TL:DR: Observing unexpected patterns and behaviours creates best puzzles and genuine feeling of wonder – rare phenomena in our trope saturated culture.
I just finished reading The Arrival by Shaun Tan. An excellent surreal graphical novel about immigrating to a foreign culture, without a single written word. It conveyed the being present it genuinely different place, the boundaries set from not understanding the communication – language, visual traditions, patterns of how machines operate etc. This was contrasted and bound together with cultural experience of being human – eating, sleeping, working, playing, and how all this was happened without and regardless of the common language.
A Clock that reads in unknown way, a Ticket machine that has handle and a dial, but no instructions, peculiar musical instruments. foreign food that is prepared with odd objects and eaten with peculiar manners, alien pets and flowers, their life cycles and behaviours, odd machines of industry and agriculture, the ballgame without familiar rules, unusual means of transportation etc. The little things of daily life where the meaning is roughly known but without insight on the the culture, makes the application difficult, even dangerous.
Brought up the idea of usage of pepper mills in our cuisine and how would it appear to someone who doesn’t know of it – an oddly shaped cylinder rotated on the top of a veal but not on top of a ice cream? Why, is it because the other is hot and other is cold, shaped differently in different container, because of the taste or order of the servings? Why exactly is it done – does it add or remove something, maybe the veal has poison that is neutered by the workings of the cylinder, what is the grounded stuff? Maybe it is just a form of habit, like a prayer mills, and only some foods are deserving of it? What social means are there – why it is the “waiter”(without knowing what a waiter is) that usually does it – and is there a risk of offending or breaking a cultural norm?
Other works that with similar effect of genuinely foreign culture have been the Little Nemo books where the dream world works with their own surreal logic, Works of Bilal with unusual dark worlds and geometric forms in works Möebius, Surreal Codex Seraphinianus with its odd plants and machines, and in gaming, Journey and the Dig. Of indies, atmosphere of ipad game Sword & Sworcery reaches for it in a subtle manner.
Cultural habits stay foreign as long as the exposure is new. Recent video underlined how much the Aliens (1986) have changed our culture. The first common exposure to pulse-rifles, space marines, motion sensor and other tropes of the genre. To someone who has never seen the original, it all seems so familiar trough other stories, while when it was new, it was visionary. Unlike comics, I can’t pinpoint a single movie where the new that it represented hasn’t already become a cliche.
Now that we are on the golden age of indie gaming and game industry in general, it is saddening to see how little wonder there really is. Use of tropes is common – elves sleep in beds, white glow in weapon means ice or electric bonus, aliens might have foreign font and face, but they use weapons in same way as we do and the faces are readable. One could go long for how little there are truly alien species in fiction, but I rather leave it with this link in io9 which has gathered few successful examples of it.
In games on the other hand, scenic design and architecture often manages to go out there. but the cultural reading is common. There are beds, utensils, screens, vending machines, weapons, means of travel, maybe even on purpose, things seem to return to more readable form. Example being the water-dwelling Murlocks of WoW – why do they build huts, when something way more fishy dwellings could have been there, say, a shell-formed hole-like construction, and some strawpill+knife typed utensil for sucking in the edible parts of the meal. Being an unplayable enemy species, I love that there is portrayal of culture and habits which lifts them above them mere beasts, but there is so much more that it could’ve been.
Argument against genuine alienation has been that they are not really stories about aliens, but stories of of us, human nature and conflict, in situations which the fictional setting allows. Thus common ground is elemental.
Often in fiction, oddity is portrayed as form of religion, and justifying the surreal behaviours because the inherent mysterious natures of religions. This is a easy and boring cope-out and of the the portrayed religions aren’t that foreign. Ritual sacrifices or totem poles might have been odd 60 years ago, but in our saturated culture, we are aware of the stories relating to them. Are there actually fictional religions that are truly odd but with solid internal logic? That logic in general is the part that is required for fictional world to be beliavable, rules and forms maybe different, but they behaved in a coherent manner. Figuring out the rules behind the patterns are the puzzles of wonder. Like a newborn child figuring out the rules of the environment and their role in it. This emotion and the puzzles offering it are the gems that I seek in games, and knowing we live in the golden age of indie game development – the treasures must be out there, somewhere hidden in app-store with poor marketing and less than 50k downloads. Among thousands of games without any significant creative insight and with similarly poor marketing, execution and success.
In a manner, I feel that this, genuine creativity and feeling of wonder that dares to take risk of portraying something unfamiliar is requirement for making a successful game of exploration. I realize that this is the reason I disliked Minecraft, while great, it was very familiar. In the end, it is a question of cultural saturation.
If your game has a elements of exploration, wonder and mystery, you should seek to create something genuinely foreign, unseen, and create foreign culture with habits and patterns, instead of reskinning known tropes our our own behaviour in odd colours.
- What is the interesting amount of familiarity? Can it be too foreign to be interesting?
- What is the scientific research relevant for the topic. Alienation and cultural conflicts are certainly aspects of immigration. How about in fiction – what are the means to convey foreigness?
- This explain the fame of awarded comics by Matti Hagelberg, (which I personally have aversion for, just because of the art style). It is a view to a odd world with coherent internal logic, that the fans truly appreciate.
- What indie games reach for this? How would one find them?
- Assigment 1: Design alien post-service. How in a truly foreign world, one would go about sending a present to friend living far. A juicy topic that conveys trough many aspects of culture.
- Assigment 2: Comment and describe a baffling foreign experience, real or fictional you’ve experienced.
- Any sci-fi / fantasy books or comics that do aliens and cultures well without being tropes yet?