Netrunner is a game of mega-corporations advancing their nefarious agendas while protecting their servers against anarchic, criminal, and DIY hackers. The game creates a beautiful asymetric system (which I delve into in greater detail here), a tense and shifting play space that creates some of the most exhilarating tabletop gaming matches you can experience. Netrunner is a constant battle of wits and aggression, a struggle for power, for constant dominance… except when it isn’t.
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It might not be very idealistic or heroic sounding, but one of the things I like about video games is the comfortable boundaries they offer. Whether it’s a function of technology or creativity, you know your place in a virtual world, usually in a very precise way. Eventually you’ll run into an invisible wall that prevents you from wandering off the level or you’ll hit a door that isn’t actually a passageway into a building but rather a decorative ornament on a solid wall. If you have a map, it functions by some glorious system of auto-cartography, filling itself in as you wander new areas. As you travel, a dot marking your position charts your path and shows your exact location.
In this respect, the rise of smart phones has made life a lot more video game-like. If you’re wandering around the overworld (i.e., not in a building and within your carrier service area), you’ll have a map that will fill itself in with your surroundings. On that map is a dot that shows your exact location as well as the location of various landmarks. Because of this dynamic, I’m more likely to treat going to a new place in the real world the same way that I’d treat it in a video game; I’ll just head over and try to figure it out. Getting lost is a momentary setback remedied by a quick glance at a magic map.
I’m sitting here trying to think what a video game might look like if it were set entirely in a car. I just finished watching Locke by Steven Knight, a film whose complete 90-minute runtime takes place in, you guessed it, a car. Throughout the movie, the camera stays almost entirely on Ivan Locke, played masterfully by Thomas Hardy. It is not a concoction that exists to elicit a sense of thrill and excitement. Nevertheless, Locke is as tense and dramatic as some of the best films this year. As David Ehrlich from the Dissolve describes it, the film pulls “more effective drama from a smooth ride than most movies can muster from a dozen pile-ups.”
So what does a single ride down a freeway look like as a video game? While Knight does play a bit with the frustrations of a long car ride, his work is far more compelling than the intentionally boring Desert Bus, which asks players to drive a long monotonous route to Vegas. Likewise, the sub-genre of “escape the room” puzzles might mirror Locke in their confined sets (at least one game does take place entirely in a car), but they rarely deliver meaningful narratives beyond the momentary joy of riddling out an answer.
“Duel me, noob.” It sounds like a juvenile display of aggression, a challenge issued in a myriad of games but one I hear most often in League of Legends. It demands a demonstration of skill on an isolated battleground, no help from teammates, no backing down. This duel is set in a digital riverbed of Summoner’s Rift, but it’s preceded by the gentlemanly combat of 19th century duelists, who in the early hours of dawn would meet to resolve quarrels in a deadly game of pistols. Are the two so far removed?
For today’s video game combatants, the duel is a proving ground, an opportunity to dominate your opponent and most importantly gain honor relative to another through martial prowess. Our violent aristocrats of yore partook in potentially deadly shoot-outs to (in the most basic sense) maintain existing honor. The difference is an important one. Proving your value via combat, as Kwame Anthony Appiah describes in his book The Honor Code, could be considered a form of “competitive honor, which comes in degrees; but there is also what we could call ‘peer honor,’ which governs among equals.” We have long since abandoned the duel as a socially acceptable method of conflict resolution and notions of honor today often carry negative connotations. Even so, there is something in notions of honor we may yet salvage for video game culture.
This post contains spoilers for Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes.
Playing Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is like visiting an old friend’s new house. In this case, you’ve known the friend for 27 years (Megal Gear came out in 1987!). They’ve had plenty of time to accumulate the various pieces of furniture, wall art, and knick-knacks that define their various homes, and you’ve had plenty of time to form your expectations (there have been over a dozen Metal Gear games!). So here you are, standing in the foyer of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. What do you see?