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.

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