unpaused, in awe of a new part of the game I hadn’t seen yet – immediately dying and getting a game over.  I was frightened he would be mad at me, as I would be if someone screwed up my attempt to finish the game.

However, when he got home and I confessed it to him, he merely smiled and told me – ‘I only paused it so you could see the last level.’ If that don’t teach you something then I don’t know what does! I’ll let you come to the conclusion on what it taught me. To put it simply, gaming is a mirror from which we can learn about the real world, life, ourselves and others.

Whilst I could spend hours talking about the teachings to be had in the satire and political commentary aspect of games, my introduction to the Cold War virtually being through Red Alert 2, what I’m going to focus on is a little more abstract and quite personal.

 

 

Off-Track and Turning-Tables

Over the last year or so of my life I’ve had a lot of deep dark troughs and some lofty peaks, as you do. With my mental health suffering I had stopped writing and allowed not just my blog, but my life to stagnate.

It felt to me like I was on a rail of someone else’s design, trapped in a level I couldn’t beat. When I analysed the game of life like that, I realised I was ignoring one vital element and lesson gaming had taught me; every level is beatable if you persevere.

You may not be on a track of your making on a path of your choosing, in a world that’s hostile. You may be on a rail ride you didn’t plan for you, but in life, as in games, you have the agency to make all the difference that you can in the parameters you’re dealing with. You can progress to the next level, get past the bit you’re stuck on, with determination you can learn how to beat it.

So I’ve decided to pick back up the controller so to speak, I had given up but I’m back in the game and I’ll always come back to it. Even if I need to hit pause for a bit, I’ll be back, because I know I’ve got some dope cut-scenes ahead, or at least some disappointing credits that I can bitch about.

Doing a spot of research before I began writing, I came across a Steam forums thread that furthered my resolve to write this piece. Let’s look at some of the criticisms of ‘On a Rail’ I found there and see just how applicable they are when applied to life;

 

On a rail crit

 

Life is confusing, sometimes it’s unclear what you’re supposed to do, it can be daunting. In this event, you just have to move about a bit and explore to figure it out. On a Rail, like life makes you face things head on but as in the level, sometimes you can stop the train and prepare yourself by dealing with the area you’re in. And then lastly, sometimes you have some great nights where you set off fireworks… SEE WHAT I MEAN! These criticisms of it spoke to me as both valid points regarding this level and life.

 

On a rail crit 2

 

This sentient journey you’re on is always gonna be a mixed bag and it’s definitely tedious at times and fraught with risks. Sure perhaps you’d enjoy it a lot more if you could predetermine what’s around every corner and counter it. But that’s not life, it’s a beautiful difficult journey where you can grow and learn how to be more effective. It’s unfair at times but you can find ways to level the playing field.

And that’s what I am going to do, because as I love games, so do I love life even if it’s always on expert mode.

So, I am going to be better at it.

The World Changing Potential Of Games Rooted In Reality

Since they have earned their place in pop culture and especially to the outsider, video games have often been conceived as being associated with the fantastic. Imaginary far-fetched worldscapes enjoyed as a newfangled distraction from our boring reality. Whilst this isn’t entirely wrong and oftentimes is the case, to simply assume this at face value would be doing a disservice to the medium. As many gamers will know, there are a plethora of titles and genres which not only dabble in reality, but go as far as to try and replicate it, stick to its truths or influence it beyond the confines of the screen.

The game that is most widely remembered as the first home video-game had humble beginnings. It was an early iteration of Pong created by Physicist William Higginbotham in 1958, which was revealed to the public at Brookhaven National Laboratory open days. In a later interview he recalled that he figured –

“It might liven up the place to have a game that people could play, and which would convey the message that our scientific endeavours have relevance for society.”

Tennis for Two
The game Higginbotham created, he named it ‘Tennis for Two’ and’ it utilised an oscilloscope as a screen to play on.

 The origins of video-games as tools to aid proponents of the computer age is quite telling, in that it shows us, alongside being entertaining  they can be apparatus to inform and sway our opinions. We’ve come a long way from their origins in aids for computer salesmen, now games have the potential to reflect and explore much more, even to change the narrative of society itself.

I am going to look at how and why video games rooted in reality have potential world changing capabilities, as well as explore some of the ways that they have been used as tools to change reality. And most importantly why this should be something we concern ourselves with as a community.

Games As Art And Literature

Storytelling, it’s something our species have done since even before the advent of language – when we left our mark on cave walls to express ourselves, now we leave them on blogs. Like storytelling itself games have come a long way since their creation. In simpler times we had little pixelated avatars doing something for some reason but as what we could create in games advanced so did characters, worlds and the stories being told. It is clear that storytelling and video games have a symbiotic relationship, both have influenced each other, together. This is especially apparent when you look at games such as The Stanley Parable or Dream which have a heavy focus on exploration and narrative, as a way of exploring storytelling itself. Or any number of games that satirise real world events, such as the Command and Conquer; Red Alert series, which satirises the Cold War going hot.

 

ROOTED IN REALITY
A hilarious and far-fetched look at some of the awfulness that could have stemmed from the Cold War.

 

American film critic Robert Egbert is one of the most well-known voices in this old and tiresome debate and is of the view that ‘games will never be art.’ Whether or not academics or critics would argue against this mediums inclusion in these realms, doesn’t particularly matter in my eyes, it is clear to anyone who plays them and experiences them that they have artistic and literary merit. They are works that have visual and mental impacts on us, they are perfectly capable of making us feel and think. Most gamers, myself included, probably don’t really mind how their legitimacy in the world of high arts and literature is viewed by the respective gatekeepers but it does matter that they are art and literature that is developing a new narrative.

Games constantly break the fourth wall, from the tutorial guiding you to press ‘X’, to your characters commenting on your actions or inaction, such as when Sonic gets tired of waiting for you to play after a period of inactivity. They treat you as less of an audience member and more as a character, we are much more than just an audience when we game, we are an influencer, a protagonist on the stage. This is what I believe makes games powerful in the art of rhetoric and discourse, as we can relate even more to them and therefore they can sometimes be even better at influencing us than traditional literature. It is us who live through the story as the protagonist. Combining the worlds of art, literature and audience participation into one little multi-dimensional package makes them proficient at influencing us. It’s a form of storytelling that is interactive and can easily engross us as an audience, this is why it matters.

Sonic Waiting gif
Sonic growing impatient with you making him hang around, he knows you know he’s gotta go fast.

Historic And Current Events

There are historical games aplenty, for some reason nerds and geeks whom game, seem to have an obsession with these settings be they ancient or old. I am going to examine one such example as I think it best represents this fixation on historical games and the potential perils of rooting a game in reality. That example is World War Two games of which there are bloody loads.

One of the biggest triple A games of 2017 another timely timeless timed out ‘Call of Duty’ game set in WW2, showing us that love for WW2 games just won’t die, kind of like the COD franchise. But why is the historical narrative and accuracy so important? Somewhat sadly, simply put it’s because games are one of the primary ways many children and young adults will be engaging with the history presented. Whilst historical accuracy doesn’t determine whether a game is a great game or not, I feel developers and games companies owe it to society to be as accurate as possible when it comes to the historical narratives, at the very least. Where possible all sides should be put under the microscope for criticism. Allied powers committed atrocities in the war too and more often than not it is only the evil of the Nazis that is dealt with. In fact I cannot think of one game that deals with the atrocities of the allied powers and doesn’t treat them as simply righteous heroes [if you can think of one, please comment them as I’d be interested to see.]

Not to say that games should be propaganda, just that we must understand that they can inform us and if they do they should be on the right side of history and the nice side of morality. An example of propaganda in gaming that’s on the right side of history, is the controversy that ensued around the advertising campaign of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, where developers MachineGames and publishers Bethesda used the opportunity to double down on the anti-Nazi rhetoric of the game.

This ability to influence opinions becomes even more worrisome with regards to games that focus on the reality of current events and our future, they have the potential to impact the political narrative of the world. Sometimes this is owing to real world events not being done justice and misinforming those who play at best and at worst, because they are outright pushing an awful agenda.

Atomic Games, are an example of a developer which wanted to capture the truth of a contemporary historical account, yet the game they created remains unreleased. It was a game that Marines from 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines of the US army wanted made, to tell of their experiences in the Second Battle of Fallujah during the Iraq War, it was named 6 Days in Fallujah and to be published by Konami. These Marines had originally been assigned to help make training tools for the US army, but after their experience in war they wanted to tell the story of what happened to them personally and approached Atomic Games. The games creation caused much controversy from war veterans and anti-war groups who claimed it to be glorifying wars and disrespecting the many casualties as well as veterans. Ultimately Konami dropped what could have been an interesting look at war through the eyes of those on the ground. A former soldier who fought in Fallujah told the LA Times of the games significance,

“Video games can communicate the intensity and the gravity of war to an audience who wouldn’t necessarily be watching the History Channel or reading about this in the classroom. In an age when everyone’s always online or playing games, peoples’ imaginations aren’t what they were, sadly. For this group, books may not convey the same level of intensity and chaos of war that a game can.”

The fact that these soldiers had originally been assigned to Atomic Games to help develop training tools for the US Army goes to show how games can be used to further awful agendas. Now even ISIS and other terrorist organisations have been utilising video games  for recruitment and training. Even modding their own version of GTA V known as Grand Theft Auto: Salil al-Sawarem (loosely translating to ‘the sound of clashing swords’, artwork for which I used as the featured picture at the top of this article.  An example on the flipside of this issue is the new game designed to train teachers how to react during a school shooting. Games as a medium have become a way to influence the world to the developers’ agenda.

Rooted in reality 3
A screenshot from the recent teacher training resource game.

Video games can be used to teach us about our contemporary world and its past, as well as warn of potential future outcomes. This coupled with the possibility that the game you’re playing is being used to influence and inform your opinion on reality, should be something that you keep in mind personally. And something I feel we should talk about more as a community and society, to explore the ways we can use this as a positive as well as how we can avoid the negatives.

Tools For What And Who?

Games that are rooted in reality can potentially change the world, their usefulness as tools can and should be much more far reaching than learning tools and propaganda.  Alongside games, those who play them should be seen as a resource, a large community of people who dedicate their time and efforts to overcoming obstacles, solving issues and puzzles to advance, often sticking at something repetitively until they crack it and succeed. As such there should be games that are designed to help solve real world problems faced by our society because gaming can make a better world if we so choose to utilise it.

Some of the questions we should be asking as a society is if games can be tools,  for what and by who are they?

I believe games should first and foremost entertain, but if they are utensils to change the world, then they must be tools for the betterment of humanity by those who wish to see social change.

Survival Games; Echoes Of Life And Its Futility

Survival games photo 1
If you stare into the abyss long enough sometimes the abyss stares back and it’s actually just a void full of unfinished early access survival games.

If there was ever an over saturated genre in the video game market, survival games would be in the running for whatever kind of award that can get you. The genres’ undying popularity has spawned great games like Rust pictured above. Of course the sheer number of fans for this game type has paved the way for large piles of early access games, some ending up in the quick quid and never finished heap but still for the most part ending up in gamers’ libraries. We just simply can’t get enough of them, it seems they give us a certain joie de vivre.

We’ve got your dinosaur taming survival games with the likes of Ark: Survival Evolved, of course naturally there is a horde of Zombie survival games such as DayZ and Just Survive, then there’s Sci-Fi survival in space with the likes of Osiris New Dawn and an underwater alien planet setting with Subnauticanot to mention the legions of bog standard potential real world dystopia versions a la HurtworldYou name it people want to survive it, kind of like life itself.

Another way in which survival games echo life, is that they’re utterly bloody futile!

A Dog Eat Dog World

The one thing that ties all these different survival scenarios together is being thrust into a hostile environment and using your wits and surrounding resources to survive. Ultimately there is no real end goal to these games beyond that, unless they’re single player with story progression. For the sake of this article, I’m going to be focusing on multiplayer, specifically player versus player rather than just the environment. This is where you can find the real echoes of life in our society and the sometimes all too easily conceivable pointlessness of it.

Sadly, for the most part the survival game community is a dog eat dog world, where people will kill you on the off chance that you might have some goodies in your inventory even though you look like a fresh spawn. Then there is those who would in fact just end your miserable existence for the thrill of the hunt, even when there’s no sport in it. But there are players who prefer to make friends in this futile existence, I am one of these players, there’s enough pain without a guilty conscience. I remember one friend gaining encounter  in a game of Just Survive;

A real life pal and I were new to the server, we had nothing but the clothes on our back and hope in our hearts. It was night and we were warily making our way into town, when in the middle of the road a creep with a torch silently beheld us. To put it simply we had no fight so we went into flight mode, to put it plainly we were cowards. So as we ran, like an excitable dog he preceded to chase us for a 5 minutes saga of humiliation, freaked out by a torch lit stranger. We took shelter in a house, so he stood at the window flashing us not saying a word. That’s when we made another break for it and bumped into a stranger kitted out with a backpack and rifle, we begged him for assistance to end our fear. Putting our trust in a stranger with a weapon rather than one with a torch. He scared off our light bearing accoster and we teamed up and to this day are still friends.

  A rare occurrence in these worlds of mistrust, what with the nagging paranoia that your supposed newfound friend is just waiting for the opportune moment to stab you in the back, learning your weaknesses and biding their time – we’d be stupid not to strike first right? It’s an infernal pattern with a ripple effect, shit on or be shat on.

In these games you have few options once you’re surviving and well equipped, try to just exist in perpetual defence for the mere sake of it, accumulate to exterminate the competition, to share in their hard work by raiding them, and taking their possessions for your own. Or try to work with people in exchange for mutual cooperation and face the risk of being so easily betrayed. 

So why do we enjoy survival games so much?

Leaving Your Mark And Making A Story

Survival article 1.jpgBase designing and building is one way you can leave your mark.

Throwing yourself into the pattern of destitution, accumulation and loss to someone or times scythe in the form of a server wipe, seems a tedious repetitive task with no end in sight. Almost as futile as cleaning your house, however it is definitely a lot more fun. It’s infinitely more enjoyable to face virtual futility than the actual consequential reality. Like life itself, for all its futility, the goal of survival is to enjoy the ride and thus give a point to it all.

Leave your mark and enjoy the process, whether that be in the form of your creations or the friends you make along the way. That’s why survival games are an important and enjoyable genre, they’re player based experiences that allows us to embrace life in all its futility.