What if things were different

I'm currently reading Uzumaki by Junji Ito, a horror manga where supernatural phenomena revolve around spiral patterns. I find it to be more of dark humor than truly frightening, but that's okay. It's a fun, strange, and often really gross read. But aside from the specific content, I appreciate the approach Ito takes in creating his own twisted take on the modern world. It's a technique used often; this work just brought it to mind.

Uzumaki is a series of stories that take place in a small Japanese coastal town where people go about their lives and everything functions normally-- except that the town has somehow mysteriously been "infected by the Spiral." One man becomes obsessed with the spiral, until he is drawn in so deeply that he contorts his body itself into a spiral form, losing his life in the process. When he is cremated, the smoke rises into the sky, causing a spiral in the clouds that transfixes the town's residents. Unsettling whirlwinds spiral through the town; locks of girls' hair spiral and take on a life of their own; the spiral stairway of a lighthouse leads residents to their death. The spiral is everywhere, and it makes life in our world different, scary, and surprising.

It's a way of thinking that many artists possess, and that leads us to follow them into their imagined works: the power of visualization, not to take the world around them for granted, but to picture, "what if things were different?" It connects straight back to how we see the world as children. Before we know how everything around us works, and we settle into static assumptions about our surroudings, the possibilities are endless. It's the fertile ground in which imagination grows. Could there be a monster in the closet or under the bed? No reason there couldn't be, so maybe there is! Could aliens come down out of the sky? Could dogs and cats talk to each other when people aren't around? Could there be ghosts and angels everywhere, that we just can't see? Could another world exist on the other side of the looking glass, or down the rabbit hole? Before we knew it couldn't, it could, and we imagined, "what if this IS the way the world works?"

This kind of functional question, explored in fiction like Uzumaki, engages directly with the rules of our world. It disrupts them, adds in a variable, and explores the implications. In that sense, this sort of imaginative journey maps directly to games. It changes the ruleset of ordinary life, and games are all about rules. The sense of discovery is the same, when you first get your hands on a new game and explore how it works: what do the buttons do? What can I pick up and climb onto and go inside of and affect in this world? How does everything work? Once you've become comfortable in that gameworld, and all its possibilities are exhausted, the newness and sense of discovery fades away.

But the artist continues to see new possibilities. And in that way, game designers can take the world we know, imagine if it worked differently, and then by abstracting and implementing those rules in a game, allow players to experience the possibilities they've imagined. Working backwards, having come in contact with this new and unexpected vision of our own world, the player can return to their familiar assumptions, and question them just a bit more.

If you've read Uzumaki, you probably didn't think about spirals the same way for a while when you encountered them in your daily life. And if you've played Katamari Damacy, maybe you had trouble driving for a while without thinking about rolling up traffic cones. Maybe you enter the lobby of the public library and think what you'd use for cover if the Covenant were to attack, or start noticing great hiding spots for GTA's Hidden Packages as you wander around the city.

All of us should be so lucky as to retain our sense of wonder and infinite possibility from childhood; the best games show us possibilities we never would've imagined, let us play with them, internalize them, and bring them back into our own world, imagining, "what if?"

In small but important ways, contact with inspiring gameworlds transforms our everyday into something just a little bit less ordinary.

1 comment:

DJ DeWitt said...

I don't really read manga, but this symbol-horror (is that a genre already? To include things like that movie 23?) come to life seems really compelling and I might have to check it out.

I'm a big fan of the idea of this relationship between a person and created content; we like to talk about how games are interact, that the player can inscribe themselves onto the game world, but I think we haven't really explored enough how games inscribe themselves onto people, in a weird, symbiotic sort of way. I'm sadistically a bit of a fan of information overload for the way that over-experience can sort of possess you; I played through three of the Assassin's Creeds games extremely rapidly, late at night, for many many hours, and then when I would ride the train into work I started seeing every building as a maze (how would I climb these towers?) in the same vein as your examples.

The real value though I would assume is eventually facilitating the player seeing the world in their own way, not just in the context of non-real game rules like AC's movement system. I guess an important question to ask from here would be, do developers have to come up with systems that facilitate people coming up with their own creative perspectives, or will that naturally happen out of exploring non-real game rules? Do I eventually go from seeing the world through the lens of Assassin's Creed to seeing the world through my own creativity? Idunno, but great post!