« Goldilocks and the Three EULAs | Main | The Image of the Undercity »

Aug 28, 2007



There's an immense wall between the two cultures which I think accounts for the symbolic nature of Victorian garden design and the relatively shallow references of pop/geek culture that dominate most virtual worlds, and I think it's made largely out the inhibitions of the former culture and the lack thereof in the latter.

The reason that the original Vickies (just to bring Stephenson into it for no good reason) were so symbolic in their discourses was because it was the only way they could communicate ideas and dreams that we take for granted in post-modernism.

Some have argued (O.B. Hardison comes to mind) limitations on creative works seem to be the spark that produces the most brilliance. It doesn't even seem to matter if the limitations are imposed by oneself or by a larger culture -- it's that the limitation gives an initial challenge to expression that allows someone who is engaged in a creative act to work against and play through.

When anything goes and you can say everything in explicit literal detail, there's a sort of emptiness to creation. But when you have to beat around the bush a bit (so to speak), you get led down passageways of allegory and metaphor that end up being richer than just putting it out there plain.

Also, I think it's a fair criticism that on the whole the folks who create virtual worlds (especially the AAA titles) don't really engage with their work in the same ways the fine artists and craftspeople do in a philosophical sense. I don't say this to cut them down, but to point out that the goals and maybe even the challenges are often so different -- for example, World of Warcraft is lauded for how accessible and intuitive it is, but fine art would rarely receive praise for the same accomplishment.


In hindsight, I should have been a bit more explicit:

With the exception of some fuzzy social/political messages not too cleverly embedded in narrative (I'm looking at you, Squaresoft) or the racist encodings that seem to be de rigueur in the sci-fi/fantasy genre worlds, I haven't seen anything comparable that comes to mind... but in fairness, I've wasted most of my time in AAA titles (e.g. WoW & Hello Kitty Island Adventure); it could be more common in the more independent virtual worlds.


Thought it is a single-player adventure, Bioshock has a lot of political and social messages scattered throughout the game that are fun to find. For instance, you encounter a character early in the game who is named "Andrew Ryan". After playing for a while, it makes sense that this character is clearly a nod to Ayn Rand. Rand's summary of Atlas Shrugged is heavily reflected in Andrew Ryan's philosophy in the game:

"My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." -- Ayn Rand, taken from Wikipedia

To avoid any spoilers, I won't go too far into detail, but there are many connections between the game's story and Rand's works. I don't know how well this example fits -- because it certainly isn't organic -- but it is entirely possible these messages and symbols are weaved into the design of Rapture (Bioshock's world) as a whole. It's something fun for players who notice the connections.


Great post, Nate. Those interested might enjoy Tom Stoppard's masterpiece (in my opinion), Arcadia, a meditation on very similar issues as the ones raised here -- the relationship between place and truth, naturalness and knowledge. There's a nice essay about it here.


How interesting, to be certain, that one of those areas in Bioshock is in fact named Arcadia - and offers itself to interpretation along the lines of both the area in Greece and the aforementioned play. Layers of metaphor, especially when one considers lovingly-crafted virtual worlds such as Rapture - and as stringent as the game is at times, Rapture IS fully as much a VW as anything Cyan has produced, in my opinion! - are perhaps the difference that separates architectural and formal standards from 'art'.

For the record, Bioshock's references to Randian sociology, as well as the very nature of Objectivism, are anything but organic: every single one was placed there with intent, to both subvert and support the theory. For those who have read Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead, the world is far more...alive, and far less shallow than it might otherwise be, and the tie-in from a completely fictional world to a real one is perhaps a thread other designers, developers, and artists can pay attention to.


The first thing I thought of, Nate, were the initials and such of Turbine developers that were literally part of the landscape in the original Asheron's Call world. Or the cow, in an early version of that game, whose spots were themselves a map of the world.

But I think you're looking for something a little deeper, more along the lines of what's been mentioned about Bioshock. I'm extremely glad to see this level of subtlety creeping into games. AFAIK it's all but entirely absent in MMOGs even now.

Peter Hanley said, When anything goes and you can say everything in explicit literal detail, there's a sort of emptiness to creation. But when you have to beat around the bush a bit (so to speak), you get led down passageways of allegory and metaphor that end up being richer than just putting it out there plain.

Writing in explicit detail is a choice, and typically the choice of hack writers. Just because you can write or show everything explicitly does not mean doing so is the better (more informative, engaging, communicative, illuminating) option. Putting your meaning just under the surface is more satisfying for all concerned, especially if you can do it in a way that doesn't bother the groundlings (that is, the uber-gamers and executive producers).

Allegory and metaphor are there for all of us, but doing this well is hard work. You can take the metaphors-in-a-blender approach as taken to such painful disappointment in the second and third Matrix movies ("look, it's 'the Merovingian!' Do they mean something cohesive by it? No... he's just a bad guy with a cool handle who's a snappy dresser."), or you can just go straight down the middle as most games do. But including metaphor, symbol, and meaning in a virtual world is still something that is almost unheard of. We're maturing slowly, I think.


I think that you might want to go to Better World Island in Second Life and check out the maze of Baghdad Streets. The build is not preachy, so much as it presents images, words and even a music video that draws together a meta-story.

The exhibit is drawn from correspondence between urban teachers and "at risk" kids in NYC with kids and teacher in Baghdad.

I actually think that it might map pretty well.

Although, I wonder if we have any vocabulary as assumptive and deep as the classical "language of flowers" and such. These are less subtle times.

The comments to this entry are closed.