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Arts and Letters

Silent Hill And Orgrimmar


The Dream Architects: Adventures in the Video Game Industry

David Polfeldt

Grand Central, pp.297, $27

Virtual Cities: An Atlas and Exploration of Video Game Cities

Konstantinos Dimopoulos (illustrated by Maria Kallikaki)

Unbound, pp.244, $30

A History of Video Games: In 14 Consoles, 5 Computers, 2 Arcade Cabinets and an Ocarina of Time

Ian Simons and James Newman

Oxford University Press, pp.224, $29.95

When Lana Del Rey sings “playing video games” in her drowsy screen-siren contralto, she does so with romantic yearning in her voice. It wouldn’t go too far to call it saudade—a sort of mourning for something that may never even have existed. That captures something of the place of games in our accelerated culture. Like the vintage Hollywood movies that gave Del Rey her schtick, video games offer escapist glamour, the possibility of travel to places that exist only in the imagination; and their culture is at the same time deeply entangled— especially in the generation that grew up with them—with nostalgia. Forty-somethings respond to the blips and bloops and the blocky sprites of the eight-bit era with something like a rapture of remembrance.

They are also a serious industrial and economic concern. Hard facts, as set out in developer David Polfeldt’s memoir The Dream Architects: “By 1998, the global game industry had generated about 35 billion USD, a number that has grown every year for two decades in a row to reach its current status as the entertainment world’s new superstar, generating over 150 billion USD yearly. Still, depending on the speed of technological innovations like cloud gaming, analysts expect the industry to double that number yet again and reach 300 billion USD in 2025.”

One of the central questions in considering video games—because we aren’t as a rule very good at seeing a new artform as a thing in its own right—is what existing artform they most resemble. Those who are quickest to write them off as a waste of time, for instance, tend to make unfavorable comparisons to movies, which is what they most superficially resemble. After all, they happen on a screen, many if not most of them tell some sort of story, and many of them have dialogue and even actors. 

That comparison will tend to disadvantage the games: until relatively recently, processing limitations meant the visual quality of even the most sophisticated games couldn’t compete with film. Games couldn’t capture realistically the movement of fabric, the swell and ebb of water, the effect of a breeze on shoulder-length hair. Polygon-chucking graphics engines struggled to make human faces properly expressive, or to synch their movements to dialogue. Even the best voice acting tended to suck, and the dialogue wasn’t always of the best in the first place. Video game studios hired programmers rather than screenwriters. 

Narratologically, it was worse. You had clashing imperatives: giving players freedom of action is the essence of what it means to play a video game; while storytelling (except, perhaps, in the essentially novel-y genre of choose-your-own-adventure) is basically deterministic. It runs on rails. That presented storytelling games with a problem, mostly resolved only semi-satisfactorily. In early games, the frame story was fixed—plumber rescues uptown chick from ape—but gameplay was free. More ambitious and expansive games in later generations—Silent Hill, say—would give you a path through the story, and perhaps a handful of alternative endings depending on user choices, but even at best the player was choosing between a few variations on one story. 

And yet they do tell stories. They just don’t tell them like movies. It’s better, in fact, to think of games—as Polfeldt’s spot-on title has it—in terms of architecture. They are spaces for things to happen in: bounded spaces, spaces whose design determines the parameters of what’s possible for their users. And they are spaces, like certain buildings, that encourage repetitive or ritualistic actions—the sorts of actions that we take when we worship or when we work (I was once mocked by the writer Steven Poole for comparing World of Warcraft to a cathedral, but I stand by it)—and do so in the context of a mythos; by which I mean a narrative frame or a set of ideas that give those actions a meaning. 

Those spaces, then, are promising areas for study. Imagine, if you like, a psychogeography of imaginary places. Konstantinos Dimopoulos’s lavishly produced and illustrated Virtual Cities, therefore, seems a promising idea for a book: a gazetteer of forty-five video game cities from the wholly imaginary—Silent Hill and Orgrimmar—to the Victorian London of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate or the post-apocalyptic New Vegas of Fallout

I regret to say, though, that it feels like something of an opportunity missed. Arranged into three sections (“Fantasy Cities,” “Familiar Cities,” and “Future Cities”), each city gets a few large-format pages. These consist of a few of Maria Kallikaki’s amiable watercolour illustrations—where surely the odd screenshot might not have gone amiss—accompanied by a gushing description in an in-universe style. This too often reads like inlay copy more than it does like analysis; and those who don’t know the games concerned will be little the wiser for reading it. For instance:

Neketaka, the city of the twin peaks, has been constructed on the rocky slopes of two majestic mountains. Buildings and terraces hover on the edges of cliffs, and plazas and patches of green dot the landscape. The city is a majestic sight, offering spectacular views of the sea from every spot.

That’s at least two majestics too many, if you ask me. The best material, in fact, comes in the small “Design Insights” sidebars—where the author drops in a couple of hundred words, sometimes in consultation with the game’s creators, about how the city works in the game; how it was inspired, how it was designed, how it was programmed. These are, remember, not just pretty places to look at: they are spaces designed around game mechanics, spaces for things—specific things—to happen in. 

Those practicalities are where these cities become most interesting: how they are navigable, how they exploit or finesse the processing power available (Silent Hill’s use of fog is both atmospheric and practical), what they’re for. In World of Warcraft’s Orgrimmar, for instance, if you jump off the tower where a flight path lands you’ll tend to land on enough rooftops to prevent you suffering enough fall damage to kill you. The triangular route between postbox, bank, and auction house is the centre of the experience, and is designed that way. What this book cries out for—and lacks except in the most cursory form—is detailed maps.

I mention World of Warcraft. In terms of the repetitive or ritualistic actions I describe, it’s a good example. I write, for instance, as someone who’s currently grinding Argent Dawn rep in the Eastern Plaguelands for WoW Classic. That involves circling the Noxious Glade on my druid, killing monster after monster—Shadowmages, Abominations, Crypt Slayers, Death Singers, Dread Weavers, Scourge Champions, and Diseased Flayers if I must—for five points each towards a target of many thousands. There are reasons to do this—a shoulder enchant; attunement to the Naxxramas raid instance—but they need not much detain us here. (To WoW players, this paragraph will cause an eyeroll of recognition; to most people it will be gobbledigook.)

The point is that I’m not advancing a story: I’m doing something more like telling a rosary, or entering numbers on a spreadsheet, something soothing and repetitive and of a value that’s essentially interior to the system, the narrative mythos, in which I’m doing it. I’m doing something which will eventually allow me to do something else, which in turn will help me to do something else. At the end of it I’ll be shriven—of that year’s I.R.S. liability; of this week’s sins; or of the noisome condition of only being on “Friendly” status with the Argent Dawn. And that will allow me to forge on to the next thing.

Fun? Well, yes and no. As has been widely noted among people who follow this sort of thing, the distinction between work and play, in many games, has ceased to be all that clear. That’s embedded in the vocabulary: we talk of “grinding” and “farming.” There are real exchange rates between the in-game currencies of multiplayer games and real-world money. Why shouldn’t there be, if, as is sometimes said, money is “frozen time”? Players spend hundreds of hours accumulating virtual goodies; and for so-called “gold-farmers” in the Third World, who labor for these goodies and sell them to cash-rich, time-poor western players, playing video games really is a job. 

Making them is a job too, obviously, and a new one. The youngest profession, you could call it. In The Dream Architects, Polfeldt describes his career in a line of work that didn’t exist fifty years ago; indeed, it was one that came into existence in the course of the career he describes. Polfeldt, now managing director of the Swedish studio Massive Entertainment (which made AAA thumpers such as Far Cry 3, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, and Tom Clancy’s The Division) isn’t a coder by background—his first love was art. But his interest in art dovetailed with what was to become his career. Painting, he said, was “like shaping thin air into meaning.”

Creating a reality ex nihilo: that’s the stuff of video games. Growing up in drizzly Sweden, he says (encouraged by a brief interlude of his infanthood in California): 

I’ve never stopped knowing that the world is bigger and more exciting than what we see in front of us. I’ve always felt that dreams are not a product of the unreal, but more like suggestions of alterate realities that can become real if we want them to. In fact, I knew as I was growing up that the world really is out there, waiting for us to show up one day. Those faraway mythical lands exist.

It’s a winning detail of Polfeldt’s memoir that gaming overlays reality—and it’ll ring bells with any Tetris-head who has caught himself looking at an urban skyline and thinking how the buildings might tesselate or Call of Duty player mentally mapping out lines of sight and killzones while walking down an ordinary street. Looking down on Stockholm from a high office window, he says, the passing citizens looked “like small animated units in a real-time strategy game”; when he finds himself heading up Massive shortly after it has been acquired by the French giant Ubisoft, he notes: “In the classic hero’s journey, the young champion or fool always encounters a sage.”  

As his title suggests, though, games are both dreams and buildings: works of imagination and feats of practical engineering at the same time. When I visited the games studio Bungie ahead of the publication of Halo 3, I remember being struck by the in-house tension between the art designers—who wanted to create otherworldly spaces of beauty—and the games engineers, who always wanted to spoil their scenes by scattering them with crates for player characters to take cover behind during firefights: these spaces need to be useful as well as beautiful. 

As Polfeldt started working in the industry, he developed an interest in “the social dynamics involved in delivering big, complex projects”: a.k.a. management. So Polfeldt’s book, for all its shafts of poetry, is a prosy affair: a detailed inside look at one man’s progress through an emerging industry, with a good deal of attention to budgets, takeovers, office politics, and project management. If you want to know how the sausage is made—or get a social snapshot of the trajectory through which a scattered micro-economy of hobbyists and chancers turned into a multibillion dollar industry—it’s a valuable document.

And it also ponders, on and off, the bigger questions. One of them is prompted by a royal visit to the Massive Studios while the team is in the middle of making Far Cry 3. King Carl Gustaf timidly raises his hand. “Your Majesty,” says Polfeldt. There seems to be a question?”

  “I might be stupid,” says the monarch (“You gotta be humble in Sweden!” Polfeldt explains), “but I wonder something. I don’t really understand why games work so well? As a medium. I don’t understand why it is more fun than T.V. or movies.” Good question, thinks Polfeldt. And it is. His own answer is twofold: it’s to do with the way the game engages the audience’s senses; and it’s to do with the role of the hero. 

Games engage about sixty percent of their user’s senses; other media something in the range of twenty to forty percent. And as for the role of the hero, here’s where it gets interesting. For though they are notoriously bad at engaging the emotions in the same ways that novels or films or music can, they do engage the player’s identification in other ways. You have agency in a game. As Polfeldt puts it, “The entire game will revolve around that individual’s personal choices, pace and direction.” First-person, third-person, role-playing game, god-game: the relation of the player to the game is encoded in the names of genres. And it seems to me it bears more theoretical investigation. The way in which you identify with a character in a game is comparably intense, but very different, to the way you identify with a character in a book or in a movie.

That has psychological implications and, perhaps, moral ones. A movie that contained as much killing and as little ostensible plot as Fortnite or Quake would be the hardest of hard-Rs; yet pre-teens play both games without any sign of sadism or depravity. Most non-hysterical observers would recognise that first-person shooters are experienced more like a sport than like a bloody spree. Something else is going on—a different relationship between form and content.

Anyway, they haven’t yet made David Polfeldt, at least as far as I know, into a collectible doll. But the business of making games is one that still has glamour attached to it. In 2016 Mattel produced a Games Developer Barbie. She’s quite the thing—she has bright red hair, statement specs (she’s a nerd, right?) and wears jeans, an unbuttoned khaki shirt rolled to the elbows, and a Bluetooth headset. Accessories: a laptop showing what its promotional bumf called “real game code graphics” and a tablet showing the game she’s working on. Iain Simons and James Newman’s entry for the toy in their absorbing History of Video games notes:

The interface appears to be Alice, and educational programming environment, and the code it’s outputting is ActionScript (or maybe Haxe). Basically, she seems to be making a Bejeweled clone in Flash.

Can you hear the tinkling sound of shattered dreams? Even in the fantasy world of Barbie, devs may dream of making the next Myst or Portal—but most of them end up knocking off generic match-three-gem games because, well, that’s where the advertising bucks on Facebook are. And the toy also touches inadvertently on another of the less than gorgeous truths about the industry. It was actually Barbie’s second, apologetic, foray into the world of gaming after Computer Engineer Barbie in 2014 had to be withdrawn on grounds of sexism. The accompanying booklet showed our budding coder accidentally giving her laptop a virus by using her pink heart-shaped USB against the advice of her teacher, and having to ask two male colleagues to recover her data for her. It wasn’t just GamerGate—the misogynistic campaign for “ethics in video game journalism” that, weirdly, formed part of the genealogy of the very online “alt-right”—that had it in for female programmers.

GamesDev Barbie is one highlight of a book which embodies one of the many strange paradoxes of a world built on virtuality, by its attention to the material oddities of the industry’s history. For as much as gamers lose themselves in digital dreamworlds, they reach those dreamworlds through physical objects. The history of video games is littered with dead hardware, eccentric peripherals and redundant storage devices—each of them a madeleine in lime tea for a generation.

Grey, black, multicoloured; futuristic or reassuringly familiar, each makes its own statement. And each system has an interface with its own distinctive qualities. Each keyboard feels different, each mouse button makes a different clicking sound, each joystick fire button has a shape that makes it sit in a particular way under your thumb.

The U.K.’s National Video game Arcade (or National Video game Museum, as it was renamed when it moved to Sheffield in 2016), for which this book is a showcase, has collected these oddities—and rather than restore them to box-fresh condition, chooses instead to emphasise their real-world quiddity by preserving the thumb-smudges on their displays, the chip-crumbs in the seams of their casings, the faded and curling Sonic the Hedgehog stickers attached to them.

Coffee-table in format, it accompanies its photographs with witty little essays from the authors (curators of the arcade, as was). Here you can re-acquaint yourself with everything from Speak & Spell (fondly remembered from ET: The Extra-Terrestrial) or the moustachioed orange Little Professor (1976, and a fixture of my own childhood) to the famous ZX Spectrum, BBC B and Commodore 64, and the never-heard-of Apple Bandai Pippin. Here’s a how-to-win-at-Pac-Man book; there’s a bit of Hama Bead fan-art for a “Glitch Pokémon” that never even existed. Here’s the crumpled paper map of Grand Theft Auto’s Vice City; there’s the chipset for a Mortal Kombat arcade cabinet. And—gosh!—here’s a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book set in the Lemmings universe.

Simons and Newman take you up information superhighways (remember those) as well as down information less-than-super byways—reminding you along the way that the evolution of video game technology, like the evolution of everything else, throws up enormous numbers of curiosities, freaks, and dead-ends. But, ah, what dead ends. Just look, there on the page, at the Wii-mote or the PlayStation 4; or at the blank and haunted Space Invaders cabinet against its background of white.

Somewhere, in your head, you hear Lana Del Rey. Playing video games. . .

Sam Leith is literary editor of the Spectator.