Everything is happening now!
When I finally got back on the internet after long years of snow, one of the first things I read was this profile of my favorite author, Haruki Murakami, in the New York Times. There was one part of this interview that struck me, as an escapee from apocalypse:
“When does one stop being the other?” I asked. As power had slowly returned to my little slice of world, we’d experienced a strange phenomenon. The people I lived with had become more and more paranoid, more and more irritable. I had been, too. If there hadn’t been food, if there hadn’t been escape on the horizon, I imagine that we would have eaten each other, no trouble. I probably would have been the first to go, being the largest and the least able to defend myself.
But that was the near past, now. The story feels interesting, if apocalyptic. I can make allusions to eating my friends, and there’s a lot of darkness, but it’s the near past. What could be different?
The difference is heroism. In real life there are no heroes. There are no villains. There’s just existence, and a constant struggle forward again random acts of chance. We could go at any time. I could have been crushed by a tree, but I wasn’t. I could have frozen to death, or starved to death, or been eaten by hungry neighbors, but I wasn’t. And when you peeled away to thin veneer of post-apocalyptic flavor, all that was left was an individual overcoming random obstacles, the same that happens in everyday near-past life.
Put into the lens of modernity, put into the present, nothing can be hopeful because no one knows what’s going to happen. Even if they predict a happy ending to the apocalypse, there’s no hope possible. All there can be are heroes attempting to overcome villains, whether these villains are vain robotic presidents or the wasteland itself. The world is the villain. In the near past, though, there doesn’t have to be a villain, there can just be people with differing opinions. Just people who exist and live with each other.
It’s interesting in light of the negativity involved in modern game stories. Can you think of a game released in the past few years that wasn’t either set in a modern day state of perpetual war, a post apocalyptic scenario, or somewhere where horrible blights dotted the land? Nearly every major game has been placed in this scenario, where there is nothing, no hope, no future, and we are expected to try to carve one out. Almost to a man these games end with you having produced that future but never exploring what normalcy really means.
Games never tread the near past. They always tread the near future, because they can find more large scale conflict there. Large scale conflict is easier, it’s more fun for gamers, developers reason. And they’re half-right: it’s much easier to tell a compelling, suspenseful story when you don’t know the ending. Every World War Two game necessarily has to end the same way: the Allies win. People may die, but they die heroes’ deaths for a cause they believe in. In Call of Battlefield Modern Edition, for better or worse, people can die for no reason, for random reasons, and we can be shocked. We can feel sad, and we can feel angry. We can react. When someone dies in Fallout, they were probably fucked anyway.
As a writer I think there is merit to near future stories. I think they’re fun to write, suspenseful, and, most importantly, fun to read. But when we ask ourselves big questions about why there are so few games with mature (no quotations) narratives, the answer must be because there are so few in the near past. Near future narratives can be dismissed as just dreams, just silly little stories told by odd folks. They’re fairy tales that will never come to pass. Any lesson, any moral weight behind them is obscured by these facts: they’re not true. Games that take place in the past, though, those are true. Even if they are fiction, there’s truth to them, because they could have happened.
The power of the near past is plausibility.