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Endless Ocean

Dive. Discover. Dream.

(Nintendo; US: 21 Jan 2008)

Kinetic Kitsch

While visiting relatives in Denver over Christmas and flipping through television stations late Christmas night, I ran across what I thought was an artifact of an earlier time: the televised fireplace.


I, being a fan of kitsch and camp, had to flip it on for awhile.  I had thought that such simulated emblems of Christmas spirit had been exorcised from television, but apparently not. 


Of course, staring at the cold glare of cathode-generated flames failed to hold my attention long, but then again, that isn’t the point of a televised fire.  It is not intended to be watched but to exist as a background of simulated warmth to the other elements of the Christmas experience—much like the ubiquitous Christmas carol CD played while opening presents.  It is intended to give a portion of a sense of Christmas despite the fact that the simulation only provides a portion of the sense of fire.  You get the sight and the sound of the hearth fire, but the lifelessness of the display is easily recognizable in its lack of true warmth or authentic odor.


All simulations are approximations of the truth, but the most successful approximate as much of the truth as possible.  What makes the televised fireplace kitschy is its lack of this approximation.  Why not light a fire if you want to experience the sense of home that the hearth is intended to add to Christmas?  Of course, lacking something like say, a fireplace, or for that matter finding the warmth of central heating preferable to the warmth of a fire may make its implication of the domestic and traditional Christmas the only element that is desirable in such a simulation.  Nevertheless, there also seems embedded within such an experience a sense of the disconnect between modern experiences of Christmas and more traditional ones.  Are we that desperate to recreate a Christmas more akin to Charles Dickens’ vision of such that we have to bring the fire home through such decidedly tacky means?


Curiously, Nintendo’s new game Endless Ocean raises similar questions about the nature of why human beings desire simulation, and to what ends.  Endless Ocean feels in many ways like the interactive version of the more passive experience of the holiday simulation of a fireplace.  It leaves one wondering about the possible desperateness of simulation to give us at least a sense of a real, lived experience that, perhaps, we lack access to.


One has to wonder about this possibility, perhaps, given the Wii’s simulatory qualities in general.  The game packed with the console, Wii Sports, at times leaves you questioning why one doesn’t go to the bowling alley if one wants to bowl, since it is merely the close approximation of the experience of bowling that the Wii provides.  The game visually represents the experience of being at a bowling alley, but chucking a ball with the Wiimote also allows your body to experience the sensation of rolling a ball down a lane—barring, perhaps, the weight of the ball itself.  It really puts in an effort to mimic the physical experience of bowling, but to what end?


The lack of weight carries with it a sense of the falsehood of such a simulation in some ways like the lack of warmth of the Christmas fire.  But, like the Christmas fire, the simulation still signals a desire for the experience of bowling without the cost or all of the physicality required for real bowling.  Is it bowling, maybe, without the commitment?


A lack of commitment seems to be one of the major themes of Endless Ocean, a game which simulates not another sport, but instead the experience of dabbling in marine biology by exploring a large section of ocean via scuba diving.  Throughout its early tutorials, the game emphasizes over and over the ability of the player to determine their own goals in the game.  There are activities that one can perform by swimming around various stretches of ocean including surveying, serving as guide to tourists, or studying the sea life.  If you prefer, though, you can choose to simply sightsee, paddling about wherever you like.  Additionally, a computer station on board your boat allows you to access requests from the foundation funding your virtual trip to perform some specific tasks related to the prior activities (surveying a particular area or finding out about the denizens of that specific region of the ocean).  However, again and again, your partner on board the ship emphasizes that you can do whatever you want.  Likewise, even your employer constantly reiterates that you can take your time in accomplishing these goals or, for that matter, simply ignore any specific request that fails to appeal.  Doing what you want, experiencing what you want, and defining your own goals become the only “rules” of this “game”.


Perhaps I am overstating the case, though, by implying that Endless Ocean fails in some way to be a game at all.  Admittedly, it is difficult to consider any completely unrestricted leisure activity as anything more than the more free-form concept of “play”.  However, most players will probably choose to fulfill some or most of the e-mail requests and, for that matter, at least attempt to do more than simply swim around—possibly choosing to at least catalog some facts about the sea life, for example, which does at least give the experience some loose long term goals that would seem to help in defining a more game-like element of the simulation.


Game-like elements like cataloging fish may lack the tension of the kinds of conflicts that most players are provided through especially violent conflict in most video games, but the notion of accomplishment through collection is a tried and true model in a host of games and sims. 


The emphasis here, though, is geared largely towards the notion of mapping a kind of sensory experience to the player’s efforts.  Like other Wii games, this game attempts to approximate the movement of the controls with some semblance of what the game is simulating.  The Wiimote is thus used by constantly pointing at the screen to direct the motion and viewpoint of the main character as if thrusting a hand forward has some relationship to moving through water.  More similar in such approximations is the ability to point at a fish and press a button to poke it or to shake the Wiimote back and forth to pet it.  Such fish molestation curiously is at the heart of learning more about the fish that populate this endless ocean.  For some reason, getting friendly with the marine life is equivalent to learning facts about them.  The more you violate them, the more information you acquire about them.


Such friendliness is not as stress-inducing as most more fast paced games usually are, which seems to be a great deal of the point of Endless Ocean.  This is a game about relaxation and an exploration of the concept that a game can be more than a simulation of warfare or generalized violence.  I can appreciate this notion—as the medium matures it is nice to see game makers attempting to move away from formula and explore more novel experiences and stories.  However, such friendliness with the fish may not produce enough tension to make the experience authentic enough (shouldn’t one fear shark attack when chumming a stretch of sea and then poking and stroking a shark?) or to really provide enough conflict to maintain a story, and often, it also just “feels” kind of weird to heavily pet a fish. 


In that sense, Endless Ocean may, indeed, resemble the experience of televised fire.  It is certainly a more active experience than watching a fire crackle and pop on tv, but at the same time, because it is spotty in its ability to actually simulate the experience that it attempts to represent, it may be more kitsch than captivating.

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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