A recent thought has been on my mind when thinking about archaeologists making games. At conferences and in publications, the big discussion is virtual reality and first person experiences. Making games that are realistic as possible is considered a goal by many archaeologists creating these archaeology games to present a site or a culture. I keep thinking about how some of the most impactful gaming experiences I’ve had come from indy games that were not trying to recreate physical spaces to the exact specifications. By this I mean, art styles can have an impact on the feel from a game as much as a story. And it is these story driven, artistic games that become popular on the indy scene. While hyperrealism and the generation of 3D worlds and first person experiences of cultures and sites is important for a variety of reasons, I don’t know if it is the ultimate experience to engage and compel people that we might think it is.
A lot of time first person experiences that require proficiency in keyboard and mouse or a controller that may be a problem for some users, especially the older crowds. There was a time when I found the idea of controlling my character and experience with a keyboard and mouse to be daunting and unintuitive. Though I’ve learned the skill, I still find myself preferring controller use in many games. We also can’t forget that a large number of people playing games do so on mobile devices, not just consoles or computers. Similarly, a smaller portion of people have used VR headsets. While the technology is becoming more abundant and accessible, there is still a long way to go. There’s also that little issue of motion sickness in VR headsets. Learning to navigate a VR space, especially for people who didn’t grow up with computers and game consoles, is quite a challenge. I often find myself witnessing folks who cannot figure out how to navigate a 3D environment in a VR headset, and even with a keyboard and mouse to some extent. Trying to explain navigation and button mapping to anyone not familiar with it already is one of the challenges that we cannot afford to ignore when developing a game meant for general public use.
It’s not just in the controls where the first person and VR experience might become an issue. I find a lot of times that cheap graphics qualities can be sometimes more distracting than they are helpful in 3D environments. While I understand that archaeologists, especially academics, cannot afford their own full time 3D artists to generate models and textures that look like Triple A game studios, the models and textures available for free or a small fee are not the prettiest or most accurate. Now I understand this might be a bit controversial seeing as some popular games have found success with low quality graphics, but I’d like to argue the difference between intentional and artistic styles versus those used for a lack of monetary funds.
Artistic style in visuals is where I spend most of my thoughts on this issue of hyperrealism. I think that instead of focusing on fully recreating a place with the intention of being an exact clone of the original archaeological site might be rather unhelpful for many use-cases. Graphics quality can sometimes age a game to a fault or become distracting in a space that is supposed to be an immersive VR experience. But in games where a style is chosen that is not hyperrealistic, this aging and distraction is less of this issue. It allows the player to focus on the story and the environment without pulling them out of the experience.
Take for instance Journey. The 3D environment and the player characters are designed with a thoughtful artistic style. The game has you walk through ruins. The story is told through the environment. I think a lot of people would tell you this game one of the most impactful experience they’ve had. A carefully developed artistic style that doesn’t have a problem with aging models and textures like the Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect titles. These massive franchises built on the some of the most advanced graphics of the time show their age if you replay the original (not remastered) copies.
I think archaeologists can learn a lot about “affective” game design from games like Journey. The story doesn’t require the hiring of voice actors or reading text that may need to be translated to tell an impactful story of the place. I don’t think we should forget that gaming is so impactful and engaging because of the storytelling it provides. Walking simulators have had a lot of success. You can walk around an environment and look at things, but the storytelling is still thoughtfully placed in the world, whether that be through radio conversations, reading text entires, or finding little bits of the past on the ground like artifacts.
Let’s look at Firewatch. The game was quite popular when it came out. It’s a walking simulator and it is first person. The chosen 3D art style adds to the feel and environment that your character explores. You find little bits of paper with a story to follow, sites with more pieces of information and artifacts from previous Summers, and little radio conversations about the current situation in the forest. All of the stories woven into the experience are impactful through the narratives as well as through the use of the environment to tell the story.
Neither Journey or Firewatch are first person or VR experiences, rather games meant to be played on a screen which is just as impactful and engaging while also being accessible on computers and consoles. They rely on their storytelling methods for engagement and continued play and their artistic styles provide a long-lasting and immersive environment. The specifically chosen art style in the environment help to make games memorable, too. I have not covered here 2D games like Gris which are similarly impactful in environmental and storytelling as 3D games.
Minecraft and Roblox are incredibly popular platforms which provide a place for archaeologists to harness specific art styles and familiar controls to bring archaeological sites to life in the online world. These platforms are successful for a variety of reasons, like accessibility and virtual interaction among players. They certainly use their own artistic styles and strengths to engage audiences in archaeological sites, though I cannot comment on story and narrative or ease of use since I don’t play these games. There is certainly a larger conversation to be had about these platforms as dissemination and educational environments.
Archaeogames don’t have to be limited to experiencing a 3D VR environment that is a hyperrealistic reconstruction of a site. Archaeologists and anthropologists can use games to tell stories about a culture or a place using varying art styles and concepts to engage audiences. While these first person and VR experiences are exciting in the current technical landscape, a variety of archaeogames could provide different avenues (at varying levels of cost) for the exploration of cultures, historic sites, and their stories.