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.


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