Reality Bytes

Repeat the same journey enough times and it will become tedious. This is the nature of the commute — a daily voyage of familiarity. You walk the same streets; you ride the same buses; you drive the same car. You leave from the same location and arrive at the same destination. You do this not for pleasure, but out of geographical and financial necessity. It would be delicious if you could summon your workplace to your doorstep with a phone call, like some kind of giant, multi-story granite taxi that gives you cash at the end of each ride. Instead, you’re stuck navigating a bicycle with only one working brake and one provably round wheel down an icy road toward an end you don’t really want to reach.

If you are the pilot of your own vessel, you try to stave off sleep long enough to make it to the bike rack/car park/helicopter pad without committing vehicular manslaughter. If you use public transportation, you loll from a metal hand rail and glare angrily at the passengers luxuriating in their durably covered seats. If you’re lucky enough to get a seat, your head bounces off a grimy window while your derriere shares its journey with the ghosts of a thousand weary buttocks.

You do your best to occupy yourself along the way: music, literature, perhaps a quick scan of a dumb website on a smartphone. But these are distractions, designed to shield your mind from the reality that you just passed that billboard — the one with half the surface campaign torn away which now seems to be promoting the benefits of tampon insurance — for the ninth time this week.

In the gaming world, reality is big business. Since Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto 3 opened gamers’ hearts (and wallets) to the wonders of a realistically rendered urban sprawl, sandbox games have been in plentiful supply. They offer branching narratives, varied missions that you can complete or ignore at your discretion, authentic environments and a sense of real world freedom that your average corridor shooter fails to capture.

Things are never the same after your first rampage in Liberty City. Camping on the porch of a Shoreshire Vale bungalow, cackling manically as you ping off rocket after rocket into the fleet of police helicopters circling overhead, before leaping into the driver’s seat of the Banshee you borrowed at gunpoint from that rather screamy couple, burying the throttle, launching yourself Thelma and Louise-style off the edge of the embankment and free falling into the glorious beyond, you’ll wonder why you squandered your childhood playing with that shoe box.

All this joy is made possible because of the way the game simulates reality. From believable physics and environments to the character animations and vocal work, the game is bending over backwards to ensure you buy into its fantasy. When you perceive that your in-game actions are having recognisable consequences that tally up with personal experience (push stranger in street, stranger becomes upset; empty magazine into Taliban sniper at point blank, Taliban sniper doesn’t get up again) you become more invested in those actions.

The problem with simulating reality in all its muddy and unjust glory, is that reality is dull. Rockstar swapped urban cityscapes for the dusty, lawless plains of the ol’ West in its most recent offering, Red Dead Redemption. It features some well-drawn characters, a relatively engaging storyline, and plenty of side-quests to complete if you choose to venture from the beaten path. It also has talking donkeys, but only if the moon is in alignment with Pisces and the hole where Bobby Kotick’s heart should be.

But my enduring memory of Red Dead Redemption is not the plot or the characters or the chatty wildlife. When I think of Red Dead Redemption, I think of the hours I spent staring at the arse-end of a horse, galloping through the same empty plains, waiting to uncover the next point of interest on the map so I could shoot a Mexican in the face, turn around, and gallop straight back the way I came. When I think of Read Dead Redemption, I think of the commute.

Gaming exists to provide an escape from reality. This is not to say that a game cannot draw inspiration from the day-to-day frustrations of the human condition; the popularity of The Sims franchise proves that there are gamers desperate to replace real world drudgery with virtual drudgery. However, there is a good reason one of the most popular icons in gaming history is a blue hedgehog who wears people shoes and is capable of breaking the sound barrier on-foot.

Sometimes I have this dream. I’m sitting on a bus on my way to work. I’m playing a game. In this game, my character is sitting on a bus on their way to work, playing a game in which their character is sitting on a bus on their way to work, playing a game in which their character is sitting on a bus on their way to work…

The dream is incredibly realistic. But nobody is having any fun.







5 responses to “Reality Bytes”

  1. Celeste avatar

    This is true, there is many a commute inside the worlds of many RPGs, and I love a lot of them for it. This may be because the grinding and commuting actually gets me shit in games. It allows me to forget that in reality I’m still living with my mum. As long as the commute is instantly rewarding in some way, I’m all for it.

  2. Simon avatar

    I’ve thought along the same lines too James. There’s a good level of familiarity with your horse’s arse, and then there’s a line that is crossed over when it becomes a bad level of familiarity.

  3. Optimus_Pints avatar

    Best Celeb mention was Dara O’Brian on Charlie Brooker’s Gameswipe

  4. The Rook avatar
    The Rook

    I have done the same commute for over 9 years now but the recent addition of a smart phone has helped make that journey a better experience. I don’t mind the travelling in most games as long as it’s not pointless backtracking constantly just for the sake of it. Especially if your character dies and the checkpoint requires you to travel ALL the way there again. That goodness some games allow fast travel.

  5. James avatar

    @Celeste – I agree with the instant reward incentive, but I would argue that many in-game commutes are as frustrating and incentive-free as their real world equivalents. The journey itself is often just a means to an end. Your reward comes in the completion of the task or quest, in the same way that your trip to and from work rewards you with a day’s pay.

    While some games pepper their pathways with loot and random encounters to make travelling more immediately exciting and profitable, I can’t help but feel there is an awful lot of ultimately pointless trekking in certain genres. You can only re-trace your steps so many times before it starts to feel like a chore. And if gaming feels like a chore, then I would argue that something’s wrong.

    Having said all that, I realise grind is very appealing to many gamers. Otherwise, WoW wouldn’t be the unstoppable money-printing machine that it is. I guess I just have a low tolerance for that sort of gameplay. Perhaps I’m just impatient.

    @Simon – I realised I had reached a bad level of familiarity when I closed my eyes and saw a pair of equine buttocks clenching and unclenching in the darkness.

    @Optimus_Pints – Best program about injured pets was the BBC’s Animal Hospital.

    @The Rook – I always felt GTA was an offender in terms of unfriendly save points. They sussed it out towards the end of GTA 4, but there is a lot of backtracking in that franchise. I love roaming across virtual landscapes, and many games worlds are a joy to explore. I only get frustrated when missions demand repetition to such a degree that it starts to feel like padding.

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