Thursday, July 5, 2012

Generation Alpha's Fantasy Land

"What's your pleasure? We got it all here." - Rufus Riley, Minority Report

It is complex indeed to predict the impact of future technologies, especially when they lie many years down the road. However, the phenomenon pertaining to this essay is right around the corner; and perhaps dangerously so. As children born from 2010 until 2025 are considered generation Alpha, it is their group which will suffer the consequences of the first true virtual worlds, with upcoming hardware and software capable of emulating a hypher-reality similar to that which can be seen in sci-fi movies, yet whose repercussions can tentatively be surmised.

For my generation, known as Gen Y, coming after Generation X, the clash of two realities was hardly palpable, as the games we were brought up on had often rudimentary visuals and lacked realism. But imagine, for a moment, playing Resident Evil 15, completely immersed in the dread and horror, for hours without seeing the light of day, with most of the five senses engaged; enough exposure could affect minds, young and old, considerably, if that is not happening already. What will these people's frame of reference be in the long run; games or reality? This brings me to two products on the market, namely Skyrim, a first-person fantasy RPG, and Google's augmented reality glasses. If that is not enough, there are true-VR glasses also being developed.

Skyrim, the highly praised and addictive RPG, which is by default played from a first person perspective, may begin to offer a glimpse of what's to come. Like the quality-starved GTA series, yet with a fantasy backdrop, Skyrim offers a vast, beautiful snowy land to get lost in. Like its sibling, Fallout 3, the game is non-linearity itself; seeming less like a film soundstage and more like a movie shot on location, so to speak. The player can loot objects and sell them; a winning game mechanic, granting it a Mad-Max feel, as characters fight for resources. The indoor world-building is impressive as well, with hints of the classic game Enclave. Devoid of cut-scenes, the game builds its story through imagery; from the depressing Windhelm to the paradise-like Eldergleam Sanctuary. In Skyrim, you can get married, not to advance the plot, but for the sake of it. The extra content is nearly infinite, since much of it is generated by the user community.

In a culture where there is a tendency for individuals to narrativise their lives, everyone will be able to be a superhero, an antihero, or whichever stance the games on offer may have; the notion that TV will at one point watch us instead of us watching it, will regain significance, if it wasn't evident already. The coming generations may even live in a technological hedonistic state; whether it is a paradise or a hell remains to be seen. Globalization has made people all over the globe a little more similar, a little less distant. The west has steadily exported its individualist culture, reaching even colectivist regions. Yet people crave for transcendence in a silicon era. This army of sedentary people, our hive mind, is begging to jump on the next fad, and if science and technology are coupled in just the right way, the allure of a VR existence, away from existence, could prove to be inescapable for most.

While the next generation of consoles will not quite pass the Turing test, the assumption is they will nevertheless carry enough punch to go further than Team Bondi's realistic characters from LA Noire; which, in addition to the virtual expanses offered by games like Skyrim, will undoubtedly capture the imagination of both casual and hardcore gamers. This scenario presents the possibility that people may no longer care about mundane activities, as fantasies which far surpass the film medium will be available at a low cost. Hence, the fate of the Alpha generation and beyond may be an interesting, yet bleak one. Perhaps, like Geoffrey Miller argues, we've never met aliens because instead of interstellar travel they chose to look inward as an alternative.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Hype Backlash is Back

So a game is released within the Dragon Age universe, and reception is mixed. Would it make a Grey Warden proud? Once again, it seems, the real story is not the game itself, but an initial negative reaction towards Dragon Age II which may well have been unwarranted; the demo is simply not a good representation of the final product. We are speaking, of course, of hype backlash. Sure, the fact that the character creation has been narrowed down to only humans is a letdown, since, if you are anything like me, you might have played Dragon Age: Origins as an Elf Rogue, and even a Human Mage, but never as a boring Human Noble; at least Alistair was a "royal bastard."

Yet the story, or backstory, is quite astute, and it expands on ideas from Origins. The conflict between the Templars and the Mages has now become exacerbated; both see each other as extremists. Other groups, like the cryptic Qunari, are occupying the city with military force. In the middle of all of this, is the Hawke family, to which your character belongs, having fled the Blight in Ferelden. Their rags-to-riches drama unfolds against the above-mentioned backdrop of social unrest. With some exceptions, most characters are well-rounded, though it is the Elves who steal the show; from Merrill to Fenris, and Tallis, who appears on dlc, and should have had a more vital part.

The Witcher 2, gorgeous as it was, was lacking not only in combat, but in an engaging story which went beyond politics. For a story to work, it has to have some degree of melodrama mixed in; a perfect example of this is the second season of the series Game of Thrones. DAII offers multiple pairings which create sparks, especially from the second act onwards. There is Merrill and the Dalish Keeper; Merrill in particular being so well portrayed, she is clearly DAII's own Morrigan, given her importance, except she is a Blood Mage, not an Apostate.

Then there is Anders, a Mage and ex-Grey Warden, whose inner turmoil is shown literally, as he is the host for a spirit called Justice. Aveline is a Templar who, given her occupation, is wary of any and all Mages; her character represents a strong woman, and done so with much class. Varric seems like a one-note character, that is, until we see his relationship to his greedy brother develop. And these are just the main characters, not the ones involved in bureaucratic intrigue.

There is something about the art design; it is much too pristine, not dirty enough, and hence not too evocative of Origins in that regard. Even the Game of Thrones RPG looks more lived-in. This is no accident, though, it is a clear artistic design decision relating to Kirkwall. Considering the fancy interlude animations, it's as though a graphic designer was in charge of some of the art design. I am led to believe that the decision was made to keep the Morrigan story for a third act perhaps, and introduce a contained story in this second act, so newcomers could get in on the action. With all the great stories being told in gaming, one can't help but wonder, after Ricciotto Canudo claimed that film was the seventh art and then Claude Beylie stated that television was the eight and comics were the ninth art, if videogames deserve to be finally called the tenth.