You’re sitting at a desk in a small cornet office. Across the room a colleague of yours is talking on the phone to a client. Your computer screen is blinding bright, with pop-ups coming in thick and fast. eventually your colleague ends the call, and immediately asks you to pass her a file from your desk draw. You open it, pick up the file and walk over to hand it to her. That’s when the building shakes, the ceiling falls and everything changes.
That’s roughly what happens in what I assume are the opening minutes to [08:46] – a new virtual reality narrative game that puts you in the shoes of worker in the World Trade Centre on the morning of September 11th 2001. A day that shook the world to its core with an extreme terrorist attack on two of the most iconic buildings on this planet, and a catalyst for global conflicts that ensued shortly afterwards. So it’s understandable that people are shaking their heads at a game about it, right?
On the surface, sure. Why is there a game about 9/11? What should there be? Videogames have long been a source of escapism, but also a medium for telling interesting stories and expressing artistic emotion. This doesn’t always mean that the emotion or idea has to be one that resonate with you, and often the simple fact of not agreeing with a particular one translates to the idea of artistic censorship. It was an issue raised last year with the game Hatred – where players were tasked with committing genocide acts to rack up a score counter.
I didn’t understand it. I still don’t. But do we have the right to say it shouldn’t be made? Possibly not.
It’s a conundrum I’ve witnessed many commenters facing when researching [08:46] over the past day or so. The Twin Tower attacks might be long gone, but it’s an event that still resonates powerfully every year. It’s a wound that’s still fresh, and it’s easy for passers-by to immediately dismiss an idea of a game taking place within the horrific event. But should it? And if so why is it seemingly only videogames that are subjected to that sort of judgement?
Look at a film like United 93. A heroic tale of the passengers aboard a flight that had The White House as an eventual target, all fighting back against their hijackers and saving hundreds of lives in the process. The film itself is a dramatization of events that happened, but it’s still passed as a form of entertainment that hinges on a tragedy that affected thousands of lives. If you’re willing to look back even further, Titanic does the same thing – although swapping true-life drama for a fictitious love story seems even more absurd.
Videogames aren’t strangers to exploring past tragedies in the same way though, mixing historical accuracy with enough fiction to avoid becoming accurate retellings. Call of Duty did this for years when set within the trenches of World War II – delivering players to the shores of bloody conflicts without stepping over the boundaries of showing the true horrors of the second world war. And in the process it avoided most of the criticism that a game would now attract should it feature scenes of the real atrocities – although that No Russian scene in latter titles surely attempted just that.
But when I look at [08:46], I don’t see that explicit desire to attract controversy for the sake of it. The VR experience is a narrative drive one, that presumably follows what you would do in such a situation. How effective it is in conveying that comes down to how much agency it gives players, but the message itself isn’t one of implicit shock value. Instead, I interpret [08:46] as a piece of media that is meant to illicit empathy from its players. Plunging them into a horror thousands of others were left to over fourteen years ago. The same type of reaction a film like United 93 sought to obtain.
Does that make it free from criticism? Certainly not, but I think it’s important to not simply write off ideas and experiences such as this purely because of the subject matter they contain. Videogames are predominantly about entertainment, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be expression of true life hardship and serious material. In that regarded it might seem difficult to encompass it under the idea of being a game, but it’s certainly an interesting idea that I’d like to see in execution. Especially with the way in with VR is allowing us to experience digital media in a whole new, almost frightening way.
Last Updated: October 30, 2015