Companions in Isolation, or The Ache

10 02 2015

At a recent staff meeting, I had a weird epiphany – there is an ache at the core of many of the games I like. It’s not universal – Halo barely has it (if it has it at all), and Call of Duty hasn’t had a trace of it since the first Modern Warfare, and maybe I’m stretching to find it in the Assassin’s Creed series, but it’s damn sure there in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and GTA V. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is about the ache for a path to success and security outside of the mainstream. In some ways, it can be read as the story of an illegal immigrant (some literal, as the titular Stalkers have to illegally cross a border into an area they’re not supposed to be). GTA V is about the ache of finding success and realizing that it’s meaningless on its own, and that the path to obtaining it and gathering its trappings seems destined to make its meaninglessness clear once it has been completed. Assassin’s Creed is (maybe) about the ache of trying to contribute to the betterment of the world slamming into entrenched systems that like the world exactly as it is. Halo, ostensibly about saving all sentient life in the galaxy, ends up spending a lot of time on an ache that exists between John-117 and Cortana, two intelligences that share an intrinsic not-quite-humanity and find a strange companionship. Is it love? Ask Cortana on a Windows Phone and she’ll tell you “That’s… complicated. And personal.” So there’s an ache there.

Thing is, do people really want to play the experience of deep ache?

As the meeting made me wonder what my place is in all of this, I had a realization that struck me at first as kind of stupid. Years ago, I lost a very dear friend. He killed himself. During that meeting, thinking about my job, the job in marketing – a thing I swore I’d never have, I thought a lot about him, about the grandiose thoughts we had about how the world should work and what our place would be in it. We didn’t want to take the normal path – we felt we couldn’t. We looked at the typical workaday world and found it tedious and pointless. We longed for jobs that came down to our cleverness, but not as a way of getting over on people (as marketing seemed to do too often). We wanted to live by our wits in the kindest way possible.

My stupid realization? I wish Norbert was alive so that I could play S.T.A.L.K.E.R. with him. I put aside the stupidity when I realized that bringing people together is a wonderful goal for a piece of art, and I know he would have loved it. We followed the early days of its development, and it had a lot in common with the original Fallout games, which he adored. Then I realized that it could have been such a beautiful space for us to connect.

The third game featured a lot of wide open spaces, and they created a simmering tension that allowed the player to plan and think, while still staying on his or her toes for potential threats. There’s an area called Jupiter, a wide expanse dotted with military and industrial complexes, a train station that serves as a safe zone, dangerous train tunnels, and a pit mine with a giant excavator slowly decaying in its center. I imagined Norbert and I setting out from the train station in the north center of the area, heading southeast toward the factory complex that gives the area its name, sticking close to a fairly safe path, knowing which areas to avoid. Since it’s safe, we could shoot the shit while still staying aware of threats – we could talk about real life while still inhabiting the game, as the characters are just regular guys trying to make their way in a crazy world, just like us. Maybe as we made our way toward the factory, a storm would roll in, with the game’s excellent atmosphere and sense of place imparting the virtual rain with an almost palpable chill. The ambient sound would be muted by the constant sound of rainfall, broken occasionally by peals of thunder. Our conversation would probably ebb to match our surroundings, and we’d approach the factory, two people who could never quite fit the larger world, armed and armored with the best they could manage, raggedy and bedraggled but unmistakably our own. The tools we chose would inevitably be different, but complementary. We’d both experience the ache of always being a bit outside, feeling like we need a different path toward meaning than many, maybe most, people, but it would be lessened by the knowledge that we had each other’s back.

We’d play a game all about isolation as a way of lessening our own. Mine was being lessened every day in my real life, so I never found the time to reach out to him, and definitely never found the time to play S.T.A.L.K.E.R. with him. I know doing things differently wouldn’t have saved him. I know he made his choice, and nothing any of us did made it for him. Still, I wonder, if we could have walked through the rain at Jupiter, how different would things be? If we could have stood alongside each other in virtual cold and isolation, would the real thing have seemed a little more bearable for him?

It’s a very strange comfort to be drawn back to The Zone without him, to walk the world I should have shared with him aware he never saw it and never will. Similarly, it’s a strange comfort to play the anarchic murder- and mayhem-fest that is GTA V and share Michael’s existential confusion about “success.” It seems to me that these are games for grown-ups. Even when GTA V gleefully throws utterly juvenile jokes into the mix and does a ham-fisted and inept job with gender identities, it echoes life – as adults, we still laugh at fart jokes and dumb double entendre, and even when we try to be completely fair and unbiased, we stumble and find ourselves inept when we interact with the rest of the world (Note – I don’t think Rockstar wrote their ineptitude intentionally, but I also think their ineptitude does provide a good mirror for our own).

These are the games I want to play.

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