I half remember a brilliant review from the old, old days – which in games probably means it was around ten years ago at most. This review was for a shooter sequel of some kind, back in that period when designers were starting to experiment with putting physics objects into their games for the first time. The shooting was fine in this particular game, the review stated, but the environment was a problem. All those physics objects, those parts of the background of games which were suddenly, emphatically, promoted to being parts of the foreground. They got underfoot. They got in the way. They turned a John Woo ballet into a prolonged Laurel and Hardy pratfall. I wish I could remember the game, but in truth, the date alone would do. The date that games first encountered things – properly encountered them – and then discovered that games and things had to coexist.
Some games have made this relationship seem easy from the start. Half-Life 2 had things pretty much nailed from the moment that cop first told you to pick up a can back at the railway station in City 17 and then put it in the bin. But other games have had a harder time of it. For many years since Half-Life 2 – and, actually, for many years before Half-Life 2 – games and things have not always known what to do with each other. This cup is a physics object, this plate is not, however. This bit of trash in a racer is there to be driven through, while this mailbox is seemingly made of concrete and bolted to the floor with adamantium. Things give games the chance to be tactile, but they can also fill them with clutter – and with inconsistencies. They give games a chance to talk about stuff that is real, and yet I remember a disappointing moment rooting through a corpse’s jacket in Bioshock Infinite and finding a pineapple in one of their pockets. Imagine! A soldier taking a pineapple to work! What a delightful glimpse of the extended universe, hinting at a mad dash to get the kids off to school in the morning and then, just headed for the door, snapping on the gun belt, a thought occurring: “Oh, must remember to take that pineapple with me!” But on further consideration? That pineapple was not real. It was a bit of text, a tiny health boost dressed up in fancy clothes. In its artifice, that pineapple only served to make a thin game seem thinner, more inconsequential. Pineapples are like that.
I would never have thought of all this – the game review I can’t quite remember, the cop who yelled at me in City 17, Columbia’s pineapple of disappointment – if I hadn’t played a sequence of interesting games over the last few days, and sat behind someone who was playing another. GNOG, Statik, Edith Finch, Prey. What unites all these disparate titles? They’re all recent, I guess. But they’re also games that have an interesting relationship with the things inside them. They give me hope – sweet, almost overwhelming hope – that games and things might be having a moment.
Tellingly, two of these games are VR games, or, in the case of GNOG, a game that benefits enormously from the VR version. If you haven’t played GNOG, you really should, because you really might love it. Inside or outside of the VR headset, GNOG presents you with a series of beautiful, colourful puzzle boxes, little compacted pieces of design that are there to be prodded, pulled at, opened out and brought to life. Each box has something beautiful inside of it, and has a general theme, like music or wildlife. These boxes each have a story to tell as you turn them over and get the sequence of interactions in the right order to coax them into movement, but more than that they simply remind you of the brilliant things you can do with, well, things. You can explore every surface, worry away at screws, ponder what might be inside them, press buttons, pull switches. And sometimes, through all of these interactions, you might change the nature of the thing entirely.
Statik is quite similar, I think, but takes things in a darker direction. In Statik, you awake to find yourself in one of those sinister laboratories games like to take their players to. Look down in VR and you find that your hands are clamped inside another kind of puzzle box, a much more utilitarian design than the boxes in GNOG, perhaps, but still just as riddled with things to do. Your job is similar to your job in GNOG, too: you have to find out how the puzzle box works, and maybe, ultimately, how to get it open. A friend of mine noticed that what this generally comes down to is a game that reprograms the controller with every level, changing the function of the thumbsticks and the D-pad and the face buttons from one puzzle box to the next. But when you play it, the real controller in your hands replaced by the box on your hands via the magic of VR, it’s far more direct and intoxicating than that: here is a thing to play with, to understand, and the controller is simply a way of touching this new thing, of convincing yourself that it is real. Statik and GNOG are both things – series of things – as much as they are games. They are brilliant objects, objects that could not exist in the real world, but can be made to exist through the rigorous trickery that is the hallmark, the unifying life force, of video games.
And it’s not just about tactility. What Remains of Edith Finch is a narrative game that encourages you to piece together the strange and tragic history of a weird, but entirely convincing, American family. You do this by working your way through the family’s rickety house which feels, at times, like an expanded version of one of GNOG or Statik’s puzzle boxes, filled with doors that open in strange ways, and connections between spaces that unfold or contract according to some kind of ingenious papercrafter’s logic. The game is one big thing, in other words, but what struck me the most is how beautifully this big thing has been populated with hundreds of little things: watering cans, detergent bottles, houseplants, chairs and record players and books, hundreds, and hundreds and hundreds of books.
Many of these things are interactive – often offering up genuine surprises, such as is the case with a music box that has a very vivid double life. But many of them are not. Many of them are just completely convincing pieces of texture, there to remind you that this world is not entirely fantastical, that it is rooted in a kind of domestic clutter that we can all recognise. Life in Edith Finch is a life lived knee-deep in stuff. You may not be able to pull the books down from the shelves and read a sentence aloud, but, really, how often do you do that with the books in your own house anyway? If whole stretches of the books in my own book cases were removed one night and replaced with props, I probably wouldn’t notice. (And if I did notice I would blame the cats.)
Inevitably, a trend emerges and then it is flipped in a clever way, in a clever manner. And this brings us to Prey, which drops you into another lavish world of things but, I gather, also riddles the world of things with alien monsters that can disguise themselves as things. This would always be a great thrill, I think: who doesn’t want to know what it is like to be done-in by a coffee cup? But it feels timely now, given how closely game designers have started to look at the various parts of the world, and how much time they have clearly spent trying to make your interactions tangible, convincing, and delightful.
The more I look around, in fact, the more convinced I am that we are living through a golden age of things in games. Dangerous Golf: mansion upon mansion of rooms stocked with skeletons to clatter to the ground, paint to upend, old masters to shred. Virginia: a world of carefully poised interactions in which a mystery unfolds as you move from one object to the next, holding them, turning them over, trying to understand what they are doing all of a sudden, arrayed in front of you. Re-reading a book like A History of the World in 100 Objects, or even Sapiens, by Yuval Harari, it is strange to realise that things have always been a central concern of us humans. Now and then we learn that a magpie might be able to make a tool from a bit of wire, or an otter of some stripe is pretty good as finding the right kind of rock to smash things with. But us humans, we leave things behind on a truly astonishing scale. And why shouldn’t that be true of our virtual existences, too?