Many of my friends have been talking to me about Star Trek lately. This makes me very happy, because usually I’m the one starting conversations about Star Trek. Somewhere within me is a kid who’s over the goddamn moon to know that one day, her skin will be clear, her bed will be shared, and her peers will genuinely want to ask her about the guiding principles of Starfleet. I love being in my thirties.
I adore stealth games, and the Dishonored series is right at the top of my list. Aside from satisfying my need for sneaky stabs (or stabby sneaks, take your pick), both games are a treasure trove of background art. I often hear the setting described as steampunk, but that misses the mark. This, my friends, is straight-up whalepunk.
Staged in a magic-tinged analog of late-1800s London, Dishonored exists in a world of gilt and grime. Mechanical marvels clank past packs of plague rats. Street gangs clash with oppressive clergy. The excitement of scientific discovery shines alongside the shadow of grisly occultism. Everywhere you turn, there’s beautiful paintings, filthy beggars, brass gadgets, sticky-looking pubs, and tins of jellied eels. This is a place where everything is possible and nothing will ever be okay.
Funkos are, by definition, impersonal. They’re the poster child of mass-produced fandom, different paint jobs slapped around the same standard-issue skeleton. So it strikes me as funny that I can’t find a way to write this post that isn’t personal. Bear with me, I promise it’ll come back around to lovable kitsch.
The Hall of Video Game Art, Exhibit 714: Yes, This Post Is About Breasts But It's Not What You Think
Ah, environmental storytelling. It is, without question, one of the things I love best. I’m delighted whenever I encounter it, be it in film, in illustration, in theme parks — and yes, indeed, in video games. In this series, I’ll be taking a deep dive into some of my favorite examples within that modern medium. See, I come from a theater background, and I’m often struck by the parallels between plays and games. Both are creative composites, constructed from elements that can be appreciated on their own — writing, music, vocal performance, costumes, and so forth — but come together into something greater than the sum of their parts. And just as every play exists on borrowed time, so, too, does a game. A theatrical production eventually closes; a game eventually becomes unplayable as computers progress. C'est la vie.
That limited lifespan is what makes me want to celebrate the small details that bring virtual worlds to life. Many objects I’ll describe in the months ahead cannot be interacted with. None are addressed by dialogue, nor are they required by quests. These are things you could easily walk past or miss altogether. The brilliant background is what I’m tackling, the sublime details that transform a mere scaffold of pixels into a soulful work of art.
Which is why I’ll begin with Bethany Hawke’s tits.
There are two things I need you to understand here.
The first is there are many varieties of Star Wars fans, and I’m of the sort whose love for the whole thing is rooted solely to the original trilogy. I never got a proper introduction to the Expanded Universe, I haven’t read any of the new books or comics, and I remember the prequels with the clarity of a fever dream. I’ve seen maybe three episodes of The Clone Wars, which I would’ve adored as a kid but didn’t grab me as an adult. I’ve played the Old Republic games, and enjoyed them very much, but they served as something small and ancillary to the main event: The Millennium Falcon, the Battle of Hoth, philosophy lessons with Old Ben. The small amount of Star Wars tie-in stuff I’ve dabbled in was a good time. The original trilogy — and now, The Force Awakens, which my heart welcomed in with ease — I hold on a different level. That’s hallowed legend to me. That’s my canon.
That’s the first thing. The second is I’m about to throw down some Rogue One spoilers. You have been warned.
Game: SimAnt: The Electronic Ant Colony (1991)
Developer: Maxis Software
Original platform: DOS, Amiga, and SNES, to name a few
Greetings, human reader. I am an ant. I have lived as an ant. I have died as an ant. I have been reborn as an ant more times than I can count. This poses some interesting questions concerning the nature of cooperative insects and the finer points of reincarnation, but these are topics best left to you modern primates. It is not my place to speak on philosophy. I am an ant.
Game: Crosscountry Canada (1991)
Developer: Didatech Software Ltd.
Original platform: DOS
I’ve never been farther north in the Americas than Seattle, but I’ve long wanted to visit Canada. I have friends who make their homes there. I like trees. Vancouver sounds like it might be my jam. Every so often, my other half and I look at each other and say something to the effect of “we should make a Canada trip happen.”
But no more. I have spent an evening driving the roads of the Great White North, and I no longer care about Canada. Or video games. Or anything, really. All that’s left of me are ground-down teeth and an extreme aversion to maple syrup.
Game: Captain Bible in the Dome of Darkness (1994)
Developer: Bridgestone Multimedia Group
Original platform: DOS
I grew up in the Catholic Church, which feels exactly as an old religion should – austere, towering, kinda spooky. It’s got incense and chanting and gilded human bones. As a kid, mass was an experience that teetered between abject boredom and divine intimidation. There was nothing fun about it, nor should there have been. This was God’s House, and that meant serious business.
Game: Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego - Enhanced (1989)
Developer: Brøderbund Software, Inc.
Original platform: DOS
I know this is not the intended lesson of Carmen Sandiego, but god help me, I’m considering a life of crime.
Thanks to the Internet Archive, all the classic computer games are now available online - a blast of easily-emulated nostalgia that reminds us of after school computer lab and the era where you couldn't save games, find internet walk-throughs or even distinguish between the faces of the characters. Extended Memory is a second chance at classic games.
Game: Beyond Dark Castle (1987)
Developer: Silicon Beach Software
Original platform: Apple Macintosh
This is the first game I ever played.
I’m four years old, or maybe five — old enough to have developed some decent motor skills, young enough to still be sitting on my dad’s lap. We’re in front of his boxy beige Mac, and he’s teaching me how to use the keyboard, how to click the mouse. These are skills I’ll take for granted one day, things I’ll do while eating sandwiches or looking away from my screen. But in this moment, everything is new.