Taking flight brought back some memories.
Before you read on, check out this other post I wrote rethinking the games as art debate. It’s longer, but if you have the time, I’d appreciate it!
Nestled in the birch trees behind my old house was a trio of small robins that visited at precisely the same moment, every day, for a summer. They looked comfortable basking in the hot air, like dear friends congregating by the pool, sitting out checking the wilderness. From my bedroom window, I would watch intensely as I imagined them sharing stories of flying across vast landscapes and mountain ridges, all while dodging the ubiquitous harshness of the outside world.
It was peaceful, a moment of remembrance not lost on me today. Nothing happened that could scorch that moment away. In maturation, I read more into the robin and at one point I wanted to become an ornithologist, or what I used to call a “bird scientist”. This was between the dreams of piloting an F16, of course, which was quickly abandoned when I realized my greatest fear: heights. Fainting from standing atop a mailbox will do that. (True story.)
Flying is something easily simulated in games. Often used for emphasis — a character overcoming challenges, for example — or for dramatic expression — in Mirror’s Edge, jumping between two massive cranes or the ending — flight is incredibly powerful in transferring emotion. And games take advantage of this because the player sees, hears and feels everything the player-character can: civilized, electric busybodying below, the wind whispering past, and the temporary gulp of weightlessness.
What’s great is the power of flight is not limited to Microsoft Flight Simulator, itself a borderline video game series. I am referring to a character soaring alone, no gear or air-vehicles involved, defying gravity and probably most of the laws of physics. That in itself is one strength of interactive fiction: to make unbelievable worlds believable and seamless, without cables or behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
One game series to accomplish the fantasy of flight is Assassin’s Creed. Not for the ability to climb most structures, but to jump off them and survive. The Leap of Faith plays into the lore by way of initiation into the Assassin Order, and in the game it also unlocks areas and highlights the treasures therein. Its implementation is not purely to spoil the player with brief seconds of transcendence, it is necessary to proceed and important to the narrative.
And that’s where some games lose muster. They force the player into ledge leaping foolishly, for no other reason than to invoke some tragic emotional response. To spur the brain into thinking this sequence is vastly improved by a flying character, when it’s often poorly used. For some games, though, that’s the intention behind allowing such freedom, like in Just Cause 2.
Through the eyes of Rico Rodriguez, players can hijack fighter jets and commercial airliners and escape unharmed with an endless stream of parachutes. The island of Panau is one of the largest ever worlds constructed in a video game, both horizontally and vertically. Rico can free-fall close to three minutes before deploying his parachute. In most games, in that time players can walk half of the available land mass in an open world.
Jumping from a lofty height in Just Cause 2 is purposeless, only used to record a stat, but the exhilaration of falling with Rico, even from the comfort of a couch, is overwhelming. Sky-dancing with a helicopter makes it better. Because, why not? In film, to recreate a similar scenario is a controlled endeavour. Games permit the closest and most abstract interpretation of skydiving except for actually jumping from a plane. And, for the sadistic, how inhumanly the body contorts as a result.
I occasionally revert back to my eleven-year-old self staring at those robins when faced with a skyward moment. Approaching the two cranes in Mirror’s Edge, for one, that seemingly minor air glide had me paranoid. Glancing down at the colourless palette of a city did, briefly, bring back the glaring sunniness of those late afternoons.
That summer, the robins and I parted ways. I moved half-an-hour away, but not before the moment the robins left for good. Preceding me by one single sunrise, the robins vacationed somewhere else and apparently stayed. I never took it as a sign of anything, but every time I hit the digital skies, they flood into my memory once again.
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Sidenote: Just want to thank Rock, Paper, Shotgun for featuring this piece in its weekly roundup of must-read articles called the Sunday Papers. Hope to return the favour someday!
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