I picked up a mystery novel the other day. It was on a whim; I was doing some research on cave diving for a story and – since I find creative writers and journalists tend to focus on vastly different things when they write – I thought I’d try something out from the Fiction section.
It ended up being pretty good. Not earth-shattering, but not everything has to be. More importantly I learned that its author, Nevada Barr, is a former park ranger who has actually written an entire series of mysteries set in national parks. What a unique angle, I thought. I mentioned it to Stu “Master of the Four Elements” Horvath, and in doing so described it thusly:
“It’s like if Firewatch were a series of mystery novels.”
Clearly not the world’s best 1:1 comparison, and a little mortifying in its own way, that that would be the first title I would reach for. Not because Firewatch is bad or anything – it’s a wonderful, beautiful little game and I hope Valve treats its creators better than some of the other developers that have joined and left its stable – but there just have to be more appropriate works that I could’ve gone with instead. I’m just not coming up with any. Uh, 127 Hours? That one kinda racist Fallout New Vegas DLC? Parks and Recreation might actually come closest, despite not being what I mean at all.
National parks are more of a nostalgic nowhere-space.
My point is that national parks don’t really feature much in popular culture. The last time Americans got really interested in the U.S. National Park Service, it was because a few rogue (or ostensibly rogue) social media accounts protested the anti-science, anti-conservationist gestures coming from the squatter in the White House. More recently, the government shutdown bullshit led to a national park making the news because people in this country can’t be left alone in nature for five minutes without destroying something.
Maybe if there were some highly-polished Netflix drama or an educational hip-hop musical about the NPS, more folks would get up in arms when something challenged the sanctity of its existence. Any American is pretty much programmed from birth to refer to the national parks as “our national treasure” – which they are – but how many of us have actually ever been to one, besides perhaps when we were children? If you’ve lived in a large city most of your life, as I have, national parks are more of a nostalgic nowhere-space where vague tree things happen, and also canyons, and maybe some raccoons? They’re just not, you know, exciting.
(Please, if anyone from the NPS is reading this, don’t take me up on that educational hip-hop musical idea. You don’t need to rebrand that badly.)
Here’s an embarrassing confession: I want to play Far Cry 5. The only Far Cry I’ve ever played is Blood Dragon, I’m not actually that good at first-person shooters, and everything I’ve read about the intellectual cowardice of Far Cry 5’s whole cult plot should put me off the game entirely. And yet – it’s set in Montana. I’m from Montana. I just went back to visit it this past summer for basically the first time since I was a child – my last visit was actually five years ago, but it was winter and I stayed indoors the whole time – and I pine for it the way a dead parrot pines for the fjords. It’s so bad that I am willing to play a game I will almost certainly hate just for the chance of stepping back into that beautiful place.
And I know it will be beautiful, because so much of the machinery of the modern game industry is in building this sort of virtual tourism. AAA blockbuster games are constantly disgorging exquisitely rendered natural environments on us, only for the player to spend the next 12 hours ignoring it entirely because if they stop for one second, something will shoot at them. It’s the biggest, most heartbreaking misapplication of talent I know of in this field. At least the proliferation of photo modes is hopefully starting to counteract it.
So much of the machinery of the modern game industry is in building this sort of virtual tourism.
Far Cry 5 got its own post-release photo mode last year, which is something. But what if I want a story? Maybe someone’s made a Nevada Barr mod where you go around investigating a political power struggle between the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Or maybe I’ll have to make it myself. I just kind of find myself craving an experience that doesn’t really exist in games, and that sucks because we tell ourselves constantly that games are these ~infinite possibility spaces~ where you can do and explore anything. Except, apparently, the many thousands of weird niche genres that seem to exist just fine in other media.
It isn’t really murder mysteries in national parks that I’m on about here. It’s that for as much as we’ve beaten this drum over the last few years about games maturing and diversifying… it’s pretty much just the same old stories and settings as ever. The Last of Us, frequently held up as one of the most sophisticated games of its generation, is still at the end of the day a zombie shooter. The Long Dark is still crafting and survival against a needless “global disaster” backdrop. Even Firewatch can’t resist leaning heavily on a narrative of government conspiracy and paranoia, red herring though it may be.
The really small indies manage it the best (Hundvan, Kona), but maybe I want to wander around an expensive, gorgeously realized virtual Montana without getting both-sides-ed by cultists from the Church of Very Not Racist, Also It’s The Drugs’ Fault. Maybe I wish we could put these big beautiful game engines and talented artists to use on something besides genre schlock and masocore survival crafting now and then.
Maybe I’m getting tired of being told games can be anything, and then finding any ol’ random book in the library fiction section can dance circles around it while still only being just so-so.
I don’t need games to grow up. I just need them to step outside sometime.