Three Hypothetical Video Games
Few play Racehorse Run as its designers intended. The racetracks and horses, the jockeys and gambling, all amount to the mildest of entertainments at best. Only its backgrounds—the wispy clouds and lush tree lines, the beautiful white-sanded beaches and tangerine sunsets beyond the tracks—merited any praise upon its release, and, admittedly, not many play a game for these tame pleasures alone.
Racehorse Run owes its survival to a peculiar glitch, a little hiccup in the game’s second crown. During the third lap of the race, a little window, a slit roughly the size of the horse, can be seen leading out from the racetrack and into the parking lot beyond. Should you chose to forfeit, you may steer your steed into this crack and speed across the parking lot. From there, a rider is free to roam the backgrounds for as long as he or she wishes.
This is where the game ends, or, for many, where it truly begins. Horse and rider cruise across an endless plane. Dust and sod kicked up from hooves. Trees, boulders, and tall grass bowing under gentle winds. Riding for the feeling, speeding toward the pink asymptote of the sun.
Thanks to online play, a rider may, once in a great while, come across another horseman. By way of a function previously reserved for jockey-to-jockey combat, the riders may dismount and, with another function intended for trash talk, the two can introduce themselves, sit down and chew the fat awhile before they once again climb atop their steeds and rush off.
There are those among its admirers who suspect this secret, infinite plane is not simply a flaw, but the entire point of the game. Why else, they ask, would all the backgrounds be connected and not discrete? What else could explain the superiority of the glitch to the so-called “intended” game? They are a strict bunch, and, for the most part, no fun to talk to.
It can safely be said that most video games, to some extent or another, offer their players a taste of godlike power. The ability to die and resurrect. An omniscient gaze. Or, simply, the power to control events, to build cities or annihilate them with the press of a key or the click of a mouse.
Many games make this connection overt, and together they form the popular subgenre of god-games. I have played many of these, and by far the most demanding, the most mysterious, and the most rewarding has been Pantheo.
All players begin the game as a small spark, a pinprick of light balanced on a stone at the mouth of a mountain cave. A goatherd has just made an offering unto you in thanks for the recovery of a stray kid. He prepares to chisel something into the rock over which you float, and it is here that you, the tiny deity, may choose your holy name.
And so begins your life as a god. A blue bar appears on the screen. This measures belief, and as it grows, so does your power. Float through the mountain villages and you will hear prayers echoing up from the huts. As you answer them (in a series of side quests), not only will your belief grow, but your divinity will take on its particular flavor. Answer a prayer on behalf of an ailing child by fluttering over her eyelids, and from then on you will be associated with death and healing. Bless a man in a bar fight and a soldier will call upon you later.
As your power and belief expand, so does your shrine. Around your little stone the faithful will build an altar, a statue, a chapel, all the way up to temple. This growing following comes with new demands. Your belief bar is much longer, and it needs to be filled. Now you can whisper in the ears of oracles, rouse knights for a crusade, show off with a few miracles.
This is the most difficult stage. Bless and celebrate your priests with riches and the people will lose faith and sack the temple. Spend too much power on the soldiers and a death cult may burn your city to the ground. I myself found it best to diversify. I kept a strong church, but inspired a prophet every hundred years or so to reignite the fire of belief. They’d inevitably be killed, sainted, enshrined, and then the cycle could start again. Admittedly, by this late point in the game, one always finds themself longing for the early days, when the religion was fresh and without orthodoxy or canon, but these early pleasures are more than balanced out by Pantheo’s rewarding later intricacies.
With all the demands of your cult, you cannot leave the game for long. Believers turn to other gods, or lose faith. Heretics spawn in the shadows and their whispers fill your silence. For the weeks I played, the game was seldom off my mind, and when I wasn’t playing, I spent my time on the message boards, talking to other players, sharing our experiences, refining our theologies, divining the paths we would walk when we returned to our private temples.
On the other end of the spectrum is County. Few of us (save for those with sexual appetites for it) would ever opt for imprisonment for its own sake. What, then, can account for the wild popularity of a game set entirely in a small county jail?
First—for those rare few unfamiliar with the game—the premise: you find yourself serving a sentence for an unnamed crime, and you now are confined to a cellblock with twelve other men or women, depending on the gender identification of your inmate. The game might strictly be considered a MMORP (“massively multiplayer online role-playing game”), but may more accurately be known as a SMORP (“sparsely multiplayer online role-playing game”). Your other inmates are not mere CPUs, but other players like yourself, confined to the very same imaginary room. One cannot restart elsewhere. One must serve the sentence, or die. And so you and your inmates are confined together for the whole of the game.
County’s gameplay is, at first, very limited. You can talk to your fellow inmates. You can do pushups on the linoleum or pull-ups on the pipe to hone your digital body. Play chess on the card table (a game within-a-game), or watch TV (a screen-within-a-screen). It is generally understood that the first couple days of play (if not the whole game) are marked by boredom.
But then what accounts for its popularity and cult status? Its admirers claim that, yes, while the first sessions may feel tedious, this is the same tedium of learning the guitar or violin. At first you feel only the limitations. But soon these limits bloom with possibility. While there aren’t many items in the cell block, one finds that nearly everything, down to the smallest fingernail or toilet paper roll, can be manipulated and turned to some other purpose. Many players fashion papier-mâché figurines. Some brew rudimentary alcohol. An economy almost always emerges, with a currency particular to each block (cigarettes being the most popular coin).
By most accounts, the greatest satisfactions come from the community created within the jail’s cinder block walls. While it is certain that few blocks achieve true utopian bliss, it cannot be denied that many find a kind of deep friendship with at least one of their cellmates, trading stories from childhood, accounts of first love, memories of the departed, all to pass the time (boredom being the great mother of friendship). It is common for players to spend more and more time in the game as their sentences near their end, making the most of the last days with their new friends.
One player, with whom I’d become close over the course of the game, expressed to me the paradoxical nature of County. She’d felt increasingly trapped in real life. She was free here.
Daniel Hornsby‘s other work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, DIAGRAM, The Quietus, and Indiana Review. He studies religion and literature at Harvard Divinity School, and he is working on a novel.