Around the corner of my parent’s house, yard chickens lay eggs in the husk of our family’s first computer - a bondi blue iMac. It’s been dead for a long time, and rather than throw it out they've removed the inner hardware and re-purposed it as a hen hutch. Reflecting on the handful of games we once used it for, the morning fog drifting through the trees and brush reminds me of the omniprescent mist at the margins of those late-nineties pixelated landscapes. Presumably the constriction of view to a small immediate area made it easier for a graphics card to process the visuals. (In some earlier three-dimensional first person worlds, the edges of the gameplay area were simply blacked out). The more realistic solution of mist also functioned, perhaps accidentally, to create some melancholy and mysterious landscapes, such as those in Cyan World’s Riven or Pangea Software’s Nanosaur.
|Screenshot from Cyan Worlds' Riven|
It seems fitting that the place we once explored these imaginary worlds is now overgrown with grass and housing a brooding chicken.
|Screenshots from Pangea Software's Nanosaur|
In worlds like these, it’s precisely the lack of clarity that draws the user further and further into the imagined landscape. The gameplay becomes a sort of metaphor, that mirrors in many ways the experience of childhood - even in fantasy, the player is at the center of a small realm of control, and while shifting the objects and scenery within that circle is easy enough, observing the world beyond that circle is impossible. Increasingly as I grow older, I’ve noticed the surroundings I seek out starting to resemble the fantasy worlds I was drawn to as a kid - cold and cloudy places, preferably surrounded by water, with the opposite shore either obscured or far away.
I discovered the comic below on a recent camping trip to Vashon Island, Washington, in search of exactly these cloudy and distant landscapes. They were being sold for fifty cents a page at a street festival by the local boy who draws them - unfortunately, I discovered no name anywhere on the comics themselves. The line quality and coloring is fascinating. Blake-like in method, the author explained that he was annoyed by how the colors came out in printing, and so hand-copied and hand-colored many of the comics himself by hand.
The conflict in Creating Landscape / Generating World struck me as particularly clever, given these digital/childhood themes. As the two characters argue over which is better at building with digital blocks, the window behind them reveals strange visitors from the outside world - a spying boy with black hair, and a panting red-mouthed dog who says: “arrf haff ha.” Although neither visitor is noticed by our protagonists, they provide a subtle commentary on the relation between inside/outside world in the story. In these pages, the digital world is partly a game, but the subject of that game is, as the title suggests, "generating worlds." In an unexpected twist, the digital world seems able to affect the physical world - this is embodied most directly in the second to last panel, when one of the players "turns into dust."
That evening we camped on a rocky Maury beach, between piles of bleached white driftwood. Across Poverty Bay, the sliver of Federal Way's shoreline balanced between the water and the distant Cascades. There was a full moon, and we fell asleep ten feet from the high tide line. Waking the next morning, the clouds had descended again - looking across the water it might as well have been the edge of the earth.
|Maury Island Marine Park, Maury Island, WA|
A long walk down the waterfront revealed the the evidence of others' experience with the child-like exploration the mist encourages. The beach was lined with driftwood bowers reminiscent of secret forts. Many of them housed strange offerings - plastic starfish, weather-worn hats, empty bottles of Bacardi. Like the characters in the pages above, the solitary and removed landscape seems to encourage landscaping among the beachcombers - a whimsical environment yields whimsical structures, while a routine environment yields the sorts of houses most of us live in. In both, the basic action seems to be constructive, "laying down bricks." If mist and solitude weren't an element of these bowers, I wonder what sorts of houses we would choose to live in. I also wonder if children would play in the imaginary worlds of computer games, or dismantle their computers to build play houses, or real houses, or at least chicken houses, as my parents have.