You’re never really outside in a video game, are you?

June 1, 2019
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One of the more pleasantly creepy things I like to think about when playing video games is that, even when you’re outside, you’re never really outside. Take Animal Crossing, as outsidey – as outdoorsy – a video game as I have ever played. In the classic original you look down on the landscape from a sweet parental distance and it’s all green grass and trees and the occasional rock. Man, when the fireworks go off on certain, special evenings, you can see them reflected in the pond – in the sky above but in the water below. What could be more outside than that?

But then you walk to the edge of the village and – what’s this? A polite cliff-face. Or an ocean. Or a trainline, with a hint of a tunnel that looks like it leads nowhere so much as Exit Stage Right or Left. That tunnel looks like a canvas prop in a local theatre group production. And it makes you realise that this village – shuddery thought – is hemmed in. And maybe that goes for the sky overhead, because it can’t just have been left open can it?

I am very wonky about what constitutes reality in terms of the possibilities of video game geometry. Part of me still thinks that if the designers of Animal Crossing had left the roof open, as it were, your animals could accidentally travel too high and be met by a radioactive bustle of ones and zeroes, the code of the game leaking into the world of the game. Laugh at me, whatever. I am sure there is some kind of boundary up there. Some kind of vaulted roof on which the stars are merely painted. I am sure that the reality of every video game space is enclosure. Every designer must have a strategy for boundaries: how to conceal them, how to make them natural, how to guide the eye and the feet away from their illusion-shattering surfaces.

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