Life Imitates... Art?
Two Sundays ago my roommates and I decided to walk the two miles from our apartment to the nearby naval air station, in order to see the Great State of Maine Air Show. The temperature was quite cool that day, and we figured the exercise would do us some good. Halfway there, I realized that I had forgotten to apply sunscreen to my pasty, monitor-tanned flesh. Unwilling to make the trip all the way back to the apartment, I resigned myself to the fate that lay in store for me on that wide, sun-blasted expanse of concrete: a sunburn the likes of which I had not felt in years.
The roaring engines of A-10 Warthogs, F-16 Falcons, the Navy's own Blue Angels, and even a B-17 Flying Fortress instilled in my heart a paradoxical serenity; for I've always felt peculiarly at home amidst implements of death and destruction. But my placid demeanor quickly evaporated beneath the penetrating rays of the sun. As the skin on my arms and forehead turned pink and began to itch, an intense thirst set upon me. And so began my lengthy quest for water.
Along with the sunscreen, I had neglected to bring any water, erroneously supposing that some friendly power would have seen fit to ensure its ready availability to a crowd of 100,000 people basking in the sun. And indeed there were many concession booths situated up and down the double runways, each selling soda, beer, fresh-squeezed lemonade, and even three-dollar bottles of what I will assume for the sake of drama was pure, crystal clear water.
Yeah, three dollars. I'd sooner roast beneath the sun's unforgiving disc until my eyeballs melt and my bones fissure than pay three whole dollars to a bunch of money-grubbing, thirst-exploiting bastards. I approached one of the booths and inquired of the woman there, "Do you have any water that doesn't cost three dollars?"
"No, you'll have to pay for it."
Before she had completed her short sentence I had already turned away. I felt sure that there must be free water somewhere on the base; all I had to do was locate it. I recalled seeing some official-looking Navy men near the front gate. I trekked back to the entrance (not a short distance; air bases are big!) and approached one of the uniformed men, who seemed to have nothing better to do now that the show was underway and the crowds had arrived than to field questions from the desperate and deprived.
"Do you know where I might find some water? I'm very thirsty."
"No, you'll have to ask her, over there." He indicated a nearby, non-uniformed woman holding a mug in one hand and a clipboard in the other. She had a clipboard; she would surely know! I reiterated my request in the most pitiable voice I could stomach -- but I was apparently not pathetic enough to educe aid:
"I think they had some water earlier, but I'm not sure where they put it. Good luck though!"
Who exactly were "they"? I don't know. The skin around my mouth was pulled taught from sunburn, or else I would surely have scowled her into submission. I wearily ambulated back toward the runways, peering inside the darkened hangers along the way in hopes of spying a water fountain. I soon encountered a policeman on a bicycle, supposedly there to ensure the safety and well-being of the crowd. He didn't know of any water, either, but he pointed me toward two uniformed women who seemed to be assigned to a sort of mobile first aid detail.
"Could you tell me where I might find some water, or, failing that, a first aid station?" Surely water could be had there!
One of them answered, "Water? No, I don't know about that. They sell water for three dollars a bottle, though." With these words our illusory reality seemed to ripple, and I glimpsed its true substrate lying beneath, as the blithe face before me transformed into a furious harpy's, and chanted:
Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road...
I emerged from my paroxysmal vision half-surprised that it had been merely entoptic; as expected, the woman noticed nothing. "Yes, I know about the water for sale. What about first aid?"
"Oh, first aid? Yeah, it's over in that direction. It's a big green tent, you can't miss it."
I took my leave and forced my way through the throng in the direction she had pointed. I never found a green tent, but I did chance upon a large green truck with first aid symbols emblazoned on the side. Near the back of the truck a group of twenty or so men in white shirts were standing and talking, obviously enjoying their freedom from pressing obligation. I asked one of them for water; he didn't know, but he pointed me toward someone who would. I asked again.
"Yeah, we've got water. At the other end of the truck is a water buffalo. Do you have a container?"
"A container? No, if I had thought to bring a container, I would have filled it with water in the beginning, thus alleviating the need."
A shadow crossed the man's face. "Well, if you can find a container, you can have some water. They sell lemonade for $3.50 at that booth, and if you buy some lemonade then you can use the cup for water all you like." I fear that I nearly fainted, then -- not owing to thirst in particular, but rather to a more general erosion of my belief that my species counts, by and large, as a valuable feature of the world.
I asked the woman at the lemonade booth if I could have one of her cups with which to secure water at the first aid station. "No, sorry, we have to keep a strict count of these cups. Can't give them away to anyone." I thanked her and departed. Then, when all the workers in the booth seemed preoccupied with customers, I approached stealthily from behind and stole a cup from the unattended rearward piles. (I should have taken fifty.) I returned to the water buffalo and filled my cup to the brim, and drank deeply.
At some point near the end of that tiring ordeal, it struck me that I had been living out a portion of a video game:
Ask (that person) about water.
>Do you have water?
Yes, but it costs more money than you can afford to spend!
>Is there another source of water?
Yes, but I do not know all the details; you must ask around to learn more.
>Does anyone know of water? Anyone at all? [Player asks everyone in proximity]
Here's water, but first you need a container!
>Do you have a container?
Yes, but it costs more money than you can afford to spend!
>Is there another source of containers?
No, not here! Perhaps elsewhere.
[Pickpocket check: Success! Player steals container.]
So why is it that those who make games so often suppose that they can hold an audience by reproducing in their games the most laborious and frustrating tasks of the real world? In seeking to create a challenge for the player, must they also cling so tightly to the most monochrome and lifeless elements of daily human existence? When I think of the kinds of things I'd like to do in my games, I inevitably recall some of the moments in my life that make life itself worth living. I think back, until...
- I'm standing in the toy aisle of Wal-Mart. It's time to go. We've seriously got to go. But Jason won't leave, not yet. We had already left and were on our way back home, when Jason decided to turn back. It'll be easy! Wasn't it easy just a little while ago? But now we've got to get out, got to go home, got to -- Hey kid. What's that under your jacket? Yeah, I thought so. Come with me...
- I'm running as fast as my legs can carry me down a wide hillside in rural Mississippi, flanked by my cousin and two uncles. We're on somebody else's land in the middle of the night, and we're screaming at the top of our lungs because Brown Dog -- who had followed along so quietly! -- has just killed a skunk, and the chemical odor of skunk spray has filled the air around us -- and also because a pickup truck has emerged from the darkened house and is hurtling down the hill toward us, with an angry man behind the wheel and a loaded gun in the passenger's seat. The fishing tackle is caught in my jeans, but as I stumble toward the tree line I can't stop laughing...
- I'm in a chilly Maine field, examining the crescent moon overhead. "And so you can tell by the shape of the moon where the sun is at right now. In fact, it's somewhere in this direction..." My finger traces the plane of the ecliptic from the moon down past the horizon, and it stops when it reaches the sun, which is presently eclipsed by the mass of the earth. Then her hand reaches for mine, and when I glance up I have just enough time to note that the moon has become eclipsed, too...
I'm sure that each of us has a repertoire of treasured moments such as the above, and as gamers, whenever we play a narrative game we should expect to lead our avatars toward similar in-game moments. Why? Because games have no less a capacity for artistry than other, more time-honored narrative media. Because it has been done before: in adventure games (The Longest Journey), in role-playing games (Planescape: Torment), in first-person shooters (System Shock 2), in simulations (Freespace 2), in real-time strategy (Homeworld), and in other genres to boot. And because today's game designers' only possible excuses -- laziness and ineptitude -- are not acceptable under any circumstances.
Keep that in mind the next time somebody expects you to pay $50 or more to go on a glorified hunt for water.