Playing with Reality: Video Games Based on Fact
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Video Games Based on Fact, Still from ‘Wanderlust: Travel Stories’, photo: producer’s promotional materials, center, wanderlusttravel_stories.jpg
In the final credits of ‘Wanderlust Travel Stories’, an item unusual for video games appears: a bibliography. And it’s not just any bibliography: it includes authors such as Paul Theroux, Wojciech Tuchman and Tim Butcher. The creators of these games seek their inspirations not only on the fantasy shelves, but also in travel literature and history.
Wanderlust is actually a close relative of such texts. A very clear documentary element is present in it, an element which is becoming ever more evident in video games. Still, it continues to face some difficulty in attracting mainstream fans.
Wanderlust is a series of tales about travel around the entire world, from Europe to the Antarctic. These stories are presented in what is – for video games – a relatively ascetic form: the screen is filled primarily with written text, illustrated from time to time with interactive maps and photographs. Beyond reading, the player must also make some choices. Those choices are sometimes simple, such as choosing the next destination. Sometimes, they are far more complex, like when choices are made about relationships with fellow travellers.
The travellers in Wanderlust are quite varied. One can find, for instance, a fashion designer early in her career who is travelling to Thailand in search of ‘authenticity’, or a young man who has become bored with his corporate lifestyle and is travelling through Europe. One can also meet entirely different figures, such as a retired war correspondent or an older woman who is returning to Africa, where she spent a portion of her youth. Each of these characters views his or her journey differently: some are too naive, others too embittered.
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What is most important in Wanderlust is that all of the travellers change over time, as they find that their experiences on their journeys differs from their initial expectations. In this game, the travels change the travellers – that’s why, for example, the fashion designer who initially saw Thailand as an exotic source of inspiration will return there to learn more about the tragic hardship of the women working in the sweatshops, producing fashions for the world.
One of the leading themes of Wanderlust is the difference between the tourist and the traveller. The tourist seeks beautiful landscapes and pleasant experiences. The traveller wants above all to understand. The tourist wants to run away from (grey) reality, but the traveller wants to come as close to reality as possible. The tales of Wanderlust often focus on how the colourful facade seen by the tourist shatters and falls, revealing what is hidden behind it: the mechanisms of an unjust and hard-to-understand world. Hidden behind colourful fictions are far less pleasant facts: the price of constructing the consumer paradises of the Western world is being paid day to day by people living on the other side of the globe.
From the very beginning, escapism has been an important element of video games – which is why, in their early days, fantasy themes reigned throughout. Game creators approached facts with caution, sometimes out of fear that players might not accept productions that related to their reality and that were even so bold as to show it in concrete, clear-cut fashion.
This sort of dilemma shows up even today – many from the gaming community complain about political and promotional content in games, insisting that games are for fun and not for espousing the none-too-subtle views of their authors about less-pleasant aspects of reality. From this point of view, games are supposed to provide a haven from current concerns. Facts have a tendency to provoke disagreements, so it’s better to avoid them and to focus on fighting off fictional demons, rather than real ones.
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Luckily, this tendency is waning nowadays and games are more often daring to address matters of fact. While it’s still unusual for them to take on as nearly a journalistic form as in Wanderlust, there are numerous ways to weave interactive tales about the modern world.
One of the best-known Polish video games, This War of Mine by 11bit Studios, deals with the fate of civilians trapped in a besieged city. We never find out who’s fighting with whom or what it is they’re fighting over. All that matters is the fate of a small group of civilians sheltering in the ruins of an abandoned house until the next morning. The desperate struggle for survival involves a number of moral dilemmas, and even winning this game does not provide a sense of triumph.
This War of Mine quickly became the leading example of how a game can tackle exceptionally serious and difficult themes. The locus of the game is an unidentified fictional city with clear suggestions of the war in the former Yugoslavia. The Balkans are a safe point of reference for the Western audience, without raising great controversy. However, when we first glance at the game’s trailer, which shows attacking soldiers running in slow motion and then a group of civilians cowering in a darkened room, we see that the game is not about the Balkans war.
The soldiers are fitted out with the very latest equipment, suggesting a more recent conflict. They more closely resemble American troops in the Middle East. But perhaps the most immediate association connected with This War of Mine at the time of its premiere was the civil war in Syria. The game not only matched precisely the media reports of civilians living on the border of life and death, but the creators of the game acknowledged that they had spoken with people who had managed to escape that Syrian hell.
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Facts also inspire the creators of games dealing with historical events. For many years, they also had their safe, non-provocative territory – war games centred on military simulations, hygienically scrubbed clean of any human suffering. Today, the appearance of history in games is not limited to tactical games and animated simulators of military hardware. Now there are productions that focus on the drama of human beings caught up in conflict.
Inspiration from facts in the past can take many, varied forms. The creative staff of Punch Punk Games decided to take a close look at material connected with the infamous American serial killer known only as the Zodiac. Łukasz Orbitowski was responsible for the storyline of what became This is the Zodiac Speaking: he is not only an excellent writer, but also an experienced video gamer. We follow the Zodiac killer from the perspective of a journalist tracking the murderer, and we see America through the somewhat surrealistic lens of classic images from the cinema of the seventies.
A different approach to the past can be seen in the game Wicuś the Sailor, the lead character of which was inspired by a legendary figure of Warsaw’s Praga District. Wincenty Andruszkiewicz was a well-known trader in the Różycki Bazaar and the owner of an equally well-known bar that functioned under various names: some knew it as the Sailor’s Shelter, others as Under the Snout. This agile Praga operator survived the occupation selling bootleg whiskey and sausage, all the while supporting the Polish resistance. In the game, the stories of authentic places and people are freely intertwined with urban legends and even with visions drawn from Jewish mysticism.
Traces of the past also figure in the newest product of the Holy Pangolin studio. In the game Echo, players play with artistic animations to the accompaniment of sounds borrowed from the archives of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio. This is an entirely different means of bringing the past to life, not so much using names, photographs and documents, but rather by trying to animate the creative process that lay behind the greatest achievements of the PRES.
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Despite stereotypical opinions, by no means must video games serve as an escape from reality. They can address reality like any other means of artistic expression in a variety of different ways, from the most detailed literalism to the most unusual and fantastic creations.
The games This is the Zodiac Speaking, Wicuś the Sailor and Echo were presented at the 20199 Digital Cultures conference. The game Wanderlust Travel Stories was also one of the Polish entries at the Lviv edition of Digital Cultures that year.
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Originally written in Polish by Paweł Schreiber, Sep 2019, translated by Yale Reisner, Oct 2020