Monday 20 July 2015

Virtual Travel

I went to a family gathering this weekend, about two hundred miles from the places I call 'home'. This is actually the first time this decade I've been that far from home (I don't get about much). The journeys there and back were seven and five hours respectively in a car, and were the longest car journeys I've been on in the same period.

Travel is starting to become a theme of my writing about video games. Many of my favourite in-game moments have to do with travelling through virtual worlds. A big part of my excitement for upcoming games like Tales of Zestiria, Xenoblade Chronicles X and Final Fantasy XV is that they offer vast new worlds to explore.

By contrast, I really don't like to do anything in the real world that's vaguely analogous to my virtual explorations. I don't like hiking, I don't like driving (or being a passenger, since I can't legally drive myself anywhere), and I generally don't like to travel. There are a variety of reasons, but the biggest is quite simply that real travel is a lot of effort.

I want to see mountains like the ones my dad likes to climb without getting sore feet. I want to experience the vast sweeps of landscapes like the ones we drove through this weekend (some of which were very pretty) without the steadily-hardening crick in the base of my spine. I want to float through the world as effortlessly and intangibly as a videogame camera.

And I thought until this weekend that there was no harm in this, provided I kept to my lane and didn't get too whiny when I actually do have to travel. But Actually Travelling, and looking at the landscapes I travelled through with the same critical eye I've been training to look at videogames with, put me ill at ease.

Games, by the limits of their technology and the demands of their audience, compress distance. Sure, you can walk for some hours in a straight line without touching the sides of some recent games. But you could walk the real world for the same length of time and in many places not even leave the valley you start in. I found myself wondering, as we drove over the crest of a hill and the horizon retreated on Friday afternoon, how dishonest it is to indulge in this, and how harmful.

It would be a pretty shallow critique to say that the shortening of distance in games is straightforwardly misrepresentative and creates harmful expectations of travel - no better than tired old arguments that the mere presentation of violence is sufficient to induce people to be more violent. It's more complex than that.

But games are so often about the mastery of space, the individual eventually rising to an effortless, unchallenged mobility. There's no better example of this than the 'airship moment' in JRPGs, the point at which you've explored most of the world on foot and, to avoid forcing you to retread old ground, you get a tool that allows you to hop or float to wherever you want, bypassing even the abstractions that are supposed to add labour and time back into the earlier compressed journeys.

This is all a bit unfocussed and musing-y (which is why it's here and not on my actual games blog). The problem probably has more to do with the way games construct mastery than the way they handle travel and distance. But this weekend, looking out at the same sweeping vista for twenty miles and realising it would take ten times as long to walk it on foot as in-game, I had a moment of very sharp discomfort. I hope I'll be able to hold that in mind as I develop my critical ideas on this theme.

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