Sunday, November 30, 2014

Cascadia, Bioregionalism, and Sense of Place in Game Design (Lost Levels 2014)

Lost Levels is one of my very favorite yearly events, if an event can be called so in its second year of existence. Held in Yerba Buena Gardens on the thursday of the weeklong Game Developers Conference, it is a free and radically inclusive unconference/picnic. Crowds gather under arcadian boughs to hear speakers hold forth on deep or amusing topics, or to take part in discussions about what game studies is, or to engage in non-competitive dance-offs. It feeds the soul and reminds us of the communicative testament of not using powerpoint.

Naturally, I have gotten swept up in the proceedings, and given talks the last two years about topics which I care about but the average indie game developer/critic/weirdo might not be aware of. Last year I ranted for five minutes on “Postmodern Sports,” explaining the alienation of the college athlete and comparing Alabama football to a nineteenth-century army. This year, I talked about Cascadia, bioregionalism, and fostering a greater sense of place in game design.

Games writer Marshall Sandoval was in attendance, and recently mused on the topic of "Regional Authenticity" in this PopMatters post, so I figured it was time to write up my talk. This is faintly updated based on some more recent information, but it carries over the gist of what I meant to say.

Cascadia is a term for the bioregion that extends roughly from northern California to British Columbia, defined by a shared watershed, geography, flora, fauna, and other natural & social features. It is a concept introduced to me by Justin Pickard and Adam Rothstein at some point on the internet, but brought out to me much more fully when I visited Portland, OR for Weird Shift Con. Portlanders, in case you didn't know, are very into being Cascadian. They make Cascadian cocktails with pine-needle-infused syrup. They write songs. They wave the Cascadian flag at MLS games. Cascadia has emerged as an area of joint policy planning, and even boasts a modest transnational separatist movement, aiming to replace nationalism with a shared identity based on the land and separate themselves from distant capitals in DC and Ottawa. 

But Cascadia is just the most salient example of the broader concept of Bioregionalism, a political, social, and cultural lens first advanced in the 1970s. It aims to put attention onto bioregions as a unit worthy of analysis, and to encourage the preservation & development of local knowledge. It tends to oppose itself to monocultures, perceptions of an undifferentiated economy, and other forms of seeing like a state. It is part of a larger constellation of ideas encompassing sustainability, permaculture, slow food, localism, and so on.

Okay, so what does that have to do with games? Lots, much of it under the umbrella we call "a sense of place," which tends to come out of deep personal experience with a location and its culture. "Personal Experience" doesn't have to be just interpersonal experience (though of course that's important). It's also your accumulated lived experience, memories, and observations, from the smell of asphalt after a rainstorm to the wildflowers that spring up along the highway. It's the patterns of how moss grows, or the way human intervention changes a land. 

Now, not all of us grew up in some sort of idyllic setting where we could go explore and learn. If you're below a certain age, your ability to go soak this in was likely restricted by over-scheduling or being kept indoors because 'it's not safe.' Perhaps you lived in one of those (seemingly) placeless places like the suburbs, apparently devoid of history, culture, or primeval nature. Perhaps you moved around too much to ever really get a handle on where you lived, or you just hated it and stayed inside playing video games, waiting for the chance to get out of town. Spending hundreds of hours in front of a screen may motivate a passion for games, but if your chain of influence ONLY includes games it puts you in danger of just dropping in "generic medieval northern-European fantasy world" and calling it a day. But when you take a copy of a copy of a copy, you end up with a lot of crummy grainy bullshit. Going outside (of games, but also your house/office) for inspiration won't guarantee you a great game, but not doing so guarantees that your game can only be great in the expected ways. 

So, what should one do? Well, there are plenty of guides for traditional inspiration gathering; start a Pinterest or something. But for a specifically bioregional sense of inspiration, you can start by putting on a coat and going outside. 

Take nature hikes (if city-bound, consider psychogeographic dérive or urban exploration), learn about the local flora and fauna, ask old people for stories about the area's past, read history and creative nonfiction about your region. Try and approach it with respect and a willingness to learn from multiple viewpoints, rather than any sort of extractive colonial approach. If you learn about the place you live in, and how it came to be, your experience of it gets thicker, so to speak. Your pattern recognition improves, the details you pick up on are going to be richer, your sources of inspiration much broader. (Not to mention it may make you better able to detect a roadside ambush) If you want further justification, look no further than the burgeoning field of biomimicry, where scientists attempt to replicate patterns and dynamics they find in nature.

What are some examples of this in action?

Kentucky Route Zero stands out. Obviously it owes a debt to twine games, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, and a whole raft of classic adventure games, but just as much to mining culture, afternoon drives to visit antique stores, quirks in the way people give directions to out-of-the-way places, and explorations of Mammoth Cave, to name a few sources of inspiration that Jake Elliott has spoken of in interviews. It's important to note that this doesn't just affect the art direction, it's marinated into the entire game, down to navigation and the game's fascination with topology & finding one's way in non-grid places.

Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is shaping up to be an incredible example of this. It's co-produced by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council as a way to transmit folklore (the earliest and greatest storehouse of regional knowledge) to the next generation, rooted in the traditional metastory of Kunuuksaayuka (the endless blizzard). "Nearly 40 Alaska Native elders, storytellers and community members" helped make the game what it is, and the art direction took on a stronger, more resonant, and ultimately more distinctive character after the team went to Barrow in 30-below weather.

Firewatch definitely seems like it will benefit greatly from being set in 1989 Wyoming, and I'm keeping an eye on the Walden game put out by USC.

Beyond that, it gets harder. I'm sure there are more I don't know about. Undoubtedly Grim Fandango benefitted from being in the Bay Area, around buildings like 450 Sutter and the Mission's day of the dead celebrations. Sandbox games modeled on an actual cities (GTA and its ilk) live and die based on their attention to detail. And, it seems small and dumb, but I really like the way Shogun II: Total War conveyed the passage of seasons and their literary reflection in Sengoku and Edo-period literature. I leave it for others to argue about whether or not Gone Home can be claimed as Cascadian.

Ultimately, I believe in learning the history of one's surroundings, paying attention to the world around you, and connecting more deeply with nature. While I've argued that those thing will lead to better games, it's not as though they're going to be bad for you in any case. Summer is always coming, if you think long enough, so here's hoping you take an extra hike, read an extra book, ask another question. Just make sure you bring enough water.

1 comment:

B. Flynn said...

What about how Sam and Max drew our attention to the kitschy world of "roadside attractions?" Not necessarily limited to a particular region, but certainly wedded to a particular middle American (pastiche? milieu? I don't know, one of those fancy foreign-sounding words)