Vannotes on Video Games: Level 3 - The Natural World
For most of my life, I considered nature to best an experience best simulated rather than actually experienced. My parents loved to camp. One of the major reasons their relationship flourished was because they enjoyed horseback riding on different trails in the northwest corner of Washington. I myself felt uncomfortable with the experience, which only seemed to offer food that was far too cold or far too hot, being way too wet or too dry, and losing my family's "Happy Camper Award" every time.
I've gotten better as I've realized the outside world wasn't such a bad place to be. I even went to a creative writing program that had a vested interest in ecological writing. It's hard not to read a book like The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair with Nature By J. Drew Lanham and not develop some appreciation for a world away from the computer screen.
Yet in my recent gaming experiences there's been a reinforcement of "experience outside." I became obsessed with both Pikmin 3 Deluxe and New Pokémon Snap, games that are concerned with humanity's perspective of the natural world.*
The last time I'd played Pikmin was when I rented the first game from Blockbuster for a weekend. The appeal of such a world was lost on my younger self, who was looking for the instant gratification of Sonic Adventure 2: Battle or Super Smash Bros. Melee. Pikmin was too quiet and complex a world. Or perhaps I was too empathetic and felt terrible every time once of these little troopers was gobbled up.
The Pikmin series at its core is about the disruption of the natural order and its systems. Pikmin are not normally so galvanized as when they encounter tiny alien explorers, who cause them to partake in situations that they normally would not. Pikmin as a species are rapidly domesticated, causing them to take on massive enemies and to work in mutual coordination across different subspecies. Cooperation allows the player to reach their goal, but it is a disruptive force that often leads the Pikmin to their doom as the player character calls them to attack their predators and dive headfirst into water that might drown them.
There's something coy to me about how this theme is somewhat evident in Pikmin's HUD (heads up display). Much like the game, there is a natural world that has been so carefully rendered. On top of it is a rather obnoxious amount of graphics, necessary to a certain extent to make order out of chaos. However these graphics are so at odd with some of the naturalistic mechanics, making it easily understandable, much like how we continuously apply nauseous, over-wrought systems on top of our own natural world.
All of this to say, I really fucking love Pikmin.
New Pokémon Snap
Nintendo successfully suckered me into purchasing this game with their release of the original Pokémon Snap for the Nintendo 64 through Nintendo Online. I had fond memories of the game, probably playing at some childhood crush's house,** but had no specific attachment. However after giving it a nostalgic half-hearted replay, I soon found myself once again immersed in the world of Pokémon and how euphoric it was to see these fantastic creatures interacting with "the real world." Working on my own stories about fantastical creatures dwelling amongst humans, I could justify the purchase of a used copy of the game as "research."
New Pokémon Snap introduces a world that pushes forward a kind of scientific curiosity about the natural world, yet often introduces mechanics of human intervention in order to capture more exciting photographs. The player wouldn't expect positive results IRL to throwing apples at a bear, but this kind of action scores you huge points within the microcosm of New Pokémon Snap.
I wouldn't say that this was so fundamentally troubling that it affected my experience of the gameplay, but it led me to consider how the game is juggling the idea of the appreciation of the natural world with direct interference. It's an ouroboros that I haven't been able to extract from its own jaws.
With both games, I walked away with that strange twinge of regret for coming to appreciate the "great outdoors" through a simulation, yet haven't I done so through the methods of nature documentary, poetry, and essay? Is a video game not a worthy way of coming to terms with the changing planet, which might not offer the same euphoric feelings that our forebears once had when they encountered it free of microplastics and beer bottles.
You can read my forthcoming work, coming out years in the future, to see if I've synthesized any of thing! In the meantime, I can safely recommend both of these games as our planet is dying and metamorphisizing through human intervention.
* If you want to debate the use of the words "outside" and "nature" as proper terminology for our experiences in the larger world in 2022, I suggest going into the Eastern Oregon University Creative Writing MFA.)
** Playing video games side-by-side is one of the few intimate contacts that young men still seem allowed.