In the growling wake of 2016, our world emerges as a confused, wounded animal, having suffered the burn of a trying year, our sense of truth and reality has taken a collective hit across all political spectrums. Sometimes, when you take a deep breathe and look around you, it’s hard to know what to think and who to trust. In this age, reason, compassion and good old fashioned justice for all has taken unprecedented blows, and Donald Trump being the poster child for reactionary conservativism somehow managed to rise to the grandest office of them all. After a year of brutal blows, 2017 started off like a bad hangover, with Donald Trump’s opening shots to the world as president of the United States being about as racist, reactionary and harmful as they could possibly be. Trump, I’m afraid to say, played it perfectly. Exploiting the fragility of the human psyche after a year of tumultuous blows, he harnessed the power of outrage culture over social media to capture the ignorant and silence the marginalised. Now that he’s in power, it’s harder than ever to know what to believe and know who to trust.
And this is uncharted territory, too. To take advantage of such a new cultural phenomenon like Twitter has never been done so successfully. And yet, the spectre of this has been looming above our heads for far too long. Twitter storms, outraged Facebook shares, even the very concept of clickbait are all new phenomenon that have subtly transformed the way we receive and process information. With the internet bringing us closer together, we never could have predicted the ferociously damaging aspects of social media that Trump used so successfully. A cycle of anger and cynical clickbait fed the viral nature of sharing and retweeting, leading to the rise of one of the most dangerous men in the world. Trump harnessed a digitised, social media mainframe where nothing we see is completely real, where some of our worst cyber punk nightmares from the 80’s are starting to stray far too close to our timeline, where truth and reality take a second seat to gut feeling and raw reactionary politics – it all helps to create an uncomfortable illusion. A bleak structure of uncertainty built on newspeak style fascism. If you’re liberal in 2017, you’re probably starting to choke. I know I am.
The disonnance of Trumps social media campaign wasn’t just cheap election mind games either. The insanity of his internet persona bleeds into his presidency to devastating affect. Last month, the travel ban was met not just with widespread national outrage but international outrage, too. Politicians, actors, taxi drivers, business owners, everyone knew the ban was nakedly racist. Protests broke out in airports, lawyers swarmed abandoned refugees, and even game developers found themselves trapped and abandoned. But any reactions from the Trump camp were purposely cool, calm and collected. For the president, it was business as usual. And in his first public words on the ban, Trump didn’t even acknowledge the huge worldwide outrage to his executive order – instead describing the day as a “success” – No, it wasn’t a day of chaos and misery, of bare faced racism slowly lurching its way into modern life. It was instead the unveiling of a new cool product. Trump remarks that they were trying to decide on a day to pull the stunt and “we just did it” recounting their calculated plan to leave their own citizens out in the cold with all the sleek, affable professionalism that a marketing graduate would display while discussing the release of some brand new tech product. This wasn’t an attack for Trump. This was as casual as flipping a switch.
In reality, the reasoning of the bans were, themselves, founded upon lies. As with everything in the Trump camp, facts are discarded in favour of a vague, human feeling, something reactionary from the heart that said Muslims are probably to blame for all of our problems. Don’t listen to the facts, which seem to disappointingly disprove our emotional overreactions, ignore all the gun related atrocities that have been committed by white males, all those black churches sprayed with blood, ignore the schools where white kids got their hands on machine guns to devastating affect. it was Islams fault. Even though you’re more likely to be shot by an American than a foreign born terrorist, we just feel good about this, so we’re doing it. Trump has created a context where his office gets to live from their hearts, acting entirely irrationally and with fraught emotions. They’ve created a shape shifting context that they can consistently shape and warp to their own twisted designs. This is brand new, social media engineered fascism.
And yet video games finds itself in an interesting spot. As a creative medium built within digital hardware, you are self-consciously electing to visit a fake, virtual world. In those virtual worlds you’ll be exploring power fantasies and creative, twisting environments where you can, briefly, take a break from the real world. By electing to exist within these digital boundaries, you get to decide that this fake place is somewhere you want to be. Maybe the self-realisation that we enjoy these virtual play spaces is the perfect antidote to the Trump war on reality. It might sound counter intuitive, but perhaps this is the real antithesis to the confusion of modern life. By defining these spaces, and using exploration as a weapon, we get to satirise and solve the problems that the new president creates.
But what kind of games can do this? I don’t think it’s possible to achieve this with just any kind of game. All you have to do is avert your gaze back to 2011, where mainstream tastes leaned heavily towards the real, towards the authentic. Call of Duty, Battlefield, Medal of Honour – all big name titles that were selling millions and while they sought to replicate authenticity, to recreate what we could see on our televisions during the 2000’s, it did so by neutering any sense of danger or real weight of politics. Even though new technologies made these explosive battlefields look more realistic than ever, it created a strange dissonance by placing the player in the role of invincible super men that couldn’t die. Suddenly, in the wake of these advancements, video games had become about power fantasies and copying and pasting real world scenarios into the subconscious of the player. It would take 2011’s Dark Souls to force video games into new territory. Dark Souls was a game that stood in stark contrast to the grim realism of military shooters with its own hand-crafted brand of misery and mysyicism. Enshrined in environmental story telling and bone breaking difficulty, Lordran felt like a existential trial by fire. By Contextualising death as a serious, catastrophic set back it deliberatly set itself apart from the the super men of Call of Duty and Medal of Honour. Fearing a cold and lonely death in Dark Souls meant It allowed all of your actions to feel more relevant and important again. It was a watershed moment – it told mainstream games that you can be meaningful and still be successful. But most of all, it told us all we don’t have to have our hand held through narrative anymore. We can be trusted to absorb these unique, mysterious worlds. And lordran was more mysterious than most.
Aside from the strict, stamina based combat and the walls of stats, exploring the unfolding mystery of Lordran feels like a slowly evolving puzzle all of its own. It’s a sprawling nervous system of dead ends, impossible vistas, winding corridors and Escher style overlapping environments that didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. The repeat cycle of death, reawakening, then further exploration slowly mapped the layout of a level inside your head so that pretty soon you’d memorize every inch, every brick, every possible direction of each map. What seems like a labyrinth of odd, ethereal locales soon becomes as familiar to you as your own home. I still remember all the little nooks and alleys of the lower undead burg or how it’s upper portion twists and turns in on itself and spits you out at areas you can’t quite fathom. You can even see the end of the game from the start of the game. Lordran is a totally unique environmental experience, something that could never be replicated in a game as strictly linear as Call of Duty. The predictable plodding of feet through the same old dusty streets, the same scenes of despair with all the feeling strangely deleted out of existence. The visual economy of these shooters traded in authenticity much to the detriment of creative immersion. With a medium as transformative as this, it felt like such a waste to replicate the real world with such a blank dissonance. Where was the real world misery? The real issues? Why was there no repercussions, no threat? What were the implications for our oddly superhuman heroes? The real world just didn’t feel like this. In many ways, being authentic felt less real than the winding mysticism of Lordran.
So the real key, then, is immersion. That’s the unique edge Video Games have over film, or music, or literature. In fact, it’s almost misleading to call them video “games” because most modern games are starting to do away with the notion of winning or losing, instead eschewing an experience that you take part in, that you feel and experiment with. Games like Stardew Valley don’t live and die on winning or losing, instead they work on loosely defined goals that you are under no pressure to complete. Gone Home is a fantastic example of environmental story telling where there is no game mechanic in place that demands you to “beat” the systems, instead you simply explore a space and learn about characters and people. Modern games aren’t really games in the competitive sense choosing instead to simply be immersive. The great failure of shooters from the previous decade was that they sought rigidity far too much. They were sterile in their attempt to recreate authenticity, and it lead to a vacuum of immersion that gaming is still recovering from today. In its millionth iteration however, Call of Duty’s popularity is starting to wane. Hopefully now immersion will become the driving component behind the art of video games. The interactive element of our beloved digital past time is at the same time our most under-utilised function and our most powerful asset in comparison to our creative peers. In a post-truth world where what you say doesn’t matter, having an evolving puzzle box that we can shape and control on our own will become vitally important.
You couldn’t have this conversation about Call Of Duty. It’s levels were politely decorated corridors. The explosions scripted and sterile. It’s story lines bordering on offensively terrible. There was no mystery to the world’s in Medal of Honour because we were already living through it on the news. Video games wasn’t transporting itself to another place or another time. It was just mirroring our awful, nihilistic world but failing to teach us about all the real feelings that go along with that. But Dark Souls went against the grain entirely. Like many other people I was completely obsessed with Souls for years, through some tough times too. Having this gigantic question mark in my life that I constantly tried to figure out and pin down gave me something to hold on to in dark, uncertain times. For that, I am eternally grateful. And looking at Trump in the news, I see the same positive lessons needing to resurface again. It might sound incorrect to recreate the Trump mindset of uncertainty and hidden truths, but video games gives us such a safe environment to explore those misty parts of our psyche, and in these safe playgrounds we might just be able to stumble our way to some kind of tangible answers to apply to our increasingly ill fitting world.
The irony of this post-fact society is that we need even more fakery and constructed illusory realities to help deal with it. That seems counter productive, but the best form of anti-fact, that being our wildest fantasies, could be the perfect antithesis to Donald Trumps illusory world. When you can’t tell the real from the fake anymore, allowing yourself to be swallowed by something you know to be fake is a breathtaking holiday from reality. Video Games have always been a safe haven for outcasts, for nerds, for the shy and the wounded, to live in a constructed world that they are in perfect control of, where their flights of fantasy can go wild. But now Video Games are emerging from the creative wreckage of the twenty-tens as one of the most important creative outlets in our cruel times and it’s more important now to define this importance loudly and proudly. No more hiding and no more pretending. We tell our stories our way. And our way can help us fight back against the cruelties of the world. When the world starts to feel gritty and unbearable, there’s a place you can go inside your computer, and the rising tide of video game art will be right with you to keep you safe, it just has to bravely find it’s voice, and sing.