Assassin’s Creed throws us back to the Third Crusade of the 12th Century, renaissance Italy and, soon to come, the American Civil War. Skyrim puts a Viking helmet on our head and sends us of to a medieval world of swords and castles and L.A. Noir gives us not a present day detective mystery, but instead sends us back to the late 40s. Video games seem to be obsessed with the past; why is this? Perhaps more importantly, is this obsession a healthy one?
It’s not just the past that games are obsessed with, it’s also the future. Deus Ex and it’s futuristic world of cybernetic enhancements and corporations stands alongside Mass Effect‘s galaxies of alien races and spaceships. If you go into any games store and scan the shelves, you’d be forgiven for concluding that the only time period video games don’t want to talk about is the present. This is by no means a new development; as far back as Metroid, Dragon Quest and early Final Fantasy titles, developers seemed oblivious to this and western developers joined the trend by setting shooters like Doom and Quake in the distant future whilst relegating others, such as Castle Wolfenstein, to a previous era.
And it would appear that video games, as a genre, are quite alone in this. Film, television and literature, whilst exhibiting a fair amount of fantasy and sci-fi, place a majority of their dramas in the modern day and the audience are are all to eager to watch this; if you want evidence of this, all you need is to consider the multitude of soap operas that have been running for more than 27 years without a single time machine or spaceship ever intruding on the drama.
Games have a unique ability to allow the audience to interact with a world rather than just observe it. In Assassin’s Creed, the joy of its past setting is not in the adrenaline-rushing action but in the quiet intermingling with the crowd when you find yourself wandering down the labyrinthine ancient streets and meeting famous figures of the past such as Leonardio Da Vinchi or Machiavelli. The charm of L.A. Noir and the Mafia series of games lies not in their core gameplay mechanics, which are easily replicable, but in the music, the cars and the fashion of the late fifties, which pervade the entire experience.
Video games should be lauded for their ability to immerse an individual in their world, but is this ability a dangerous one? Even when video games do address the present, they do so in a way that is wholly unrealistic; either placing the player in a superhero shell, as in Infamous or Prototype, or delving into fantasy in the form of the Uncharted or the Persona series of games. When the debate over video game’s harmful effects, or lack thereof, rages in the background, should this blatant escapism be considered acceptable?
In a 1939 lecture entitled ‘On Fairy-Stories’, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” The message is a simple one; when so many of us are imprisoned in the 9 to 5 routine or ravaged by coursework deadlines, is it wrong to let our imaginations run wild for a moment or two?
Back when I was younger, I played an MMO, akin to World of Warcraft, called Final Fantasy XI. Often I’d find myself playing the game for hours on end and every time the game started, a message from the creators appeared, warning, “we have no desire to see your real life suffer… Don’t forget your family, your friends, your school, or your work.” And perhaps this is the key message here: video games are a beautiful medium in which we gain the ability to act in ways we never could in real life and, whilst it’s not quite as doom and gloom as the critics would argue, it’s important to keep things in moderation.