Garwulf’s Corner #41: Living the Experience
Originally published March 1, 2017
Just over a week before my 40th birthday I am standing on an alien world, bathing in the light of an distant star.
I don’t think I knew just how much I needed No Man’s Sky until I watched Loading Ready Run’s Graham Stark play five and a half hours of it on Twitch. So, when my wife offered the game up as an early birthday present — just in time for the Foundation update — it didn’t take long to make a decision. Now, I’ve had to implement a “no No Man’s Sky during business hours rule,” just to keep myself from spending all of my time hopping from planet to planet and star to star.
But this got me thinking about video games in general, particularly what the medium has become. A couple of days after my first steps into the galaxy of No Man’s Sky, Alex Steacy and Cameron Lauder streamed My Summer Car on their show Talking Simulator. In a number of ways, the two games could not be more different — My Summer Car is rooted in nostalgia and realism rather than escapism, returning the player to their teenaged years (or at least somebody’s teenaged years) and a simpler time, when all they had to worry about was fixing up a car and earning some cash on the side. And yet, the two games are opposite sides of the same coin, destinations and experiences more than the traditional definition of a video game. The fact that one is to the stars while the other is to an idealized memory is a mere detail.
The idea that a game can be a full-on experience is far from a new one — the entire simulation genre is based around it. As early as the 1950s, business schools were attempting to use computers to simulate the world of commerce while the military was attempting to play out battles in command exercises, with computers controlling the enemy movements. In the 1980s, computer games tried to simulate everything from space exploration to dogfighting to being a police officer. But, the technology was limited. Running a combat mission in an F15 loses its feeling of reality when all of the sounds are variations on beeps from an internal computer speaker. Exploring an alien planet doesn’t feel right when it is pixilated or has a low polygon count.
Today, the technology has advanced far enough that we have hit a sweet spot. Even on the medium setting, the graphics in No Man’s Sky look good enough to sweep one away into this brand new galaxy. Virtual reality allows one to stand on the summit of Everest. The dream of video games being able to offer a proper experience have become a reality.
And this leads us to a not-undeserved debate about just what a video game is. In many respects, the medium has outgrown its name. There are no shortage of traditional video games, but there are also games like Gone Home or Dear Esther, which offer an experience — and often a meaningful one — without the trappings of traditional gameplay. While there are those who argue that these “walking simulators” aren’t really games (an argument that, make no mistake, has merit), they still fall entirely within the video game medium. Their DNA is the same as Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, and while the enemies and shooting have been replaced with exploring one’s way through visual storytelling, they have far more commonalities with the latest Call of Duty game than differences.
Perhaps we need a new term for this medium, one that reflects what it has become, instead of its past on CRT monitors and television screens. Or perhaps we don’t — after all, any experience we seek out in our spare time can be called a form of play, regardless of if it is a game played just for the fun of it or a walk through a heart-rending story. And, any video game provides an experience, from blowing away time in a room escape to laying down fire on a battlefield to the devastating power of the metaphysical exploration in Journey. These experiences do not seek us out — we must come to them, and we must be an active participant. Even a “walking simulator” still requires us to walk through it. We cannot engage with any part of this medium without also engaging in play.
Do we need a new term for this medium, now that it is fulfilling its decades-long dreams? I honestly don’t know. Perhaps “video game” by itself is enough. Or, perhaps it is not.
All I know is this: I have stood on the shores of alien worlds. I have climbed their mountains and discovered the strange creatures that live there. I have stood in awe at the sight of a horizon overpowered by a massive moon that filled the sky before me. Even though all these moments were delivered through an electronic medium, they were still experiences that can never be taken away.
And if the medium of video games can deliver experiences like this right now, I can’t wait to see what’s coming next, regardless of what name it goes by.