Titles that inhabit close versions of our physical reality too often shy away from grappling with difficult political truths
In the beginning, video game settings were predominantly fantastical, usually galactic: the technical and financial cost of rendering a scene on a computer screen made space, with that affordable blackness, the ideal locale. Thus 1962’s Spacewar!, 1979’s Galaxian and 1984’s Elite were all games whose settings were defined as much by those boundaries as authorial intent. Those limitations are now gone, freeing game-makers to set their sights on closer, more detailed locales: Los Santos, Grand Theft Auto V’s gently fictionalised Los Angeles, Watch Dogs 2’s Silicon Valley-skewering version of San Francisco and, in the forthcoming Far Cry 5, a dramatised version of rural Montana.
Shifting the shoot-them-before-they-shoot-you-first principle established by Space Invaders et al to contemporary settings represents more than an aesthetic manoeuvre: it inevitably adds a political dimension to what was, once, a mere test of reactions, the sort you might find at a funfair. Mostly, game-makers don’t take overt political sides in their games, which, so the wisdom goes, must appeal to players of all political alignments and degrees of engagement. Many people use entertainment as escapism; they want to focus solely on the thrill and challenge of firing a digital weapon, not ponder the implications of who is aiming it at whom.