Monday, February 21, 2011

If She Dies, You Die

My wife Summer is away for several weeks. She headed off to Florida with the baby for an extended family visit. Ain’t much sunshine in the UK to begin with, but to paraphrase singer Bill Withers, the pall certainly feels more pronounced when she’s away.

Good luck avoiding the reminders. On a stroll across town to the library, I might pass a shop selling a mustard-coloured couch she adores. Or a fudge place that sets her sweet tooth tingling. Silence offers its own reminder, that hollow space our conversation would occupy if we were walking together. When it’s time to crash at the end of the day, I instinctively apply the method I gleaned from an Amy Hempel short story: I sleep on Summer's side of the bed so the empty space I'm left facing is my own.

Sometimes during these longer separations, I’m stricken by the thought of what it would be like to outlive your spouse. The withering sorrow Johnny Cash felt after June’s passing, hastening his own death not long after. Though Summer and I haven’t been married nearly as long as those two, I can appreciate that sense of feeling utterly conjoined, like your partner is a siamese twin whose heart you share, and pumps the blood keeping you alive.

If she dies, you die.

Strangely enough, I’ve played two games recently that have used this very concept as a gameplay mechanic—Ico and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Gloom With A View

When Dead Space arrived, many game critics cleared their throats with dismissive nonchalance: not scary enough. Some blamed Jason Graves’ orchestral score, claiming its skittering violin bow scrapes, discordant note intervals and feverish crescendos telegraphed any trouble that happened to be lurking around the corner. Others rightly pointed to the law of diminishing returns. After all, you can only have a vomiting, spider-limbed alien burst out of an air duct and pin you to the floor so many times before the fright factor inevitably wears thin.

These sorts of comments struck me as a slant form of boasting, as if allowing oneself to be drawn into Dead Space’s fiction deeply enough to jump in a frightful moment indicated some sort of gullibility on the player’s part. Like music critics at a rock show refusing to throw their hands in the air—too cool, too official to care. Like killjoys who go to magic shows and spend the whole time hypothesizing about where the sleight of hand must have occurred.

I gobbled up every oozy, splurshing, bloody, claustrophobic second Dead Space had to offer.

I recently finished Dead Space 2 and loved it even more than its predecessor. There were plenty of frights. I’d flinch with my whole body, conscious of my heartbeat immediately afterward, as if it had somehow been shocked into arrhythmia. But it wasn’t the scariness, the tension of hideous aliens sprinting toward me with 100-yard-dash gusto or even the gore that stuck with me. To use a musical metaphor, it wasn’t the notes of fear and skillfully woven paranoia that ultimately captured my affection, but those unforgettable rests in between notes. Dead Space 2 is a game that understands the power of dynamic contrast.

The blockbuster FPS mega hits of the world bark in rambling, all-caps sentences where firefights are peppered like too-frequent commas and every thought seems to end with a mushroom-cloud exclamation mark. It’s the ultimate show of insecurity, as if pausing for breath would create a seam through which the player might escape its cornering presence. Dead Space 2 luxuriates in such fermatas, inviting players to linger in the palate-cleansing stillness.

The setting of Dead Space 2—an eerily depopulated space colony called The Sprawl, located on a Saturn moon—is admittedly less claustrophobic than the USG Ishimura where players spent the entirety of Dead Space. This is a place where, at least before the scourge, people once lived normal lives. If you have a view of Saturn looming just outside, that celestial hula-hoop hovering about its waist, heaven knows there better be windows through which citizens can take in the sights. The Sprawl has plenty of windows. Unfortunately you’re one of the only human beings left alive to savor the view they provide.

The view of space through these windows is an unabashedly romanticized one, the kind you dreamed about during grade-school lessons on outer space. Through The Sprawl’s windows loom faraway galaxies, fluffy as clouds. Deep-orange hues permeate the void like a cranked-volume sunset. Saturn slouches on its tilted axis. Allegedly, in space nobody could hear you sigh.

The chapter of Dead Space 2 that takes you through the space station’s elementary school reinforces this sense of childlike wonder through bulletin boards full of comments from the children extolling the joys of ‘zero-g basketball’ and other futuristic space pleasures that populated our imaginations when we were that age.

After the game shreds your nerves with a particularly harrowing combat sequence—those vicious bipedal screeching bird creatures, for instance—it offers a quiet corridor or lookout point in which you could collect yourself without threat of an ambush. I cherished these moments. You never felt the game prodding you relentlessly forward as if you were some kind of plough horse. No timer digging in its heel spurs to get you trotting along to your next objective. Sometimes I’d linger for several minutes just nudging the in-game camera this way and that, soaking it all in. Or I’d set down the controller and wander off to coax my wife into the room to share the experience. I hoped she’d appreciate the view. And she did.

But the gorgeous views of space provided by these window panels could be read in a far more sinister way. They’re a monumental tease, for one thing, providing glimpses of heaven from inside The Sprawl’s apocalyptic hell. Like golden sunlight filtering through a barred prison window, illuminating a world from which you are irreparably divorced. BioShock cultivated this longing in a similar fashion, inviting you to gaze through windows into the ocean calm. This exercise merely reminds players of their captivity within Rapture, unknown terrors crouching in wait in dripping, creaking corridors nearby.

The reality of the situation is that, outside the fantasy game world in which we immerse ourselves, the window scenario is reversed. Most of us exist in the calm and lulling predictability of the real world. We go to work, we come home, we eat, we sleep, and we go back to work. We live real life in the sleepy cosmos near Saturn’s rings. We tread water in the lazily shifting ocean currents that hug Rapture tightly on every side.

We’re drawn to our television screen—that window into harrowing experiences like Dead Space 2 that shock and disturb and promise a heightened pulse rate. The threat of virtual death makes us feel more alive. But then once I’m inside the white-knuckle fantasy, I stare wistfully through windows into the virtual stillness beyond. If games are merely escapist entertainment as some suggest, then as gamers we are forever waffling, unable to decide which reality is more attractive.

Outside the game we are moths, pressing toward the flickering flame of the cathode ray. Inside the game, inhabiting an avatar like Isaac Clarke, we are no longer shabby brown moths; we are the mythical phoenix herself, dying over and over again, tasting what it feels like to be so effortlessly reborn.