Columbia is real. I’ve been there, after a fashion, ten hours, and a few more hours of sorting through my own memories. It looked so familiar, so real, that I knew I’d been there, somewhere, sometime ago, in my own life. A game recreated my own memory of some oddly familiar place, even as the game’s fantastical facade cracked away and revealed the illusion beneath.
Building an in-game world takes time, talent, and visual skill. It has to feel real, or as close to an in-game reality as one can get.
As games go, Skyrim certainly feels real enough, mostly when one is outside of the smaller villages, running through forests and enjoying the game’s simpler pleasures. The forests are familiar, an echo of a personal memory, the mountains stretch for miles, dominated by dark thatches of trees, creeks and glades marking the landscape underfoot. When the dragons show up in Skyrim, however, it ceases to feel so familiar.
Bioshock: Infinite’s Columbia, on the other hand, feels more like a fantasy that could almost be a reality. Granted, the flying city part probably isn’t possible, but the world contained within the city is. The streets are cobblestone pathways, the alleys lead to dark, haunting, hidden places; transport rails lead to higher levels, each more visually rich than the last. It might be a game, but the more time I spent in Columbia, exploring each district, the more I recognized a world that bore an eerily familiar physical resemblance to the real world, but at the same time was clearly a world that only exists in a video game.
There are visual cues everywhere that Columbia is a fantasy, a place that can’t be real, but it’s so welcoming in its first hour, so friendly and inviting, that it feels like a classical American city, trapped in time. A tourist could easily mistake its gaslights and winding roads for a slice of historical reality. It is a feast for the eyes, with its shopfronts, detailed objects – toys, machines, tools, the elegance of the fashions – statuary, monuments, and life. It’s a living, breathing city in graphics, and it drags the player’s eyes and imagination in.
The festival celebration that greets the player’s initial exploration is a visual treat. There are games, sellers hawking treats and toys, children and families exploring, enjoying the day, celebration. I thought I saw a popcorn stand, maybe I imagined the salty smell; I heard the familiar bells and sound effects of a classic county fair. Other players have probably experienced a scene like this in their own lives: a day at the fair, a few hours for fun, relaxation, entertainment, time with friends. Maybe at a theme park like Disney World or Six Flags. Maybe somewhere else.
Columbia is so close to real that you know it must have come from somewhere. It’s a recreation of a designer’s memories of a fair, a county festival, maybe a block party. It’s casual life, every day existence. It’s so real, and yet so far from it.
There are hints of the amusement park illusion everywhere.
Wandering the streets, I noticed visual clues, small details. A statue of a woman abruptly changed into that of a man, so quickly I wasn’t sure what I’d seen. The music seemed out of step with the location. I’d thought I was in a turn of the century American-style city, and yet, it feels like a park, a place to pretend, to fade into a sense of comfortable ignorance.
The farther I got into the game, the more I saw elements of the park, the facade hiding the clockwork machinery, the illusions covering the steel skeleton of a floating city. Memory is such a heavy theme in this game that I started to wonder why Columbia looked so familiar to me, the player. There was one particular district where a series of shops gave way to a massive cemetery, with winding pathways, tended gardens, and, a short distance away, a massive house, a mansion, dominated the grounds.
It was familiar to my mind. I couldn’t think of why. It took me a long time to determine what it was about Columbia that felt like some place I’d been. At a certain point, I thought, I’d seen some of these buildings in my real life, I’d walked in some of those winding paths, I’d seen those statues.
I remembered, only near the game’s climax, why it all felt so familiar.
In Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, there is an area dedicated to turn of the 20th Century America, specifically old New Orleans. It’s a lively park, filled with classic vaudeville-light shows (it’s a family atmosphere after all), employees dressed in antebellum-style finery, and, dominating the area, the famous Haunted Mansion attraction, with its winding walkways, eerie gardens, and cheesy sound effects. It’s attractive, welcoming, friendly, and yet there’s a thread of falsehood beneath every surface. It’s an amusement park, it’s a visual and experiential treat, but it’s ultimately a playground, a place to forget the world outside the gates.
It struck me then, that I had set foot in Columbia before, years before as a teenager, years before I began to play video games. I suddenly knew why Columbia was so real and so familiar.
Columbia was that false New Orleans of my own memories, that amusement park. Someone, I thought, as I continued playing, had studied park attractions, their architecture, their appeal, the importance of music, entertainment, and the insistence on forcing reality out of the picture. Some clever designer wandered through a place like Disney World, and understood that the illusion is what’s important, the forgetting, the closing of the gates, and allowing the fantasy to take over.
About the Author:
Alexandra Geraets is an fan of story-driven video games. She's an even more avid fan of exploring how and why they resonate with all of us. Her essays have been found on Village Voice Media.
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