Does destruction require a past?

| Friday, April 26, 2013
Bioshock takes the player back through some areas after they've been attacked by the Vox Populi.  The once-pristine streets of Columbia, so clean that even stray coins are thrown in the trash, are now covered in ashes and corpses.  Is the effect made any greater by taking the player through a second time?

The first viewing gives a contrast.  You can see what it was a few hours or days before (the gameplay is long enough that I wonder if we ever sleep) and what it is now.  The upright trash can is knocked over.  The sign that you read before in burned.  Yet I don't think it does much.  The first time through an area is brief and prone to distractions such as bullets and explosions.  Players aren't likely to have much familiarity, let alone nostalgia: "And that's where I shot my first cop!"  We're not going to run through thinking about how different it looks now.  The destruction is self-evident.  We've seen other parts of Columbia and therefore have a general idea of what it looks like, so repeating the same area doesn't carry any more weight than an entirely new place.  Even if we hadn't seen Columbia, I think people have a general idea of what a post-war area looks like.  We didn't need to see Rapture before society collapsed to know that something had gone wrong.  Fire, corpses, and bullet holes are rarely the signs of a stable, peaceful society.

The type of destruction matters.  Contrast Columbia or Rapture with Azeroth after the Cataclysm.  Something big happened.  Yet if you didn't play before, what was it?  The slash across the Barrens is clearly a problem, and of course the fact that the resulting two zones still share the name of Barrens indicates to new players that something has changed, dramatically.  On the other hand, Thousand Needles, which old players will know was completely reshaped, looks a little odd, but the lack of fire and the underwater nature of the destruction means that it doesn't look as if it was radically altered.

Overall I think the lesson to take away is that destruction does not require a before and after picture set.  If the previous land was one to which the player had an emotional connection, such as a half-decade of Azerothian adventuring memories, then the knowledge of what came before is powerful.  Without the emotional connection, then it is less likely that knowing the past is of any use.  When there is fire and destruction of buildings (since we know generally what they look like, with vertical walls and horizontal floors), then it's redundant to give a picture of what it once was.


Anonymous said...

Might be worth noting that there *is* evidence of what Thousand Needles once was, it's just mostly hidden underwater. I rather like that, in that it's a bit like archaeology, but less digging through dirt. There's data to be found, stories to infer, but you have to go looking for them.

I like that approach to suggesting the past; you're right, it's not necessary to have before and after pictures to spell everything out. You can see from what's there that *something* went awry.

Pripyat is a good real world example. If you don't know anything about the reactor incident, you can still look at pictures of the place and tell that there's history there, and it's not all good.

Klepsacovic said...

Pripyat is such a sad story. A modern city, carefully designed, barely used, because of that other modern design (that failed).

Have you ever looked at pictures of Detroit? The similarities are remarkable, though I sometimes notice a difference. Detroit has abandoned property, so people remain to loot and squat. Pripyat is all abandoned, so there's less looting and more nature.

I wish they'd taught this in history class. Whenever I'd see long-lost ruins of Roman cities or Mayan temples I'd wonder how people managed to forget about them. It never occurred to me that sometimes we just abandon perfectly usable places for external reasons. Will we one day discover the ruins of Detroit?

Anonymous said...

A significant part of Detroit is already ruins. It makes for some awesome photos, but yeah, it's a very sad story and an excellent case study. I guess we could add Battleship Island (Hashima) to the list of abandoned places that make for good study as well. Or the abandoned pseudo-Disneyland in China. It's interesting to see why places get abandoned sometimes. Plenty of story hooks, too.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Detroit, I found this fascinating:

Klepsacovic said...

Interesting contrast. The comment at the end was pretty damn stupid though.

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