Videogames: is reality right?

Ahead of the release of Dishonored, Ryan ponders why games are more resonant when they bring us closer to reality…

To the casual eye, it may seem as though videogames exist in a vacuum, and their detractors in mainstream media are often content to dismiss them as little more than mindless escapism.

Actually, realism’s been a part of the videogame medium from the very beginning. Whether they’ve attempted to simulate the experience of something far out of the reach of an ordinary member of the public – sitting at the helm of a fighter jet or a racing car, for example – games have always been at least partly tethered to the real world, even if their ability to accurately portray its nuances have been limited by technology.

In fact, even games in the prehistoric days of the 1980s reflected reality in surprising ways. Simplistic though it was, Durrell Software’s 1986 game Turbo Esprit was set in a quartet of London districts that, at the time, felt convincingly alive. Players could drive around the streets, either stopping at traffic lights or ignoring them as they saw fit, avoiding pedestrians or running them over, all the time avoiding head-on collisions with on-coming traffic.

Turbo Esprit is one of the earliest examples of a game attempting to replicate the sprawl of a modern city, with all its traffic and thrumming infrastructure, and is often said to be a key influence on the later, better known Grand Theft Auto series. Turbo Esprit pointed towards a future of not only what we now sometimes refer to as sandbox or emergent gameplay, but also a future breed of videogame that is, in its own way, convincingly real.

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As technology evolved through the 80s and 90s, other games emerged with themes and premises torn from the day’s headlines. The looming prospect of nuclear Armageddon was first explored (albeit in rudimentary form) in the classic arcade game Missile Command. 

The 8-bit 1985 title Raid Over Moscow quickly became infamous for its depiction of a Soviet missile attack on America and a bombing of the Kremlin. The game was a bestseller, and made newspaper headlines when members of the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) began picketing its publisher’s offices. Eventually, the game was relaunched with the title Raid!!! in order to better disguise its Cold War themes.

Videogames based on real-world events have continued to be both popular and occasionally controversial ever since. The success of the movie Saving Private Ryan sparked a wave of World War II-themed videogames in the late 90s and beyond, each committed to simulating both the events and atmosphere of a real conflict.

As WWII-themed games have gradually given way to those set in contemporary theatres of war (Call Of Duty: Black Ops, and Battlefield 3 to name but two), so the narrative complexity has evolved. The games mentioned so far have often placed their action against a real-world backdrop – whether it’s the beaches of Normandy or the battlefields of the Middle East – but increasingly, we’re beginning to see videogames begin to tackle other sorts of realism, too.

Games such as Spec Ops: The Line depict not just the patina of war in the desert – dust storms, wrecked buildings and the like – but also the bruising effect of an essentially meaningless conflict. Although its scenario is farfetched, with the city of Dubai falling under the control of a rogue US battalion following a disastrous sandstorm, its portrayal of a soldier’s gradual mental and physical deterioration is extremely compelling. Based on both Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart Of Darkness, and the film it inspired, Apocalypse Now, Spec Ops: The Line is a hallucinatory, sometimes disturbing game that attempts to get across a different sense of reality in a videogame: the moral and psychological consequences of war, as well as the exhilaration.

Other games have begun to work similar complex themes into their narratives, too. 2007’s BioShock uses its fantastical undersea backdrop as a springboard to explore philosophical and political themes. The city of Rapture is not only a battleground for a disturbing and thrilling first-person shooter, but also a demonstration of what an Objectivist dystopia might look like – a place where the pursuit of self-interest has resulted in civil war and scientific experiments gone horribly awry.

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Although vastly different in setting, Grand Theft Auto IV offers a similar kind of stinging satire to BioShock. It is, of course, a videogame retelling of Brian De Palma’s gangster movie Scarface, with a migrant anti-hero (in this instance, Eastern European war veteran Niko Bellic) attempting to forge a path through America’s criminal underworld. 

This time, the pursuit of the American dream is thoroughly grounded in a fictionalised version of post-9/11 New York. As the player journeys through the game, they’ll encounter numerous moments of political and contemporary satire, from patriotic right-wing pundits on the television (“Arbitrary violence must be met with arbitrary violence!”) to adverts on the radio (“Because democracy is worth suppressing votes for”). Although the game’s action and violence is straight out of a movie, its themes are firmly rooted in contemporary reality. 

All of this leads us to Arkane Studios’ Dishonored, due out next month. At first glance, a game with a steampunk setting and a supernatural assassin sounds about as far from everyday reality as it’s possible to get. But peel back the layers of Dishonored – the paranormal powers, the outlandish mechanical designs, and the perma-gloom of its fictional city, Dunwall – and you’ll find a world not dissimilar to our own.

Its economy is dependent on a finite energy source (in Dunwall’s case, whale oil, which powers the city’s technology), and just as we’re feeling the effects of a financial crisis in the present, so the world in Dishonored is still reeling from the effects of a plague. This plague has created an even greater divide with the rich and poor, with the aristocracy holed up in their towers, and the less fortunate left at the mercy of unscrupulous lawyers who takes advantage of the crisis to line their own pockets. Dunwall’s streets are patrolled by Tallboys – a detachment of elite officers who maintain order with their heavy weaponry. 

Although less overtly political than Bioshock or GTA IV, Dishonored nevertheless contains plenty of themes that are commonly discussed in the media – the rich versus the poor, corruption, oppression, and state control. 

Aside from being a potentially great sandbox game, with the kind of player choice you’d expect from a creative team who once developed the classic Deus Ex, Dishonored is a natural progression from the other games already mentioned. It immerses players in a city that is at once strange and unfamiliar, but also believably chaotic and real. It offers up a fictional society that is nevertheless thought through, with corruption and double-dealing lurking in the corridors of power, even as a plague ravages the streets.

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Finally, it introduces a protagonist – a disgraced ex-royal bodyguard named Corvo – whose powers present the player with all kinds of moral and tactical choices; sure, it’s possible to run riot through the streets, killing anyone in your path, but what are the greater consequences?

Games always resonate more strongly when they’re tied in some way to reality. And as we’ve already seen, reality can take on different forms; advancing technology has enabled developers to create worlds with every greater visual realism, so a city in a 2012 game will naturally look and feel more tangibly alive than one made in 1986.

But games have evolved and matured in other directions, too; with truly great writers and designers behind them, modern videogames can now be politically, morally, socially and emotionally realistic in ways that would have been inconceivable two or three decades ago. Like a great novel or movie, videogames can now challenge and provoke us, as well as provide a workout for our reflexes.

Dishonored may just be the next game to offer such complexity.

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