A complex, unforgiving and often subjectively contested state.
Defined by Plato as “a shifting exhibition, like shadows cast on a wall by the activities of their corresponding universal Ideas or Forms”.
Yep, it's one of those articles. Grab your metaphorical shovels, we're doing a bit of deep philosophical digging!
Since time immemorial, art forms have sought to portray and reflect it in various ways, harnessing command of speech, expression and, antithetically, imagination. Real stories, real occurrences are lapped up by today's audiences, many professing an attraction to the more macabre. And, as the video game industry began to grow and evolve into the kaleidoscopic art form it is today, so it in turn sought to further reflect reality. The more real a video game appears, the greater the sense of immersion. Sound reasoning, but also an amusing example of juxtaposition as video games serve as an escape from the real world.
So how does one accurately reflect reality? Normally we perceive reality in relation to our senses, predominantly sight, hearing and touch. And, like other art forms, video games strongly tap into the first two. The PS5 & Xbox Series X reveals showcased huge leaps in visuals & sound design, graphics that seem to live and breathe and soundscapes that envelop you on all sides. Feats that are indeed worthy of accolades. However one often forgotten genre of gaming has managed to more closely echo the facets of reality. Not by stellar graphics or soundscapes, but by language, interaction and deep understanding of what makes the real world and its inhabitants tick at grass roots level.
Point & click adventures.
I know what you're thinking. The genre that spawned memes of clicking every micropixel for a hidden item or using an absurdly illogical combination of items to progress (looking at you The Longest Journey rubber ducky puzzle and Discworld counterwise wine with L-Space!). Really?!
Yes, some titles are famous for those traits. True, there is no hyperrealism to be found in the graphics and sound. Correct, some settings are fantastical and difficult to place oneself in. But in spite of these things, you will be hard pressed to find a genre whose characters, stories and scenarios could so easily be your own, given different circumstances. There are two examples of point & click games that explore this exceptionally well and, naturally, both are huge favourites of mine: the Broken Sword series and The Blackwell series.
Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars, the first of five games developed by Revolution Software, was released in Autumn 1996 for Windows & Mac OS and later ported to the Playstation and GameBoy Advance. It details the adventures of George Stobbart, an American tourist holidaying in Paris. Teaming up with photojournalist Nicole Collard, he attempts to unravel a global conspiracy after surviving a bomb blast at a local café. The game was a critical and commercial success, receiving high praise for writing, visuals, story and gameplay and garnering many awards and nominations. Creator and director Charles Cecil was keen to break away from the humorous adventure games of the time and produce a piece with a more complex narrative and good pacing. This he achieved in spades.
Protagonist George Stobbart isn't an aspiring pirate, knight or wizard. He isn't on a quest of destiny, to fulfil a dying relative's wishes or to prove his worth. He's an average Joe on vacation, taking in the sights of Paris. He's sitting in a typical inner city café, drinking coffee and minding his own business when the bomb goes off. While it became more common of adventure game protagonists going forward, George was one of the first to be unmistakeably “normal” in every way: works as a lawyer, not particularly athletic or striking, casual unremarkable clothing. Even his speech and inner narration, while articulate, was straightforward, only revealing more of his personality the further into the game you progress.
Already a connection was being made to the player, a real connection. George is a regular guy, like you. Has a regular life, like you. He could be you. Unnervingly even experiencing the bomb blast, particularly in today's troubling times, is not so out of the ordinary; I was working on the South Bank when the 2017 London Bridge attack took place. His motives for wanting to get to the bottom of what happened are from a natural and understandable frame of mind. When asked by Nico why he wants to get involved with uncovering the bomber's motives, George replies “Because he almost killed me. Isn't that reason enough?”
Because of the predominantly real world locations, the other characters too are reflective of regular Parisians, Irishmen, Spaniards going about their everyday lives. Their interactions with George feel organic and sincere thanks to stellar writing and perfectly cast voice acting, particularly from Rolf Saxon and Hazel Ellerby (George and Nico respectively). Even the conversation system of icons rather than questions/responses contributed to this feel. The icons set the conversation theme, but the delivery is unknown, just as it would be if you were part of the conversation. Like the old adage goes, real life doesn't follow a script. And, as it would be sacrilege to not mention them when discussing an adventure game, the majority of the puzzles are authentic and logical, puzzles your average Joe could solve. Got a locked door? Find a key. Try the window. Ask someone to let you in. No cracking out a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle. The reflection of reality stays resolute.
The Blackwell Legacy, the first of the five Blackwell games developed by Wadjet Eye Games, graced the Windows scene almost exactly 10 years later in 2006. This series was a shining example of how to take a slightly more fantastical premise and still manage to have both feet planted firmly in the real world. It follows Rosangela Blackwell, a struggling journalist who experiences headaches after spreading her recently deceased aunt's ashes. These headaches eventually manifest into the appearance of Joey Mallone, a ghost from the prohibition era who has been the Blackwell's spirit guide for decades and she must now take up the mantle of medium (or Bestower as we later discover), helping fellow ghosts cross over to the afterlife. Questions of spiritualism aside, Wadjet Eye founder and Blackwell creator Dave Gilbert seamlessly blends this considered fictional scenario with reality, even with something as simple as the backdrop: modern life in New York City. The locales are street corners, parks, apartment blocks. All surroundings city dwellers see every day. It could be your city. Three overarching elements throughout the series help weave the magic further: the two leads, their circumstances and deep emotional & psychological exploration. Kinda like what we're doing right now, but in pixel form.
In the same way Gilbert wanted them to be played, I'll approach them as one whole experience, one epic story in five episodes, Telltale style. Legacy, the first episode, introduces us to our leads and establishes their relationship with one another and their surroundings. Rosa is a quintessential young New Yorker, slightly introverted, intellectual, trying to find her way as a journalist and feeling a little lost. I'm from the north of England, but already she's my spirit animal! She's also told by her family psychiatrist that her aunt who raised her as a child and her grandmother before her both succumbed to a similar mental breakdown and passed away, meaning it could be genetic. Anyone who has witnessed illness within their family will immediately connect to the emotional weight of this and the fear of it having an effect on oneself or loved ones. My grandfather developed dementia a few years before he passed away and subsequently whenever my short term memory is even slightly off, that's in the back of my mind. Rebecca Whittaker's delivery as Rosa hits all these complex emotional notes exceptionally, radiating a powerful aura of someone simply speaking their truth.
Then Joey enters the equation. Average by his era's standards, except for being dead of course. Voiced by the impeccable Abe Goldfarb, Joey Mallone, a tailor in life and a ghost since prohibition, is a spirit guide assigned to the Blackwell family. Their legacy. He's brash and brutally honest, but also has a strong moral compass. Unable to pass over himself, he must fulfil his duty and assist mediums in helping other spirits do so. Rosa's predecessors ultimately rejected this calling and Joey himself, thus succumbing to their fate, although Rosa's aunt Lauren did accept it for a time (Blackwell Unbound, second episode) before she became Rosa's guardian. Joey has been forced to watch two strong women slowly unravel and descend into mental hell, being completely unable to help them. He has had both his afterlife and his existence as a ghost denied and had no power to change this. Suddenly his sharper edges sting a little less, his harsh words cut a little shallower. And, like Whittaker, Goldfarb's delivery carries all of this often in a single line; the subtle breaks in some of his lines hit with the power of a sledgehammer.
As a journalist, the gameplay reflects how Rosa would operate: asking questions, making notes, identifying connections and drawing conclusions from said notes. Object puzzles are few, but like Broken Sword, fairly logical. Want to grab something from under someone's nose? Distract them. Throughout The Blackwell Convergence and The Blackwell Deception (third & fourth episodes), Rosa and Joey refine not only their paranormal practices, but their relationship with one another. Each has a better understanding of the other and their “working” partnership is much smoother. But when things take a personal turn, the psychological effects begin to take their toll on Rosa. A sense of fulfilment she feels she should be experiencing is replaced with emptiness and feelings of futility, strength replaced with a feeling of losing herself. But at the same time, she knows that if she rejects this calling, she will suffer the fate as her aunt and grandmother.
Taking a step back and examining Rosa's journey as a whole, I find myself drawing parallels to sufferers of schizophrenia. The disorder is often triggered by stressful events such as bereavement, can involve visual and auditory hallucinations, feelings of loss of self and intense pain (commonly headaches). It is also often hereditary. No one else sees what Rosa sees, hears what she hears. She has had to learn to how to manage and live with Joey and the struggles of mediumship, keeping a balance between them and normality. And sometimes the balance threatens to be overthrown. In the UK, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem at some point every year and schizophrenia affects roughly around 1 in a 100, not as low as you'd think. A startling pocket of reality.
A complex, unforgiving and often subjectively contested state.
In a video game universe, it can be perfectly rendered sunlight seeping through a canopy of leaves, water glistening on river rocks, flames dancing in the hand of a wizard.
But it can also be a two-dimensional animated or pixel art plane with a lawyer drinking coffee at a café or a journalist struggling to find her way.
Depending on what facets of reality you're looking for, sometimes it can be found simply at a click.