[22 October 2008]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
It’s something of a personal fantasy (and subject of a blog post meant to be posted in 2 weeks) to begin pushing video games into relevancy by having them discuss topics besides escapist fantasy. Different games have struggled with this in different ways. My now excessive knowledge about World War 2 aside, most games opt to attain relevancy by discussing emotion or philosophical debate. Braid’s sense of the futility of pursuing goals, Planescape: Torment’s questions about human nature and how our conduct reflects it. Or, as the Global Kids Media Initiative has done, you can just set the game someplace important. Like New Orleans, the day after Katrina hit.
It’s always interesting to play an educational or informative game because you immediately recognize that their goal is not necessarily having fun. Instead, it’s fun with a side of vegetables. Video games, by their nature, are more engaging than watching a film or reading a book. I actively absorb information given because there is a chance it’s relevant to play. I pay attention to what’s going on because something dangerous might hurt me. Whereas a game solely about fun or accomplishment will fine-tune that into generating a sense of reward by delivering chunks of plot or quaint jingles, an educational game is instead using all of these elements while slipping in bits of information about a topic. You learn inadvertently as you progress, although there have not been too many games that delivered a true melding of these goals.
In that regard Katrina: Tempest in Crescent City succeeds with a good mixture of dialogue in a standard platforming game. Certain people that you speak to will give a mission of delivering bottled water or first aid. Others will relate a true amazing story about the aftermath of the storm, such as Jabar Gibson’s hijacking of a school bus and shuttling survivors out of the city before F.E.M.A. arrived. Your character is a survivor herself, re-experiencing the storm through a dream as she rushes around saving the people she wishes she’d helped during the actual events. Each level is set to a timer that is gauged by the setting sun, which creates a real sense of conflict as you realize that you can only help so many people per level. Some survivors must be abandoned in order to help yourself. And as you progress to each level, the broken levies take their toll and the waters slowly rise. The final person you rescue, your mother, is revealed to have passed in the storm at the very beginning of the game. It’s a clever analogy for drawing in people who were not personally involved in Katrina themselves: our dreams of helping the survivors during the disaster carries on into today. The website provides more information and suggestions on what other can do to help after you finish the game. It takes about fifteen minutes to play through and will leave you knowing more about New Orleans and the aftermath of Katrina than before you started playing.