Way back in January, I promised that I would write some further thoughts on 35MM (Sergei Nosgov, 2016). The more I tried to pull my thoughts together, though, it became clear that, as much as I like that game, I was lacking in concrete ideas about it. In place of the concrete, 35MM left me with nebulous impressions, feelings, and half-formed memories. My quest to craft a container for these impressions led to something that is not quite a video essay. The embedded video here is really more of a piece of meditative, impressionistic experimental machinima than it is an analytical work.
This video encapsulates my fascination with the prevalence of abandoned or poorly-maintained railroads and rail stations in post-apocalyptic games coming out of former Eastern Bloc countries. Sometimes, there is a clear lineage on display here, as when the Ukrainian studio 4A Games adapts the Russian science fiction author Dmitri Glukhovsky’s Metro books into the complementary Metro game series. More diffuse influences envelope these games as well, though. Some go back to the Soviet era. In the video, I pick out Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (USSR, 1979) as a distinct visual reference point. Although the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series developed by Ukrainian team GSC Gameworld hews much closer to the atmosphere of the Strugatsky novel Roadside Picnic on which Stalker is based, I think it’s undeniable that Tarkovsky’s film left a visual mark on post-Soviet apocalyptic fiction. (He was doing “ruin porn” before it was cool.)
As to why, exactly, the decaying rail line has become such a staple of former Eastern Bloc post-apocalyptic fiction … I have no answer. But that’s one of the things you can get away with when choosing this sort of video work over the written word.
I have wanted to write about the original Silent Hill (Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo “Team Silent,” 1999) for a very long time. But it has been difficult to find a “way in.” Unlike its pseudo-remake, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Climax, 2009), which I have successfully gotten around to writing about, Silent Hill doesn’t have much in the way of interesting flaws to pick apart. It has flaws, to be sure. But its flaws are banal. It falls prey to the “let’s belatedly explain our incoherent story via some back-loaded cutscenes” problem so typical of games of the original PlayStation era, especially those produced in Japan that I have only ever experienced in English translation. Its successes, meanwhile, are numerous. But I’ve never found a way to approach them with intellectual rigor. My reaction to the game is a primal one, and I have struggled to conjure critical thoughts beyond, “my, it really is surprising how effectively scary this game still is, despite the limitations of its visual style.”
But, what the hell: I’m going to give it a shot, in the form of one of my “hodology of videogames” series of posts. Since it’s been awhile, here’s a quick refresher on the ground rules: “Hodological space” refers to the space that humans inhabit: not a space made up of strict coordinates, but a thicket of preferred paths, affected by factors such as interest, distraction, fatigue, and urgency. It’s a term that originated in the writings of psychologist Kurt Lewin, and which traveled by way of Sartre into the realm of phenomenology. Today, I’ll be thinking about the paths players take through the town of Silent Hill.
Welcome to the third of a series of posts I’ll be doing on hodological space in games. “Hodological space” refers to the space that humans inhabit: not a space made up of strict coordinates, but a thicket of preferred paths, affected by factors such as interest, distraction, fatigue, and urgency. It’s a term that originated in the writings of psychologist Kurt Lewin, and which traveled by way of Sartre into the realm of phenomenology.
If, as Jean-Luc Godard once famously said, all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, than all you need to make a videogame is an island.
The island-game gave us Myst (Cyan, 1993), and it gave us last year’s The Witness (Thekla, Inc., 2016). It has also already made an appearance in this very series, with Miasmata (IonFX, 2012). But my favorite island game of all time might be Proteus (Ed Key and David Kanaga, 2013). And to really talk about what it gets right, we have to dip into issues of genre. So, buckle up: it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Welcome to the second of a series of posts I’ll be doing on hodological space in games. “Hodological space” refers to the space that humans inhabit: not a space made up of strict coordinates, but a thicket of preferred paths, affected by factors such as interest, distraction, fatigue, and urgency. It’s a term that originated in the writings of psychologist Kurt Lewin, and which traveled by way of Sartre into the realm of phenomenology.
Up today: the survival simulation game Misasmata (IonFX, 2012). Accepted onto the Steam storefront in October 2012 as part of Valve’s second batch of games approved through the now-defunct Greenlight submission process, one of Miasmata‘s most notable traits was being on the leading edge of the “goodness, there are too many indie games than one could ever keep up with” moment we are currently in. Miasmata, though, is worth remembering for more than that. It also possesses a genuinely innovative movement system, one that, in its own weird way, serves as a nice counterpoint to the subject of my previous entry in this series, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EDP, 2017).
“Hodology” is, according to its Greek roots, the study of paths. These days, its primary associations seem to be with neuroscience. But I want to resurrect an older, more literal use of it: the study of how people move throughout a landscape, the ways in which they chart routes that are particular to the human body, human perception, and human culture.
This sense of the term “hodology” owes much to the psychologist Kurt Lewin. In his 1934 essay “Der Richtungsbegriff in der Psychologie. Der spezielle und allgemeine Hodologische Raum” (a mouthful, I know), Lewin coined the term hodological space to refer to the unique characteristics that landscapes take on when perceived by, and navigated by, human beings.[i] Lewin’s original essay remains untranslated into English after all these decades, but its influence was widespread. Jean-Paul Sartre took up Lewin’s term “hodological space” in Being and Nothingness, and from there it spread to a number of humanistic geographers interested in phenomenology, including Christian Norberg-Schulz and O.F. Bollnow. Norberg-Schulz offers a pithy English-language explanation of Lewin’s contribution:
Rather than straight lines, hodological space contains ‘preferred paths’ which represent a compromise between several domains such as ‘short distance,’ ‘security’, ‘minimal work’, ‘maximum experience’ etc. The demands are determined in relation to the topographical conditions.[ii]
I’ve often thought that preferred paths are an interesting lens through which to look at videogame space, and so I’m inaugurating a series of posts that deal with them. What better to do the honors than one of the most talked-about games of the moment, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EDP, 2017)? Continue reading →