I’m relatively new to modern console gaming. The first time I played Assassin’s Creed: Unity there was a moment of genuine shock where, seeing the sheer size and detail of the landscape being represented I wondered to myself “do geographers even know about this stuff?”. I laughed out loud when, walking away from a representation of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in 1789, I found the River Seine, exactly where I would have expected it to be from my knowledge of the real city.
As Monica Degen, Clare Melhuish and Gillian Rose (2017) have discussed, virtual environments are more than just representations, but are intended to do work in the material world. This is something that I’ve been writing about with Tess Osborne in relation to video games. Hopefully that paper should see the light of day shortly, but in the meantime while I’m in Australia I’ve been hit by an odd sensation of familiarity. I have physically been to Australia before, but that was back in 1987 and my memories are somewhat blurred by time. Much more recently, however, I’ve been to a virtual Australia courtesy of Turn 10 Studios’ Forza Horizon 3.
For those unfamiliar with the Forza franchise, these are Xbox exclusive games that come in two flavours. The main Forza series is about creating a minutely detailed racing simulator, with real race tracks laser scanned for maximum accuracy, incredibly careful reproductions not just of the look of different cars, but their driving characteristics. It’s a labour of love, incredibly nerdy and – if you’re anything like me – almost impossible to control unless you turn all of the driver aids and cheats to maximum. Technically these games are fascinating, but perhaps not wildly fun.
Every other year, however, Turn 10 release one of the Forza Horizon games. These are open world – in that you can drive freely rather than being confined to a track – and are very much playful. You can drive a Lamborghini at high speed through a vineyard with cheerful abandon before getting back onto the asphalt and pottering toward a local town without having to call a tow truck because you’ve shattered your transmission into a thousand tiny fragments. The Horizon games are fun and silly, but at least vaguely based on real places. Forza Horizon 2 is set in the south of France and it’s strange to drive through a simplified version of Nice and recognise some of the buildings along the Promenade des Anglais looking across the beach.
Games designers, for practical and ludic reasons, fiddle with the details when real places are being reproduced. So the Australia of Forza Horizon 3 might feature real places, but you certainly can’t drive from the Great Ocean Road west of Melbourne to Coober Pedy north of Adelaide in ten minutes as you can in the game (Google Maps suggests it would take about 17 hours). Nonetheless, some of the game landscapes are simply haunting compared to the real thing. On a gravel road up in the hills north of Melbourne at the weekend, I was struck just how much it felt to me like I was in the game – empty roads, beautiful forest.
Of course, I wasn’t in a hyper car and I’m not convinced the hire company would have been impressed that I was out on a dirt track. Similarly, down on the Great Ocean Road, the scenery is uncannily like the game in places, but there was no way I was going to be doing any driving down in the surf when I visited.
The shock of recognition says something about the levels of detail games designers are now using to create a compelling environment in which we can play – partly to keep us wanting to buy the next game, the next expansion pack and so on. But, of course, designers cut out the boring bits. There’s a lot of rather dull urban landscape in material London when moving between the famous bits – but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from playing Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. Similarly, the Great Ocean road is pretty, but the mundane realities of speed limits, heavy traffic and the need to find somewhere for lunch make it a very different experience to hooning along at 250kph in a Koenigsegg before completely losing the back end going into a corner too quickly and ending up crashing into a cliff face. Games landscapes can be consumed in a variety of different ways, but everything about them is encouraging you to have a much more ludic engagement in ways that would be deemed profoundly antisocial in the real world. And, indeed, the gamerly skills needed to engage with the virtual landscape in that way don’t really translate to the material realities of being out on a dusty mountain road, on your own, with somewhat spotty GPS reception and without a clear idea of where you’re going. But it can still be genuinely disturbing when you’re visiting a new place and think to yourself “I feel like I’ve been here before…”
Degen, M., Melhuish, C. and Rose, G. (2017) Producing place atmospheres digitally: architecture, digital visualisation practices and the experience economy, Journal of Consumer Culture 17: 3-24.
Phil Jones is a cultural geographer based at the University of Birmingham.
Phil Jones, Geographer