I’m as bored as everyone else is when it comes to the old games are like x debate. Games are like books or movies? Hmm. Games are like music? In some ways. Games are like poetry, games are like architecture – all of these connections are interesting and shed a certain light on a specific aspect of what games can be, but they aren’t the whole story. How could they be? Games are like games, and the thrill of them is that no other category captures the same strange richness and blend of ideas.
It’s worth having had this discussion, I suspect, just to arrive at that notion: that games are their own thing. It feels a bit like the process new parents often go through in the early months of getting to know their baby: there’s a bit of your dad in the way he chews, say, or she gets that temper from her uncle. Eventually – hopefully relatively quickly, in fact (and no pun intended) – you set the family tree to one side. The baby is its own thing, too. Its fate is to be unique, as the great Oliver Sacks has written. Its destiny is to be irreplaceable.
Even so, these conversations never entirely go away. They trail off, and can burst back to life at strange moments. A 6 year old will suddenly, and very briefly, look like a long-dead relative, when eating a sandwich perhaps, or getting annoyed about Frozen. Equally, every now and then it will occur to you that, whoa, there is another thing that games are a bit like.
This happened to me this week, through the inevitable happy accident. On and off, I’ve been reading Baljinder Mahal’s brilliant book The Queen’s Hinglish, which is all about the wonderfully evocative things that happen when South Asia starts to riff on the English language. Air-dash, right? Verb: to travel by air at short notice. Timepass, noun: a hobby. “What do you do for timepass?” You are unambiguously better off with these words in your life. Every year or so a newspaper does a piece on the latest neologisms to enter the OED, and they’re generally so wretched. Selfie. Meh. What’s brilliant about Hinglish is that you sense its words must pass two hurdles rather than one. Yes, they must be useful, but they must also be fun to say.
At the same time as I’ve been thinking about all this, I’ve also been playing very early code for The Flame in the Flood, a recent Kickstarter success from – stop me if you’ve heard this one – BioShock veterans. Oh, and Halo, Guitar Hero and Rock Band veterans. I think I see something of Hinglish at work here, too, although that glorious title gives the whole thing the peculiar sodden austerity of a lost Faulkner novel, and although the most obvious touchstone is The Road, or perhaps more accurately Huckleberry Finn. Whatever: the Hinglish element comes from the approach taken to genre, of a spiky and sprightly portmanteau emerging from the unlikely welding of two existing things.
In this case, and based on a very limited playtime, it’s the survival genre and – to a certain extent – the endless runner. Granted, it’s mostly the survival genre. You play as a young girl – and her dog, which is always money in the bank – who’s picking a path through a backwoods, post-collapse wasteland of some kind, pillaging from old refrigerators, drinking from water barrels and collecting herbs wherever they grow. There’s crafting and there’s metre-management, as you’re always just itching to drop dead from hunger, from thirst, from the damp, from an encounter with the local wildlife. So far, there’s more than enough to orient you, and it’s helped along by wonderfully evocative art, all rusting golden-browns and rotting blues and greens, and by the judicious use of procedural elements.
What takes it from a nice example of something I’ve played before and into the realms of the pleasantly disorienting, though, is that you have a raft, and that you can opt to leave whichever miserable spar of land you’re currently exploring once you have drunk all the rainwater and pillaged all the shacks. Then you can punt down river a spell, fighting the sudden rapids and dodging anything from tree limbs to chewed-up cars. Flotsam, eh? Water has all the best words.
It’s dangerous in the river, but you cover a lot of territory if you can learn to read and then exploit the bucking of the waves beneath you. Even if you’re truly hopeless on the raft, you’re still endlessly tempted by a parade of potential landing sites, any of which may leave you well-fed and happy, but could just as easily be your doom. Only forward, too: you are always one-step ahead of a terrible calamity.
Death comes with a breakdown screen that tells you how long you lasted and also how far you travelled, with the eventual idea, I gather, that you will pass through a range of biomes as you progress deeper into the game, each with their own dangers and their own possibilities. As ever, there is a strange brilliance to offering two distinct measures of success rather than one, as the player is drawn into an exploration of the relationship between the two.
Endless runner might be pushing it, then – apparently there is a final destination – but I still find something in The Flame in the Flood that I haven’t really encountered before: a survival game sharpened by the unceasing pressure of the wind at your back, a survival journey where exploration often means leaving safety well behind you forever.
What’s interesting to me about all of this – and what’s made me ponder the connections between games and language – is that the survival and endless runner genres are in themselves fairly new, and in cobbling them together you get something even newer: a genre that may eventually feel completely distinct, or may just wither through disuse. That’s the kind of evolutionary force that shapes the creation of new words, I think, and that’s before you get to the way that games employ something that feels like grammar to orient new players and convey their meanings.
Games and language? I guess the truth is that they’re both things that put a premium on ideas. And ideas, like the flotsam carried along by the swell of a river, can’t wait to collide in unusual ways.