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Persistence of location

Persistence of location published on

There used to be an empty lot I had to go through on my way to the mall. One morning at the end of March or beginning of April, still sleepy, I was walking to the mall, and found that there was suddenly construction in that lot. Cement had been poured, and the ground was higher than it had been. This seemed unlikely to me; for a moment I wasn’t sure if I was in the real world or in a video game. I tried to check my inventory.

People have a thing about persistence of location. My parents’ house has changed arrangements a lot over the years, but when I remember things that have happened in it, my memories rearrange the positions of people and animals to fit whatever I feel like it looks like now. I clearly remember first reading a book that I first read when I was seven in my bedroom as it is now.

When I wake up in the night I often assume I’m there. Almost all my dreams take place there. If there is a magical forest it is either in the back yard down by the creek, or, for some reason, in the dining room; I put water in my room. (Like the shark tank, or the amniotic fluid tank with the alien embryo in it, or one of those obligatory dungeons with water levels you can send up or down by solving switch-based puzzles.) Parked UFOs and the headquarters of evil government organizations go out in the field next door, I assume because the field is state-owned.

I’ve been playing video games for roughly as long as I’ve been reading and watching TV and listening to bedtime stories. Super Mario World, Final Fantasy VI, Illusion of Gaia, Soul Blazer, and Pokemon make up a lot of my mental landscape, alongside Benden Weyr, the Ninja Turtles cartoon’s version of New York, and Mom’s bat-and-tar-and-flood-related stories.* And there are patterns in the way landscape works in video games. Like: when something bad happens to a city, the colors get darker, and the people are standing in slightly different places, and possibly there are puddles or debris. Maybe a door that was closed before is open. But everything is mostly the same, because that’s less work for the designers. All the castles are made of the same stone – even if they were built three thousand years apart and on different planets – and you can buy milk and Skip Sandwiches anywhere in the universe.

The change happens suddenly, sharply, but you will recognize that it is coming. You will in some way be warned before you enter the creature’s cave that things will be different when you come back out. And the change is at your discretion. Time does not pass unless you act. Someone says, “They say the Fiendlord’s Army will be here any day now,” but the only way to make a day pass is to rescue the Queen. You have time to prepare for the change, and then you give it permission to effect itself.

An RPG starts out with a lot of obstacles, penning you into a small area until you’ve pushed the plot along to the point along to the point at which your presence in the animal village will make some kind of sense. The longer you play a game, the fewer obstacles there are. Obstacles disappear, but rarely anything else. Designers are lazy and greedy, and don’t want to see any piece of their work wasted or gone unappreciated.

Players are greedy, too. We have a feeling that we have a right to a location long after the game is done with it. We spent a long time fighting headless things and resurrecting the damn 56-HP thief to reach that water temple with the soothing music – we have earned the temple, and priestess with her hackneyed dialog, and the blue jars there that you can break. The mechanism by which access to a location is purchased via an expenditure of time turns a place into a possession.

Most RPGs indulge us in this metaphor. In normal game design, places and people remain available to the player long after they have served their narrative function. So those rare places that the narrative chooses to render inaccessible so take on a special significance in our minds. We want them back. In games that allow multiple save files, I find myself retaining spare saves of points at which I am in a place or with a character that will be lost. I don’t open these files; I just don’t want to lose access.

My insecurity about all the moving around I’ve done the past few years is, I think, a lot of why I fell so hard for World of Warcraft. The illusion of Azeroth’s permanence is helped by the fact that a few million other people are also sharing the illusion. They talk about it like a place: “I’ll be on the roof of the Orgrimmar Bank.” If I get fired (I don’t think I will, but if I get fired) I may only have a couple days notice before I have to get out of the apartment, but I won’t get kicked out of Orgimmar (except for Tuesday maintenance, and unless I decide to roll a Death Knight). This is the same impulse, I think, by which people customize their LiveJournals with angry manga androids, and get upset when Facebook changes its design, and feel alarmed by two different kinds of friends lists on Dreamwidth. We treat websites like places, not like brands or books or TV shows – we say we “visit” them, we recognize their geography, we complain when it’s hard to get around them, and we give each other directions. There is the same mild shock when a blog I read changes its template as when I see they’ve taken up the sidewalk down the block and planted a tree. The ground shifts.

I went around the construction that day. When I went again a week later, the work was done, and there was a new street, with helpful crosswalk lights, where it had been. The lot had no meaning to me, but I feel a resistence to its loss. I remember it, so it should not be gone. A part of me suspects that is not really gone, and that I must have a spare save from January sitting around someplace.

Sometimes I don’t know how to live this far from home. I hate moving; I want to know where everything is. The dairy aisle at the grocery store here is too small and in a weird place, and I have never been able to find the dried packaged Lipton noodles section – my brain does not accept that it doesn’t exist, just assumes that I haven’t found it yet. And things get lost when you move, like the toothbrush or whatever, and I don’t want to lose things. Teenagers here are traumatized in unfamiliar ways by unfamiliar things. The categories of Mexican restaurants, mall kiosks, and moms I’m used to don’t apply here, replaced either by different ones it’s hard to identify, or by nothing at all. Familiarity breeds contempt, but it also lends a sort of value that makes parting with a familiar thing shocking.

Places change in the real world in ways that are uncomfortable. There is no pattern; you go back to a place you knew and you can’t even recognize it as having changed. You don’t control the change, don’t have warning. The layout of laundromat doesn’t care whether you ever rescued anyone. Change in a video game is change in the way the human mind desires it to be. We need to be able to recognize places. And we need control, and the patterns we know need to continue. Even if a hundred years pass and everyone we know is gone, the world should remain in a shape we know, and there must always be an evil king.

* We also made her tell us Ninja Turtles fanfic. I think my idea of Casey Jones’ significance in the cartoon may be skewed by Mom always having him show up. So what was that all about, Mom? We won’t judge.