PM Pick

Always Take the Weather With You

Colin Harvey

For those types of games that allude in same way to the real world, weather's configuration, representation, and possibly meaning, ought to be a major consideration.

For much of the world, weather is of ongoing concern to life and livelihood. If you live in Gujarat or Florida, for instance, you'll have had recent and brutal intimation of the power of extreme weather conditions. Generally speaking if you're British, like me, you'll have had recent experience of nothing more extreme than some mildly irritating torrential downpours and the dull greyness that replaces what other nations refer to as "the sky" for much of the United Kingdom's year. Being British, it is of course my solemn duty to discuss the weather in one of my Trivial Pursuit columns. Thanks to Rockstar's decision to include more tellingly realistic weather in their latest addition to the mighty Grand Theft Auto series, that time, I have to tell you, has finally arrived.

It's not that there isn't anything else to talk about in the Good ol' UK. We do, of course, have a rich and vibrant history, and many interesting though wildly inaccurate things to say about the state of the world. Our obsession with weather might appear surprising for a nation that has proven itself consistently and indeed recently to be of bellicose nature in our dealings with the rest of the world. You'd think we have other things to talk about. But despite our thirst for destabilizing the planet through atavistic wars, in our quotidian ramblings at least, the British prefer to avoid conflict.

The weather is an obvious and enduring method of avoiding talking about important things. The weather is a means by which the British can nod sagely at their countryperson's observations and express pointless but nonetheless empathetic understanding. Talking about the weather is our way of not talking about sex, love, death, hate, you name it. When God was handing out conversational gambits, for some reason the French got the ability to chat people up, and we got the vexed question of whether or not to wear galoshes.

The British video game magazine Edge, itself mercilessly parodied in a former incarnation of the GTA series, describes the world of the latest iteration, entitled San Andreas (due for imminent release) in unsurprisingly glowing terms. More interestingly, it also identifies the environment of San Andreas as "…a more convincing one than before." This is apparently down to the birds that flit around you and pedestrians that behave more like real pedestrians than ever before, as though they actually do have lives themselves. But it's also, according to Edge, attributable to the appearance, at points, of extreme weather conditions. So when a thunderstorm rolls into town it presumably has some of the impact of a real thunderstorm.

Not that the GTA games ever sought to replicate the real world. As a number of commentators have observed and as clever developers generally realize, recreating, say, the physics of the real world would make for frustration rather than engagement on the part of the player. Flight or train simulators might do that, but that's because there's something inherently exciting — or so I'm reliably informed by fans of these sub-genres — in the action of flying a plane or driving a train. For those of us who have the luxury of originating and playing video games, the "real world" just isn't so exciting that you'd want to replicate it in your games. My world is more 7/11 than 9/11. Thank God.

Atmosphere is ,of course, one reason for including more realistic weather patterns in those video games that somehow seek to reflect, if not replicate, the real world, and even fantastical versions of the real world of the kind on offer in sword and sorcery or science fiction epics. Indeed, it could be vital to generating a proper feeling of immersion in the virtual environment in question. Numerous games have utilized weather in the interests of atmosphere-setting, from the Siberian wastes at the beginning of Time Splitters 2 to the terrifying thunder claps in the remade Resident Evil. But there are other reasons for game developers to think about the weather.

For instance, the weather can be a fundamental aspect of what some would term "game mechanics" and others, who might see video games in terms of storytelling, would refer to as "plot". Way back in the history of the medium, there were car racing games which featured wet weather conditions, puddles that might force the unwary player into an unexpected skid. Hugely popular city simulations feature all sorts of extreme climate conditions designed to ruin your carefully constructed city. Such events might be randomized and so unpredictable like "real" weather conditions. And in terms of their impact, they might be as disastrous to the imaginary world in question as they are to the real world.

Except, of course, weather can be a good thing, too. The sun shines, the crops prosper, flowers bloom. There's a downpour and we get to drink, bathe, and act all wet and romantic. The aforementioned urban simulators have certainly employed the positive effects of weather — "There has been a bumper harvest, the community rejoices!" kind of thing — but on the whole weather, I would suggest, comes off badly, or at least unremarkably, in video games.

The use of the weather in fictional contexts does, of course, have precedents in the more mature storytelling pleasures of literature and drama. Once again, these pleasures might be bound up in atmosphere or plot, but they might also be connected to allegory, a largely untrammeled technique for games, a medium generally more interested in text than subtext. Think of the allegorical extremes of the various elemental forces on display in Wuthering Heights, the sheer presence of the environment in Moby Dick, or the eponymous awe of The Tempest (Shakespeare, like a true Brit, can barely stop discussing the weather, albeit in dramatic form). Film gives us the dark and stormy nights of The Haunting and a zillion other horror films, the glorious but terrifying desertscapes of Lawrence of Arabia and the rain-sodden climax of Four Weddings and A Funeral, in which Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell got to act all wet and romantic. Games could equally well aspire to such climactic tropes.

I'm clearly not suggesting that weather should be a major criterion for game designers, alongside story concept, target audience, play mechanics and all those other elements that going into the planning of games (although it might be). Game design, like other varieties of fiction generation, should be a more organic process than that, at least in the planning stages. EM Forster, in his Aspects of the Novel, a book through which it is otherwise possible to drive a particularly large coach and particularly obese set of horses, ridiculed fellow writer Clayton Hamilton for suggesting nine uses of weather in literature. Such proclamations are likely to be greeted with equal disdain if applied in the context of video games. But the weather is something none of us can escape; we can hide from it perhaps, but we can't really escape it. For those types of games that allude in same way to the real world, weather's configuration, representation, and possibly meaning, ought to be a major consideration.

Actually, it's just occurred to me that I'm not really talking about the weather at all. What I'm really talking about here are images systems, the recurring motifs through which sophisticated fictional forms tell stories within stories. Images, visual or audible, which convey more than simply plot information or characterization and which refer to the wider themes of the imaginary world playing before us. Think about it. Games where texture is about more than just texture mapping. But then such weighty things are too important to say aloud, at least for a Brit like me.

Still. Turned out nice, again.

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