Jul. 22, 2009 - Issue #718: Real as an Animal
Infinite Lives: Set your sails
As gamers, we're used to voyaging through fantastic worlds: magical forest
wonderlands filled with things to kill and rob, futuristic technopolises
filled with things to kill and rob, weird alien planets filled with things to
kill and rob ... if the human imagination can conceive a place in which to
kill and rob, the dreamweavers of video-game art can give it form. But
somehow, in the midst of all these palaces of crystal and sci-fi warehouses
glowing with shipping-crate technologies centuries ahead of our own, the most
fun is to be had in the most fantastic locale of all: real world planet
Earth. Or some demented abstraction thereof.
I downloaded Uncharted Waters: New Horizons off the Wii Virtual Console pretty much on complete impulse—an impulse that took me hard as soon as I saw the word "piracy." Adventure! Derring-do! Buying low! Selling high! That's good times!
My first time playing—well, more like my eighth time, following seven brief experiments in starving, sinking and getting my ass kicked—I went with what the legions online New Horizons fans assured my was the easiest scenario for beginners, the quest of a young Dutch geography-professor-turned-ship-captain to create the definitive map of the world. All that high-seas Errol Flynn stuff—cannons and swordfights and shit—could wait; all I wanted was the pure nerd pleasure of seeing those familiar continental contours gradually take form on my chart.
I don't know where it comes from, this joy in seeing real world planet Earth reflected in video-game form, but it's powerful; I'm so burned out on fantasy bullshit that I can be presented with some crazy surreal vista straight out of a van-airbrusher's wildest dream and just kind of yawn until the killing and robbing starts, but give me, say, a Spider-Man game, and I'm all like "Holy Jesus, yes, that is totally the Chrysler Building right there! Yes!" Same with New Horizons; hours and hours I spent virtually voyaging, hopping from thrill to geographic thrill. Madagascar! Newfoundland! Dublin! The Bering Strait! Baja California! Mecca!
Mecca? Sure, why not; this is where the "demented abstraction" comes in. In the 1500s as reimagined by the developers of Koei, that whole "We'll kill any infidel who dares enter the Holy City. Seriously, don't even try it" thing kind of fell away, and Mecca's just another great place to stock up on the Musk and Carpets they're so crazy for back in Amsterdam. There's not, in fact, a hint of religion anywhere in the game; in making New Horizons safe for the delicate minds of the English-speaking children of 1994, the translation/localization team were instructed to replace the churches of the Japanese original (and of, you know, actual history) with a secular institution. And so, where once were found blocky little huts representing the great cathedrals of Europe and the golden-domed mosques of Arabia, one now finds local chapters of the "Round Earth Society," where one may "study" rather than pray.
It's actually a real nostalgia trip, playing these games from the era (which isn't completely over) of Nintendo's maniacal insistence on wholesome Bowdlerization for the North American market. "Hey, you rowdy bunch of scurvy sea-dogs, hanging around this notorious quayside coffee shop! Help yourselves to a flagon of delicious hot cocoa, on me! Careful, though; don't drink too much of that powerful cocoa! I need you mangy bilge-rats clear-headed when we sail for Bordeaux to pick up a consignment of that city's most famous export: RAISINS! Arr-harr!"
Still, even without opting for the kill-and-rob path of piracy, and even without alcohol references, New Horizons is a lot of fun. And I don't think any amount of virtual killing and robbing could give me the same kind of pleasure I got when I returned to Europe from my survey of the Americas and proudly announced my latest marvelous discovery: "Your Highness, check this shit out. It's a motherfuckin' bison! It's like a cow, but it's freakin' huge! Yes, thank you, a Dukedom will do nicely as a reward for showing you this awesome thing." V
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