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The Journey: desertification of experience

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The Journey teaches us that game environments don’t have to be intimidating, dystopic, and combative.

There is a certain amount of patience in exploring the desert landscape, but this only forces greater recognition and reflection of the environment you find yourself in.

As we surf around the sinuous, sandy landscape, the underlying decay of desert palaces remind us of the failure of civilisation, drawn only to the distant mountain that provides an ever present compass.

Gusts of wind prevail, preventing exit from the game boundaries rather than walls of static, meaningless objects we so often see in game landscapes. This guides in a way that makes the game feel less linear, although the minimalistic landscape makes way-finding quite intuitive.

As your journey continues the landscape becomes a conduit to delivering the powerful societal narrative. Squandered power of a once mighty empire. An extinct race and stories in the stars. Unique and mysterious. Bold, majestic and brave.

There is also merit in scaling the heights of the desert environment. It prompts moments for reflection, and contemplation of big issues like enslavement, climate change, deforestation – also prompted by cut scenes comprising only of hieroglyphics.

A broader question of the Journey as an experience is, do you have to be lost in a game to make it truly captivating?

A game is a bit like an unfamiliar city, a maze where you must make the connections by familiarising yourself with the environment. That doesn’t make a city you reside in become less compelling, but less challenging, less like a game.

The digital lens which we look at cities could make them more compelling not only for visitors, but long term residents. Maybe we need the sensation of being lost so we can learn the value of discovery again. It once again demonstrates that games can render place, but places of imagination, of role play and interpretation.

Technology has burned discovery in some ways. The narrative of our cities lost in a visual garb of commercial splurge, delivered via our various electronic devices whilst telling us where to go. If the city is no longer the retail consumer hub it was why do we still treat it like it is? Experience becomes the product, the brand.

A lot of people won’t like this game. They will ask what the point of all of it was. It is not until you reach the pinnacle of the game and the plight of your cloth shroud avatar becomes apparent that the underlying message of the game becomes clear. Other avatars you met during the game weren’t just bits of programming but other players playing simultaneously… companions met on the way. The value of the shared experience.

Retro blamer

I can’t help but feel our thinking around play is hopelessly old fashioned. Slides, swings, monkey bars. It’s so retro. In the area of gaming a game system is considered retro if it is over 15 years old. How do we consider play equipment as having evolved so much? When does play equipment become retro? How has it evolved with the modern expectations of play?

This week I ran an interactive workshop for a class of Grade 3 children regarding play. Firstly I showed a series of 16 images depicting various forms of play, predominantly outdoors and including nature play, conventional play equipment, wheel sports (bmx, skate boarding etc) and a few other play typologies. Each image also contained people participating in that type of play. I asked the children to select the three images they thought ‘looked the most fun’.

play typologies

There were two definite favourites. The first was an image of the Playford Alive Town Park playground right outside the Stretton Centre where we were located, a technology hub funded by Federal Government in the Playford Alive development. I understood that this might be fresh in the pupil’s minds and anticipated some interest.

The other image deemed to look most fun, which was a surprise, was an image of a playground constructed in Minecraft. The image also contained the Minecraft interface with recognisable components. To see that this artificial environment was deemed more fun than the other images of play opportunities says something profound about modern expectations of play amongst children. It wasn’t established if Minecraft was on the school curriculum.

The third most fun was an image of parkour. There is no parkour in the City of Playford. What was it about the image that was captivating the 7-8 year olds? It dawned on me that the parkour image depicted a series of multi levelled concrete cubes, which bore a great resemblance to the cubic constructions seen in Minecraft.

There was an all-round lack of interest in the images depicting nature play, despite strong backing within the industry to develop more nature play opportunities in recent years. It was hoped that by association of experience, the pupils would have an awareness of what nature play looked like. It may hint at a lack of nature play opportunities and experiences, amongst this particular group of pupils at least.

I feel the game industry is currently missing the opportunity to develop play outdoors. Are huge sales of throwaway game experiences in a global market the only thing in demand? What about games with local context developed specifically with locals in mind? This could be planned, funded and developed as a local attraction. Technology making experience of the outdoors (including nature play experiences) more accessible and appealing to an increasingly domesticated audience. This shouldn’t be confined to children either, far from it. The average gamer age is 33. A generation who grew up with Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario Brothers, as oppose to Angry Birds and Minecraft.

Snapshot: The Last of Us Remastered

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There is something quite compelling about the natural qualities of this fictitious dystopia. Without the zombified aspect of the game this could be existing urban degradation near you. I have seen Fresno.

We don’t need some apocalyptic event to make this urban decay real, it is an aesthetic as likely to have occurred through some flawed planning and governmental mismanagement. Or maybe even climate change. This bares resemblance to the description of the unpopulated urban environment depicted in Alan Weisman’s ‘A World Without Us’.

The attention to detail is high. I look down and i don’t see one generic surface. There is paving laid in multiple patterns and textures, a soldier course of retaining pavers and even some degraded by war or weathering. I look at block of seating and planting in front of me, made of a different stone with coping, populated with light posts and overgrown shrubs.

The foliage is unconvincing however and it sways inorganically like a seesaw, rather than the disorder of multiple limbs with variations in weight and wind resistance impacting their movement. It also lacks diversity and is sometimes too obvious as the sole barrier to movement when that is all required of it.

There is tweeting but no birds to be seen from the occasional tree that has outgrown its planter box. Its roots spill over the edge with evidence of infrastructure decay from the inevitable overpowering roots. There is litter strewn around and moss everywhere.

The water isn’t particularly convincing. The reflective qualities are there but the consistency of the water when engaged sometimes looks like jelly, although it didn’t bother me like the foliage.

We are reminded of believability vs necessity debate with environmental assets in games. The interpretation of a post-apocalyptic environment where nature has begun the re-establish itself is what sets it apart from the pack and it plays a major role in the tone of the game.

Miyamoto’s Landscape Philosophy

Instead of designing game levels that fit on a single screen, they (Nintendo) created enormous 3D landscapes complete with trees, castles and dinosaurs. Adapting to this new challenge, Miyamoto created a new philosophy. While game designers were coming up with features, then building their games around them, Miyamoto worked on creating expressive landscapes, then created ways to use them – The Ultimate history of Videogames

Redefining the Spectrum of Place

When discussing an anticipated period of absence from anywhere, I often find myself telling people the same thing. “This place is not going anywhere, it’ll be here when I return”, as if to safeguard my future experience of that place, but really I am only kidding myself.

What is place? It is a bit of a cliché, but people are place. Place is what we make of it, how we interpret it, experience it, communicate it with others, and without memory we would not be able to reflect on it, to comprehend the idea of place. Whether this is a positive experience is one of the key questions a landscape architect will repeatedly ask themselves.

The cultural migration into urban environments has abstracted the notion of place. Everything in the urban environment is manmade to some degree. When we return to truly natural environments we are compelled by the landscape because it is not human, it is alien to us. We did not create it, it was not preconceived. It just happened.

In this natural environment we are reminded of our core human requirements – water, food, shelter and warmth. Secondary human requirements then become apparent as desirability emerges. Mass consumption. Indulgent lifestyles. Entertainment. Also refer to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html Domestically the typical gamer is already in an environment that provides the basic human needs and entertainment becomes the focus of their attention. A fun care-free escape, a further medium to that of reading or watching television.

Within the artificial environment of the videogame there is a degree of mental stimulation that is clearly desirable, but how is this gauged in terms of human requirements and how does this equate to a sense of place? Could we embrace technology if it can be harnessed to make the experience of place more inclusive? As technology has been integrated into society, each generation has become more accustomed to it and even adapted to the generations that did not grow up with it. For example the mental activeness in the elderly has been encouraged using simulated natural environments. Videogames have also prompt physical activity using natural outdoor environments.

As our experience of the digital environments competes with our experience of natural environments it provides a compelling nexus for broader discussions of human need, including the role of place.