Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Free Ride (Part II)

In Part I, researcher Ben Abraham discusses the importance of the land to Australia's cultural identity and wonders why there aren't more video games featuring Australia's unique environment. In Part II, he elaborates on how the game, Fuel, manages to captures this awesomeness.

That distinctiveness in Fuel begins with the color palette. Fuel is itself an oddly colorful game, given its post-apocalyptic setting. Drive through a densely wooded forest of almost-eucalypts and the sunlight turns the same yellow-white color that often shows up in anything filmed in Australia. Travel junkies will tell you that the sunlight is not the same around the world, and the Australian light has a distinctive piercing characteristic, reproduced in Fuel. Similarly, purple night skies stretch out over the land like a blanket as night descends and the grey tarmac is illuminated by the glow thrown out by yellow headlights. The largely deserted roads are not unlike the rural back ways that we travelled to get to my grandmother’s farm when I was younger, the only other travellers on both being the trucks rumbling through on the midnight express. Yellow-on-black warning signs and dun-colored railings at the side of the road flash past, making me forget I’m playing a game and not driving down the Great Western Highway. Signs warning that I’m entering a “restricted area” are reminiscent of some of the great tracts of outback that have been used as army test ranges—like a section of the Woomera Prohibited Area, itself roughly the size of England, that was used for nuclear testing by the British.

That hill where I stopped is covered with textures resembling the golden grasses in Arthur Streeton’s Golden Summer, Eaglemont — colors that may appear washed-out in comparison to verdant European landscapes. The visual arts in Australia followed a trajectory that appears to be playing out once again in games; the first colonial artists were faced with trees growing in strange new shapes and had to adopt a color palette that Robert Hughes says took decades to get right. But once representing the Australian landscape ceased being an issue of ability and instead one of taste, it still took years for Australian artists to acclimatize to representing the bush as-is, and for the public to acquire an appreciation for its distinctiveness. Clara Southern’s An Old Bee Farm may seem queerly infused with the bluish tinge of a decade-old VHS tape losing its magnetism, but it is not at all inaccurate; and vast tracts of the land in Fuel are similarly tinged with this distinctively Australian smoky-blue haze.

Tsunami Reef in the northwestern corner of the map resembles so much the outback areas of Western Australia and the top end of the continent, where the deserts meet the ocean. In the same area, dilapidated outback homesteads squat with low corrugated roofs and the occasional rusty windmill out back. My imagination works to fill in some of the blanks — a large freestanding propane cylinder becomes a fat corrugated-iron rainwater tank instead. Sunsets turn the sky a deep, abiding orange and bring out the red color of the sand—the same color exuded by the iron-rich soils of central Australia regardless of the time of day. Tumble-down farmyard buildings resemble long-abandoned remnants of early attempts at habitation. Elsewhere, large areas of smoldering bush imitate the aftermath of notoriously ferocious Australian bushfires, like the February 2009 fires that tragically claimed 200 lives.

Furthermore, with Fuel’s majestically sprawling map of 14,400 km², there is simply so much of the land — and so much that presents a monotony on such an unprecedented scale, (save perhaps for the legendary Desert Bus — that it adds to the sense of an Australian landscape aesthetic. (For an Australian corollary, there is a stretch of highway that crosses the Nullarbor desert and does not deviate from a straight line for 144 km.) It is also a great irony that, in the game’s flawless execution of such magnanimous scope, its very monotony and overweening size became one of its greatest criticisms. Matthew Burns wrote that, while fascinated with the size of the game’s map, his fascination gave way to horror at the realisation that it was “vast on a soul-deadening, terrible scale.”

Yet Immanuel Kant found beauty in that terrifying, overwhelmed-ness he called the sublime. Exposure to the sublime has clearly had an effect on the Australian psyche, or at least my own. I would be disingenuous if I didn’t confess to taking some pleasure in Fuel’s relative inaccessibility to others, like Burns. Taking pride in hardship and difficulty, while not a uniquely Australian trait, is perhaps a central one; and it feels connected to the unique affects of Australian bush aesthetics and the historic struggle to overcome such inhospitable terrain.

I consulted an article on GameFAQs about speeding up the tedious process of unlocking new zones, as the racing itself does not warrant more than a cursory engagement. I found a kindred spirit in the author, known only as ‘Xeigrich’, whose preface elegantly and comprehensively sums up the game’s unique attraction:
Fuel has one thing that other open-world games with vehicles don't have, and that's the peace of mind that you don't have anything to worry about while you're not racing. No health bar, no continues, no annoying NPC friends calling you to go bowling (Niko, cousin!!), and hardly even any AI traffic to get in your way! You can just sit back and drive, and drive, and drive. And I think that's awesome.
I think so too.

[This article originally appeared on Kill Screen, Issue 2.] 

Ben Abraham is a PhD researcher from Sydney Australia, studying the rise of online communities of videogame critics. He writes about games and technology at http://iam.benabraham.net/ and collects examples of excellent games criticism weekly at Critical Distance.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Free Ride (Part I)

In this article, researcher Ben Abraham discusses the importance of the land to Australia's cultural identity and wonders why there aren't more video games featuring Australia's unique environment.

There was a particular hill that I came across in Fuel, in an area that was covered with a tall field of crackling brown and straw-colored grasses. The battered remnants of a series of wind turbines crowned the rise. I stopped my quadbike and gazed around at the horizon, stretching away as far as 40 km. Trees bunched together in small ragged clumps that followed the contours of the mottled grey-green and brown landscape. The hill reminded me of hot summer holidays spent at my grandmother’s farm in rural New South Wales, of riding around on bikes and quads in grass that came up to the knee, grasshoppers spastically jumping into chests, hands, faces. The vista brought up memories of the property near the town of Wyangla (famous only for its dam, with a capacity three times that of Sydney harbour, which has been drought-stricken to a pathetic 3-percent capacity for the past five years).

The Australian environment is unique among the world. An island fortress in evolutionary terms, the entirety of the landscape—the dirt, grasses, rocks, trees, and shrubs—all bear the distinctive stamp of antipodean separateness. While the Australian bush has often been captured in film and moving image, painted, drawn, and even sculpted, until Fuel there was nothing close to a digital version in a videogame.

With the attention of the Australian development community locked firmly overseas for funding, investment, and (dare I say) inspiration—and only a handful of studios big enough to handle the sprawling nature of “AAA”-style productions—the result is a resource on the Aussie doorstep that remains entirely untapped. While tourism is a cornerstone of the Australian economy, people do not visit our shores to see Movie World. Instead, they spend thousands of dollars to see the remarkable beauty of the wild and untamed Australian bush. Yet aside from Fuel, no one has had the enterprising thought to make it virtual—and not even Fuel, an open-world racing game released in 2009, did it intentionally.

Somehow, through a magical osmosis of influences—from the movie Mad Max to fears about severe global warming—the French developer, Asobo Studio, ended up creating a topography that in places mimics the features and aesthetics of the Australian bush. That it’s taken a French studio to make an Australian landscape may seem an odd enough observation, but it speaks volumes.

The importance of this dearth of a virtual Australia must be understood in the context of the Australian identity. Australians have always possessed a close relationship with the bush, going all the way back to its first inhabitants. Before the continent even saw its first pair of English boots, indigenous Australians had inhabited it for a good 30,000 years and developed their own deep appreciation of the land—a land whose scrubby brushlands and forests without cultivation were the entire means of their subsistence. The centrality of the bush in Australian aboriginal culture is reflected in its art, spirituality, and regional languages, of which there were between some 350 and 700, developed as a result of long-established tribal territories, of which the inhabitants considered themselves merely custodians. The sense of a bond between people and land was passed down through the stories from “the Dreaming”—orally transmitted, colorful creation myths.

For the first British arrivals, it was a lonely, hostile, and often terrifying place. In his exceptional history of the formative years of Australia, The Fatal Shore, the historian Robert Hughes (whose own relationship with Australia is a story in itself) wrote that “until about 1830 the transportation ballads and broadsides present the bush as sterile and hostile, its fauna (except for the kangaroo, which no one could dislike) as eerie when not disgusting.”

That view would change dramatically as the colony grew and encroached on the formerly impenetrable bush. The interior would eventually take on the role of a place to flee from the tyranny of convictry, aided by the figure of the bushranger and the absconder who, as Hughes notes, “by making the bush his new home, renamed it with the sign of freedom. On its blankness, he could inscribe what could not be read in spaces already colonised and subject to the laws and penal imagery of England.” In fact, Hughes goes on to note that, with respect to the bushranger, “popular sentiment would praise him for this transvaluation of the landscape (though at a safe distance, of course) for another hundred and fifty years.”

In Australian literature and print in the 1930s and ’40s, a resurgent interest in nationalism in connection with the land arose as a result of the efforts of writers and journalists as well as public intellectuals, and established a link between the nature of the Australian identity and the Australian landscape. In a three-part essay from 1935 on “The Foundations of Culture in Australia,” P.R. Stevenson, considering the case for an Australian identity (as separate from that of a British subject), advocates one informed by the environment itself. He suggests that “as the culture of every nation is an intellectual and emotional expression of the genius loci, our Australian culture will diverge from the purely local color of the British Islands to the precise extent that our environment differs from that of Britain. A hemisphere separates us from ‘home’—we are Antipodeans; a gumtree is not a branch of an oak; our Australian culture will evolve distinctively.”

[This article originally appeared on Kill Screen, Issue 2.]
Ben Abraham is a PhD researcher from Sydney Australia, studying the rise of online communities of videogame critics. He writes about games and technology at http://iam.benabraham.net/ and collects examples of excellent games criticism weekly at Critical Distance.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

June 2011: The International Scene

Game Design Aspect of the Month is seeking blog entries about games and game culture around the world.  If you have a game or scene to spotlight, please see the Submission Guidelines.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

June 2011 Poll

Oops! Forgot to put up the poll.

Please vote for the June 2011 topic! As always, feel free to suggest more topics! Look at the submission guidelines for Topics and Blog Entries.

You'll see the poll to the right. The choices are:

* The American Scene (Spotlight on Games Dev in American Cities)
* The International Scene (Games and Game Culture Not in U.S.)
* Indie Design Revelations

Indie Design Revelations
What takeaways are there from the current crop of indie games?