Always-on digital reality begs for a stark contrast- a darkening reflection- an unplugged desolate expanse in which one takes greater succor from a can of dog food than facebook likes or playstation trophies. Some of us occasionally put down our phones, and turn to games like The Long Dark, Ark: Survival Evolved, Fallout 4, or Mad Max– worlds in which wifi access and water are equally scarce, and through which we may experience what? Our deepest fears? Sure getting devoured by an albino T-Rex is epic in theory, but what does it MEAN? Why are so many of us eagerly awaiting Fallout 4?
We could simply be talking about escapism, wherein we seek entertainment in a fantastical world that is effectively very different from our own, but somehow also supplements our reality. Do I want to experience all things, at all times, while suffering no opportunity costs whatsoever? I guess..but I don’t even like camping- so why would I do it in the digital woods?
Mad Max tells me, through its blood-caked inscrutable logic, that I am missing something, but not in the way you might immediately imagine. If it were a true survival game (which it isn’t) the focus would be on finding water and gasoline. In its present incarnation, Mad Max is really a petty-tyrant simulator. Like its spiritual predecessors from the Farcry series, Mad Max implores you to locate that part of your reptile-capitalist mind that wants to dominate and to control. Take all the points, pull down all the crap-stack scarecrows! ALL THE INFLUENCE IS MINE!
Is this shit healthy?
Probably not, but who cares right? This is entertainment- or lifestyle hobbism. Except it isn’t. For many of us, this is a chief interest- this is a big deal. What we choose to consume contributes to how we understand our expressions of self. In case you haven’t been paying attention to your commodity-culture brainwashing-you are what you eat, or watch, or play, or read. It behooves us in this case to take a long hard look at survival-genre games, and at dystopian fantasies as we think, really think, about the ugly boils they reveal on the surface of our hearts.
Where am I going with this? Well, chiefly, I’m dragging you down with me into a dark place- a place where my gaming preferences and I sit in a cave, trading riddles, and awaiting the end of this dark age- or perhaps celebrating it. What I’m saying is that I might enjoy the occasional Ori and the Blind Forest, but I much prefer to watch npcs die, devoid of all hope, in a great dystopian desert than to help them realize their untapped potential*. I prefer the feeling of being alone in a cell-shaded wooded expanse, slowly freezing to death, desperately trying to locate the last snickers bar someone forgot in their long abandoned footlocker- than the feels I get fighting the good fight against an invading alien race (yawn), or standing on the ramparts, preparing to sacrifice myself for the salvation of mortal beings against an encroaching tide of whatever- white walkers, you get it. I think part of the problem, if we’re being frank, is that power fantasy precludes heroism. Progression systems are built to encourage ascension to dizzying heights. When every character in your MMO group is (more or less) a demi-god, or has at least slain a dragon or twenty- what more remains?
This obsession I have with survival games, with gritty universal themes may be that I am tired of all the goddamned smiley epicness. It is literally more exciting to me to run around the woods collecting bits of string and thatch so I can mix it with my own poop and fertilize my berry garden, than to kill dragons in Skyrim. Why? Because I am burnt out on power fantasies. As my co-podcaster Aaron and I discuss in episode 3 of the Gateway Geeks Podcast, at some point people may very well get sick of superhero movies. If and when they do, it isn’t going to be because superheros are inherently overwrought (which they are), and it isn’t going to be because Disney is digging too deeply and too greedily into the depths of the Marvel Universe (Squirrel Girl movie- oh please, oh please)- it’s going to be because we can no longer empathize with these heroes, and we’re all full up on power fantasy. One part of the my internalized pop-fantasy world is wishing for more- thinking about what it’s like to have a million dollars, to be super strong, to fly, or shoot missiles from my kneecaps,whatever yes, but another is the dark side- ‘what would happen if…there were no consequences.’ Rather than expanding the scope of my personal experience vis-a-vis a power fantasy to eclipse that of the norm (I can fly, holy shit!), dystopian survival games bring the world down to my level on my worst day. For my gaming dollar, managing to build a fire is at least as satisfying as beating up fifty thugs in Arkham- or killing twenty-five orcs in INSERT FANTASY MMO HERE. Some games impose a narrative, and some- either intentionally or otherwise- spark one within the player- like that first kindling that lit prehistoric fire- to imagine their place in the gameworld- to create the story themselves.
The survival genre is inherently subversive. While Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, Destiny, and Metal Gear Solid V, tell you what to think by way of an imposed narrative, games like Ark (or even Minecraft) return agency to the player. Real choice has been slowly creeping into our gamer culture as of late, and I am absolutely thrilled. It is revolutionary to drop you in the middle of a field with nothing but your bare fists. Start punching dirt, or get busy dying- essentially. On the one hand, you have the prescribed narrative, you are the hero- your obligations are clear, while on the other hand you have the open narrative (not to be confused with open world). In other words, I am completely certain of what Batman represents. I know it in my very bones, but I have no idea what it means that I am willing to spend hours collecting sticks so that I may craft ramparts to defend myself from imaginary dinosaurs.
I don’t know the answer to this elusive question, and thus my time investment is paying off. In Ark, when you log off, your character drops to the ground like a sack of potatoes, and stays there ‘sleeping’ until you log back on- this has obvious analogs to real-world survival. In just such circumstances, I found myself alone in a startling existential moment. I stood amid fellow tribe-member-cavemen, people I know IRL, clutching a rock the size of a cantaloupe, and seriously asking myself if I should smack the sleeping beauties in their sloped foreheads so I might take all their dino saddles, and abscond to my secret woodland compound. That shit is deep,like Lord of the Flies primal, and it’s fucking fascinating. Such themes are ripe in our present zeitgeist, and they need to be plucked- to be processed, and baked into pies. I say, leave Deadpool and Spiderman on the vine- let’s tranq those ontological raptors, and teach them to dance for us.
*..Or get them 10 wolf pelts for that matter, what am I? A personal shopper?
(Image courtesy of T. Macera, Survivor extraordinaire)