[17 November 2004]
“This is the game that moves as you play. . .”
—X, from Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis (Simon and Schuster 1985)
In point of fact, all games move. Whether it be the metallic dog in a game of Monopoly, the spaceship in a game of Asteroids, or the scrolling description in that text-based sword and sorcery fest that is, was, and forever will be Zork. A key defining feature of all games, irrespective of their digital or non-digital nature, is that they are, in some form, dynamic.
A good game of chess, the ultimate strategy game, might include protracted moments of stillness. But the longueurs between moves only makes the moment when the player finally makes his or her decision and relocates their chosen avatar on the board all the more momentous. Indeed the ways in which games enable us to travel through space and time are manifold.
The first digital games to crawl from the primordial soup of zeroes and ones are often generalised as operating, in similar binary fashion, along only x and y axes. Certainly the generalisation would seem to hold true for games like Pong, Breakout and Space Invaders. In each case we see the totality of the playing field; the limits of our spatial engagement are there for all to see. Yet such generalisations tend to ignore the fact that from the very beginning there was an urge to create additional, unseen space outside the frame. Just as even the most abstract games like Pong or Breakout or Tetris reference the “real” world (duh: because the process of abstraction needs the real world to base its abstraction on, even if that reference point is coloured bricks) many of the x/y games implied a spatial expanse outside the frame. Think about it: where exactly were all those vehicles travelling to and from in Frogger?
Indeed, there’s an apparently trivial but actually quite telling scene in the British documentary about the history of video games, Thumb Candy, first broadcast in 2000. Matthew Smith, legendary pioneer of the early British gaming scene in the 1980s, is being asked by the interviewer about the process of designing his classic Manic Miner. Obviously referring to where Smith got the idea from, the interviewer enquires where the self-evidently Monty Pythonesque boot that squashes the Manic Miner avatar comes from. Choosing to take the question at face value, Smith quips “Out of the top of the screen”. And it’s true: when I played Manic Miner as a kid, in a sense I really did believe that this booted foot was emerging out of another kind of space beyond the screen to squash my heroic Miner Willy figure. It’s this space that we might call extra-diegetic, in that it moves beyond but informs the diegesis afforded by the visible playing area.
Subsequent scrolling games like Jeff Minter’s similarly surreal classic Attack of the Mutant Camels made the idea of there being extra-diegetic space to explore its modus operandi. Your avatar would move inexorably right in its efforts to destroy all in its path. The scrolling might have been an illusion, just like in those old Warner Brothers cartoons where the same scenery keeps coming past, but the engagement is such that we’re willing to suspend our disbelief.
Because the media age in which we live renders us increasingly amnesiac, we tend to associate the idea of there being additional space outside the frame with contemporary digital games, in other words those that use the z-axis as well as the x and y axes. But the idea of extra-diegetic space is not the exclusive purview of the Grand Theft Auto games or Halo, nor did it begin with the original Doom. In common with its descendant Asteroids, the first fully fledged digital game, entitled Spacewar! , featured a hyperspace function to enable you to evade your opponent’s onslaught. With a click your spaceship avatar would vanish effortlessly along a z-axis into an unseen, momentary holding pattern. In fact, experiments in utilising the z-axis characterise lots of “early” games, for instance Tempest and Battlezone. Notable other examples include driving games like Night Driver and Pole Position and space exploration games like Star Raiders and its Thatcherite equivalent, Elite.
Contemporary games like the remake of Resident Evil utilise any number of audiovisual horror film tropes and techniques, along with a variety of techniques specific to the digital game, to render our voyage along the z-axis truly and terrifyingly exploratory. Many games that maximise the nature of the z-axis are consequently forced into providing maps in order to enable us to navigate the area, like the GTA games and Republic: The Revolution. Additionally, the new Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas game cleverly provides both plot exposition and an overview of the spatial environment in an opening cut sequence in which our anti-hero is accosted and driven through the environment by a bunch of corrupt police officers.
And it isn’t simply the game that moves: increasingly, we do, too (but then, as I’ll explain, we always were). Once again the antecedents for portable gaming were there in the early days of the medium: while the Stalinist behemoth that was my 16K Atari 800 sat impassively beneath our gigantic rented television set, back in the 1980s portable diversions were still possible thanks to the electronic machines courtesy of companies like Grandstand and Nintendo’s Game and Watch series.
The Nintendo Gameboy arrived in 1989 and thanks largely to Tetris inveigled itself into the clutches of individuals throughout the land. Several iterations later and it’s still going strong. In addition, we now have increasingly impressive mobile phone gaming, and an imminent new generation of portable consoles to distract us on our journeys through an increasingly suspect “real” world. No longer are our gaming activities limited to the console-and-television combo in our childhood bedroom, or to the hunched consumption of PC-based games.
Although, of course, if you remember and hey, I doubt you do and who can blame you I said earlier that we live in a forgetful age. Portable gaming is no new thing. Non-digital games always tended to be mobile to greater or lesser extents: the chess board in a box, the football, the whip-and-top. They went where we went. But the digital game experience, with its sometimes competing, sometimes complementary notions of simulation, narrative, and spectacle is clearly different to the non-digital pleasures provided by these other games and toys. What all gaming has in common, be it portable or non-portable, digital or non-digital, is that understanding the where of playing is as important as understanding the how of playing.
Not to mention the when of playing. As Henri Bergson observed, we really only understand space through how we understand time. In the context of digital games this doesn’t just refer to the frantic activity necessary to beat the clock in Time Crisis or your efforts to frustrate a fellow contender in racing games like Burnout by being just that much faster. Nor does it refer to the many varieties of temporal engagement evident in say, Vice City, with its allusions to real time, to accelerated time, and to slowed time, revealing and fascinating though such insights might be. At a much more abstract level games move through time, because everything else moves through time. Including us. Constantly, inexorably.
Which means that we our governed by our experience of time even if our perception of time doesn’t always admit to that fact. When commentators talk about the pervasive and negative effects of, say, violent games like the now infamous Manhunt on players, they are at once right and wrong. Games do affect us any form of art worth the appellation ought to, goodness knows but not in the player-as-suppine-dimwit fashion advocated by those who do not have either the best interests of gamers or games at heart. The game responds to us just as much as we respond to the game. And just as equally, the circumstances in which we play the game affect how we understand the gaming experience. And since all elements travel relentlessly through time, it is through time that we should now begin to discuss the digital game.
Except, of course, that I’m out of time. But I’ll tell you more soon. Watch this space.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/harvey041117/