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Game Spaces Part 3: Dimensions, Dreams and Doors

One of the first games I really fell in love with – Heroes of Might and Magic – framed its departure into another world in these words:

While wandering in the Hills, I, and my few retainers, stumbled into a narrow pass on the borders of your realm. As we walked into the pass, a strange glowing light engulfed us for a moment. We turned to go back from whence we came, but an invisible barrier was now in place. Try as we might, we could not penetrate it.

Posing as an obsequious letter to a more powerful relative against whom he had launched an unsuccessful assassination attempt, the unselfconsciously-named Lord Ironfist describes his discovery of a new land and his attempts to master its strange and magical geography. It’s a canny twist of the dream-vision trope, connecting with how writers from Classical times through to the present have articulated the suspension of disbelief or drawn the reader into their own sense of disavowal. In gaming, however, the literalness of that vision manifests itself in a way that other media only imply. In a game you do not simply identify with a protagonist: you are represented by them. The computer screen’s status as a portal to other worlds precisely articulates a game’s conceptual reliance on doors, portals and gateways in drawing you into its space of play.

Limbo's forbidding monochrome forests make no efforts to conceal their threat to the player.

Limbo’s forbidding monochrome forests make no efforts to conceal their threat to the player.

The most powerfully evocative games rely more heavily on this dream-vision than others. In the monochrome gothic fairytale of Limbo you wake into a nightmarish forest world that you must cross so that you can return to your waking self. Julian Gough’s ‘End Poem’ seeks to encapsulate the experience of playing Minecraft in a similar fashion:

This player dreamed of sunlight and trees. Of fire and water. It dreamed it created. And it dreamed it destroyed. It dreamed it hunted, and was hunted. It dreamed of shelter.

Markus Persson’s sandbox game is perhaps the purest expression of this dreamlike otherness. It has no narrative, makes almost no attempt to direct its player, but instead unleashes them into an open and endless world that they can reshape and refashion with the power of a demigod. There, only the forces of nature oppose you: gravity, hunger, and the monsters that spawn in the dark spaces of the world sniffing hungrily for your presence. But on death, the player awakes once more and can return to the place where they died. In a poetic bridging of the real and the dream, players return to life not in some sci-fi medical machine but at their beds; and when they return to their place of death, they find that the items they carried have somehow appeared in this new, recursively-dreamed world.

Minecraft’s world: vast pixel oceans, deserts and forests, with impossible constructions rising to the clouds.

Minecraft’s world: vast pixel oceans, deserts and forests, with impossible constructions rising to the clouds.

Minecraft’s dreamlike creativity is merely one end of a scale, though. At the opposite end, games like Resident Evil draw the player along tighter narrative pathways. It’s no accident that Resident Evil also features a preponderance of doors, which play a portentous ‘opening’ animation that takes up the entire screen, much in the style of a classic horror film. Even though it’s partly intended to cover the fact that the game is loading the next room, the opening door creates an expectant claustrophobia that affirms our sense of narrative progression.

Perhaps the differential between door and dream is a mark of the dimensions of a game, its degrees of conceptual freedom. Certainly, first-person shooting games like Modern Warfare have been nicknamed ‘corridor shooters’ for their tendency to degenerate into a tight narrative corridor lined with guns and angry Middle-Eastern faces. But even an ostensibly sandbox-style game like Terraria dwells upon a sense of linear narrative progression through its constant increments in its world’s antagonism to the player. Terraria‘s spiritual connection to the Castlevania games underscores its quiet reliance upon portals and doorways that connect the separable spaces of a not-quite-narrative world.

Do these dimensions of a game highlight the act of translation by which we engage with the unreal? Our transmission from material to imaginary presence reflects our need for structured and comprehensible worlds on the one hand and for free and dreamlike exploration on the other. For me, as a writer, this transmission also frames a deep emotional involvement with the ideas of play and creativity. For me, linear shooting games like Quake 2 recall opening the imaginary doors of my youth, when being elsewhere felt like a simple and direct act. My more recent experience of climbing the mountains of Minecraft, though, brings to mind the young Iarla Ó Lionáird singing the poem Aisling Ghael. This is a more mature connection, I suspect: it sprang up perfect and unbidden, holding at its core a true reflection of the state of my mind and my desire to make art. Even without exploring its connections to the more political singing that takes place within the Aisling genre, I am enraptured still by the nineteenth-century visionary love song that sings around and through a game’s space, asking it to wake and become real.

Note: In the Heroes of Might and Magic series, ‘Dimension Door’ is a spell that allows your heroes to magically travel between map locations.

Posted 8 years ago

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