When I was younger, I used to visit a small piece of beach with my family near Minehead, UK, called Blue Anchor. It was a rather pebbly beach – full of rocks, wet sand and tripping hazards. Yet, there was one defining thing about Blue Anchor that made it worth it – sitting in the distance was something that we called the “LAVA ROCK”. It was named so after its composure – layers of ash black rock, intercepted with layers of ash white rock, pieces of translucent orange Lava Rock jutting out from it.
Me and my brothers loved this Lava Rock – every year we’d snap off some of the orange lava to bring back and present to our grandparents. We’d climb up it, waving at our parents from the top. We’d play spies on it, hide from each other, run around it screaming, until at last we were tired enough to walk back, through the rocks and wet sand.
This year, when I went to visit my Granddad with my parents, we went back to Blue Anchor, and back to the Lava Rock. It had changed. A gradual shift had caused it to topple, lying with its belly up, facing the stars. This dramatic toppling (a lot of the cliff next to it too, had fallen) gave way to a new perspective of the Lava Rock. Instead of being surrounded by orange lava, just black and white layers of ash remained. Walking to the other side of it, instead of a sheer cliff face, appeared a ramp, leading to the top. The change gave both a new perspective and new opportunities.
Over the past couple of years, a gradual shift has been taking place in games. Much like the Lava Rock it hasn’t been immediately noticeable. Beginning with the smaller pieces, and slowly working its way towards gaming’s top dogs, games are slowly being transformed, from places to do stuff, to places to be in. As you may already know - this isn't a revelatory statement - it's been one that critics have been discussing for a while. But what makes these games different? Is there any use of games as a space?
Let us begin to answer that question, by looking at one of the more recent examples of this - No Man’s Sky. No Man’s Sky seemed to be pitched initially as one of “The Ultimate Games” - a game in which you can go anywhere, do anything and be anyone. (Star Citizen is another example of “The Ultimate Game”, and one that seems to be coming closest to achieving that vision). However, when No Man’s Sky eventually released, it was not the sprawling, wide reaching, player focused ULTIMATE GAME that a lot of people had been expecting. Rather, what emerged was a different game entirely.
No Man’s Sky focused on its environment, a showcase of Hello Games’ algorithm, the player taking a transient role within its universe. Planets were these gorgeous alien worlds, always whispering in your ear, asking you to push that little bit further. Barren planets full of toxic fumes, planets full of strange rock formations reaching up towards the sky, planets featuring huge peaceful insectoids, planets teeming with valuable resources, planets with deep caves, planets with huge mountains. Planets with a seemingly infinite amount of possibility and explorability. No Man’s Sky is a game built around these places, the player slowly bumbling from one to the next, staring wide eyed at the horizon, before blasting off back into space, the multicoloured nebulae winking in the distance.
No Man’s Sky works best when it is simply being a place. When you climb to the top of a hill and stare out across the planet, at every crevice, every mountain. One of the main parts of No Man’s Sky’s gameplay loop is its scanner, which scans your local environment, returning back points of interest to you: resources, bases, fauna, crashed spaceships. These temporary waypoints are there to give the player a reason to push forward, to continue exploring. Yet, the focus of them is simply temporary - the reward being the environment itself, rather than the chosen objective.
In fact, No Man’s Sky’s core loops are made to push the player to continuously move, to exist as a nomad in an almost infinite amount of worlds, to trundle in a battered up spaceship from planet to planet. It does this by using ever tantalizing objectives that are just out of your reach, combined with resource bars that are constantly depleting, giving you a small sense of urgency to keep moving. No Man’s Sky’s space is one made for the player to be in, to observe, explore, or just stare.
Whilst No Man’s Sky is a more mainstream example, using a more traditional gameplay loop to support the sense of place and being, other games forgo this and instead simply place the player into an abstract world, to simply “exist”, in an instance of that world. There are obvious variations on this concept - some simply place you in a static, wordless world, such as a lot of Connor Sherlock’s games and Matthew Keff’s games. Others place you in various instances of that world; perhaps different seasons or times within it (see Lieve Oma, Little Party and Firewatch). Another iteration would be various small scenes, all of which are interlinked, perhaps by theme, story or artstyle (see I’ve Been Late or The Endless Express).
The Endless Express
Simple iterations on the core verb of ‘existing’ are plentiful and probably near infinite; shown by the continuous innovation appearing from the “walking simulator” genre over the past few years. Some of the most loudly shouted about games in the past decade have been games that fit into games as a place; Gone Home, Journey, Dear Esther, Firewatch, Proteus - all examples of games that critics have gushed over, thousands of hot takes written about, ongoing debates and discussions continue to war on within forum threads to this very day.
So, yes, games that exist to be somewhere to inhabit, exist and continue to thrive - recent examples being Tale of Tale’s Endless Forest 2.0 and Meadow, a game heavily influenced by Endless Forest. These two are both particularly interesting examples as they are primarily multiplayer focused. Instead of relying on just the player’s interpretation of peaceful environments, they instead have connected worlds, where the only communication between players is done through gestures/emotes. This simple change instantly negates the common associated behaviour with online games - rage filled players screaming at you to “GIT GUD”.
These games instead, exist as somewhere for players to relax. Online places for players to be in, where they don’t have to be on guard all the time. Instead, actions between each other are nearly wholly friendly, creating an oasis of happiness in a culture that sometimes feels devoid of peace.
A more specific defining factor of all of these games is that they are games centred around bringing a sense of emotion to the player, rather than focusing on adjectives which the player can do. Instead of a games focused on “jump” or “shoot”, these places focus on emotions like “relaxation”, “happiness” or “a sense of peace”. Through focusing on an emotion, these games transcend the traditional game format to create unique locations and a welcome shift.
As Kate Gray’s recent excellent musings on a trend in games as “comfort spaces” discuss, these oases of peace aim to give the player a different experience, providing islands of safety. Dream Dreamer is almost a literal example of this - a micro game, an island of sun bleached pinks, yellows, greens and blues, a downloadable daydream. This island is devoid of interaction, bar walking around it. Describing it feels pointless - it shouldn't exist. It feels like it belongs on a battered old USB stick, meant for grey days and rainy nights, a place to stare into and lose yourself in.
Similarly, Proteus reaches at similar thoughts, but instead of existing as a static scene, Proteus generates an entire island, with multiple seasons. Whilst Dream Dreamer gives you a small space of which to pace back and forth, Proteus is almost a visual generative soundtrack. Chickens run away from you, their musical clucks adding to the humming atmosphere of the island. Frogs bounce away with a satisfying note, eerie towers glitching noises popping in your ears the closer you walk to them. Whilst Dream Dreamer gives off the sense of a daydream caught in a bottle, Proteus evokes the feeling of walking on seldom trodden walks, through tall grass hills and past overgrown buildings, insects, animals and the unknown all around you, seeping into your very being.
Whilst I fondly remember the Lava Rock to this very day, it too inevitably shifted, falling from its high plateau and onto its side. It’s still there, and is still a great landmark (I often think up backstories for it in my head). It falling over led to new experiences - its gradual shift, whilst scary at first, became exciting and new. Games too are shifting and splitting, cracking and falling apart like the Lava Rock. Whilst games as a place will never, and should never, replace the more traditional style of games, it has carved out its own space within the industry, pushing and pushing until its Lava Rock fell, leaving space for new experiences, new endeavours and new triumphs.
As Kate Gray tweeted, we need “Games that create a little space for you to inhabit, and give you almost no control - the play equivalent of having someone take care of you”. In such a tumultuous world, one falling back into its old crooked holes of hatred, manipulation and destruction, what we really need is a place to take care of us, one that is far from anger, malice and spite, instead offering somewhere to recuperate. Stop, just for a moment, and listen for the fall of the Lava Rock.