Mount Lu in misty rain; the River Che at high tide.
When I had not been there, no rest from the pain of longing!
I went there and returned… It was nothing special:
Mount Lu in misty rain; the River Che at high tide.
Traditional Chinese poem
These words capture a certain sadness inherent in human endeavour. We all burn with the desire to explore our world, to reach outside of ourselves for some sense of meaning or external beauty that will make us feel complete. We look to the stars hanging in the night sky and we think: I want to get there; I want to know.
And yet nowhere in this search do we find contentment; nowhere do we find an end of desire. Every region we explore is much like the one we just left, and we ourselves are the same people experiencing it. Do we really believe upon reaching the stars we would find them to be any more interesting than our own sun? Can the search for extra terrestrial life ever uncover a creature as bizarre as a giraffe, or a jelly fish — or a human being, for that matter?
We are all aware of wanting something, yet we haven’t a clue what it is. This peculiar predicament is given voice through our pursuit of science, religion and the arts. In my mind it is confusion to think of these activities as tools for “taking us somewhere”, as if there were a goal at the end of them to be reached. Rather, I prefer to see them as expressions of our nature — profound in their pointlessness, beautiful yet without meaning. To analyse science or religion or art, therefore, is to analyse people; to be interested in them is to be interested in us.
So it is that I find computer games fascinating. Looking at them can tell us much about ourselves.
Games are, perhaps more directly than literature or cinema, an exploratory medium. They give vision and substance to our dreams; they show us Mount Lu, in 1080p resolution, then let us run all over it and climb to the top and leap off, probably shotgunning a few robot zombies on the way. Computer games, essentially, feed our desire to discover.
Yet, as the Chinese poem shows us, the moment of discovery is often a let down. Getting what we want is not always good for us, and some things are best left unsaid.
To tease, then, with the possibility of discovery without quite giving in, is the real art. I found myself contemplating this recently while watching the Final Cut of Blade Runner. Ridley Scott is often hailed, quite rightly, as one of the great visual directors of our time. But what struck me while watching what is arguably his most visionary work, is how what is just as important to the film as what we see is what we do not. Like a Zen painter evoking a whole landscape with the minimum of brush strokes, Scott creates his world not only through the lavish shots of the city, but also with the spaces he chooses to leave empty.
The tears in the rain speech is exemplary of this. All we actually see is a close up of the replicant Roy Batty’s face, as he tells us of the wonders he has witnessed in his brief lifetime. We realise he has seen things we wouldn’t believe, that these moments will be lost with his passing. We simply have no way of watching attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, and the image is poetic for this very reason.
This technique can be seen at work throughout. From the blimp advertising the off-world colonies we are never shown to the hazy back story of the replicants and Deckard himself, the film is bursting with references to characters and events larger than the main thrust of the plot. This gives the illusion of a persistent universe, existing outside the confines of the frames of film. It produces mystery, and mystery makes us believe.
This is where the magic lies, and woe betide any storyteller who forgets it. Compare Scott’s previous film, Alien, with the flaccid final installment (hopefully) in the series, Alien: Resurrection. In Alien, Scott keeps the eponymous creature largely out of sight, utilising shadow and cut aways to never allow us to see what we are up against, thus preventing us from confronting our fears. Resurrection, in contrast, throws bucket loads of gore and virtual horrors at us with zero restraint, and ends up looking tired and lifeless, like an old stripper baring all with an expression of bored resignation on her face.
Likewise, the thrill of the original Star Wars (by which I mean Episode IV, try to keep up) has much to do with the elements of George Lucas’ myth he leaves shrouded in mystery. The Clone Wars, the fall of the Old Republic and the tragedy of the Jedi Knights are all hinted at but never explained in that first installment, spoken about by characters who take them for granted despite the audience having no idea what they are. Thus we are forced to fill in the gaps with our imaginations, which prove more than up to the task. So come the prequels it was disappointing — heartbreaking, even — to find the Clone Wars as imagined by my eight year old self were infinitely more magical than the vapid battles between CGI troopers and Playmobil robots as detailed in Episodes II and III.
Mystery tantalises us, it makes us feel there is more out there in the cosmos than we can ever know. And perhaps this is the only “goal” of art — to evoke a true sensation of our place in the world. For when we look up at the night sky are not beauty and sadness entwined together? Is the beauty itself not a sadness, and the sadness a beauty, because this world is ephemeral and ungraspable, because what we love we cannot keep?
At this point we can turn back to the subject of computer games. My favourite games cross boundaries of genre, setting and tone, yet all posses a quality that could be termed “exploration”. I love RPGs, but for the towns and characters awaiting discovery rather than the clunky moralising or stat porn. I love Half Life and Goldeneye and Ico because I believe their levels really exist. I love scrambling across cliffs in Uncharted, or cruising the city in GTA, feeling that I belong.
Yet these games, rather than satiating my desire for discovery, only serve to inflame it. When playing I am always aware of the mountain ranges I can never cross, the door textures I cannot open, the sky boxes I’m not allowed to fly through. And even the areas I can reach are filled with chairs I can’t sit on, cups that can’t be picked up, and books that can’t be read. For every moment of freedom games give me there is an associated pain of restriction.
Not that I am suggesting this should be any different. It could not be any different. Staring wistfully past the boundaries of Kakariko Village in Ocarina of Time, as if Hyrule really continued beyond the geometry of the levels, is precisely what makes the places you can get to so pleasurable. In fact it is the pleasure, only seen from the other side. And if you could get there it wouldn’t be so special. Mount Lu in misty rain; the River Che at high tide.
So, by letting us explore, games cannot help drawing attention to their limitations. After all, every island needs a coast, every planet a surface, and a space can only be said to exist because of the edges that define it.
Nowhere is this bittersweet relativity of pleasure/pain better expressed than in the original Super Mario Bros. I remember, as a child of five or six, watching my friend play the game on his NES, and being utterly mesmerised by the world of fluffy clouds and rolling hills and cartoon sewer pipes taking shape in front of my eyes. I was desperate to be in that world — to jump into the clouds and charge up the hills and discover it all.
Yet at the same time I was aware of the impossibility of my dreams. I knew those “hills” were only flat pictures painted over the background, that it was a sham, an illusion. The freedom of control I had over Mario was always counterbalanced by a realisation of how trapped he actually was. He existed in two dimensions, could only move along one plane, and however fast he ran those hills would never get any closer.
Miyamoto knew what he was doing, of course. He has stated his initial inspiration for Super Mario was a childhood memory of seeing manholes built into walls, and his curiosity of what kind of a world they might lead to. The game he designed to answer that question is a joyous, heartfelt celebration of the imagination, overflowing with wonder and exuberance and joie de vivre — but it is also an elegy to lost youth, a poignant reminder that the realms of our dreams can never truly be reached. In Super Mario Bros., Miyamoto not only defined the platforming genre, selling a bazillion blocky grey consoles as he went, but also captured the very essence of our beautiful and melancholy place in life.
As for my six year old self, he didn’t much care that those hills were only squares of light on a flickering television screen. He was lost in strange adventures, and in his mind, those pixelated lands went back forever.