Friday, March 23, 2007

Food, water and medicine as treasure

No game has ever made me this thirsty.

Wandering around the earthquake-shattered ruins of Stiver Island, shouting into the evacuated silence for help that never shouts back, dodging falling rubble knocked loose by aftershocks, one thought lies above and around everything else: water. Dripping taps, stagnant pools on cracked asphalt, bottles forgotten in ransacked convenience stores… any and all nontoxic moisture is a treasure to be seized, hoarded, dripped as sparingly as possible down my parched throat.

Yeah, Disaster Report, the PS2 quake-survivor adventure from out of '02 – another happy recovery in this, the New Golden Age of bargain-bin diving. All the Wiitards and XBoxers and… and PlayStation 3 Owners… have been dumping the last-gen B-listers from their collections for credit towards the latest and greatest, and the used-game stockpiles overflow with quality titles at everything-must-go prices. There’s a lot of forgettable crap – twenty copies of Mace Griffin, anyone? – but lots of gold, too. Thus I rebuild my library of swapped-away favorites. Maybe tomorrow it’ll be Monster Rancher 2, or Suikoden. Or maybe… Bushido Blade? Too much to hope for.

Anyway, Disaster Report. Developer Irem took the survival-adventure genre and removed the zombies, creating a man-against-environment game that presents some ye-olde-fashioned puzzle solving (i.e. MacGyvering) in a disturbing setting in which the eerie silence of the deserted city is punctuated by moments of rumbling terror – collapsing walls, exploding tankers, and lots of terrifying dangles. Sprinkle it with an unfolding conspiracy backstory, and you’ve got some pretty unique gaming.

It took a non-gamer, though, to point out one disturbing aspect of this thirsty crawl through virtual rubble: is Disaster Report a post-catastrophe training simulator? The idea that videogames are, either by conspiracy or through unconscious cultural genius, conditioning gamers for real-world scenarios is as old as games themselves. Remember the schoolyard rumour about Zaxxon and/or Gorf and/or any other game with a flightstick-style controller? That there was a secret direct line to the Air Force coming out of every cabinet, and that high-scoring players would be visited by men in uniforms and recruited to do battle with Commie air aces when the shit came down? That’s some powerful terror/fantasy, right there; ever 80s arcade dweeb dreamed/nightmared The Last Starfighter.

There’s no doubt games can be powerful trainers and conditioning tools; anybody who’s logged enough time on any game knows how in-game reflexes creep into daily psychology. A Tetris juicer friend of mine describes the sensation of seeing all geometric shapes – buildings, cars, people – as pieces of a packing puzzle to be solved; when I was playing Duke Nuke’m heavy there for a while, I couldn’t see a ventilation grille without twitching to kick it in and crawl through. That the US Army uses videogames for recruitment and subsequent training is no big news – multiplayer squad simulators are an essential part of readying modern gunts for combat.

So. If Zaxxon was getting getting us ready to shoot down Russian MiGs and Tu-160s, and first-person shooters are cutting months off basic combat training, what does that say about Disaster Report? With global warming a surefire reality, was a relatively obscure Japanese game publisher prepping us for the war against – or, more accurately, the desperate holding action in the face of – nature itself?

Well, let’s not get carried away. For one thing, though the game’s environment is supposed to be a disaster area, it hardly corresponds to what anyone could expect in a real catastrophe zone. Stiver Island is crumbling, but it’s mostly clean and seems more-or-less unlooted, and it's totally emptied of people – the fact the evacuation was so near-perfect actually makes the fact your dude got left behind rather crazy-improbable. Think of New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina: the chaos, the confusion, mad looting, the near-total unreliability of official authority, the health crisis, the formation of gangs and mobs, the hellhole of the Superdome. In that context, the only thing Disaster Report really simulates is the critical importance of water supplies… and, depending on who you believe, the presence of an amoral conspiracy of greedheads at the top of the blame ladder.

The more of I think of Katrina/New Orleans as a sim scenario, though… Jesus, that would make for some intense play! A massively multiplayer post-catastrophe urban survival game? Survivors gathering into clans for protection or raiding… guns and ammo being coveted as magic weapons… food, water and medicine as treasure… inter- (and intra-) gang politics and warfare… unpredictable cops and militias… fear upon fear... jeez.

Now, there’s a game that could have real-world training value, given enough accuracy in its modelling of civil-defense and survival techniques. Even if it gathered only a few dozens of thousands of players (half-decent numbers for a MMOG that’s not World of Warcraft) that’s a few thousand more citizens with serious VR training in coping with a massive disaster scenario – and we’re going to need every one of them, sooner rather than later.

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