a fundamental shift in our understanding of where ecofiction might productively occur

Some interesting thoughts at LARB from one Martin Dolan on open-world games like the new Zelda as ecofictional media.

I haven’t played any of the Zelda games—and as I remarked to Jay Springett a while back, I sometimes feel like the only person in the universe who has never been involved with that franchise, though the “universe” in question is just as bounded as Hyrule itself, comprising as it does a very specific set of (types of) people, and as such my “uniqueness” in this regard is entirely illusory.

But what can I say: I was never a console kid, for a lot of reasons, most of them structural rather than matters of conscious choice. I did start playing Skyrim, though, albeit around six or seven years after it was initially released—i.e. when I could get the game and a second-hand PS3 to play it on for around £25—so I have some grasp of the whole emergent-gameplay and environmental storytelling thing.

As such, I have sympathy with Dolan’s enthusiasm for the form, but I think he’s overstating things a little. Open-world games are very much not novels, but they nonetheless retain the restrictions of their own narratology—and for all the openness of these worlds and the possibilities of play within them, there is still an overarching story and quest imperative (albeit one that you are free to ignore completely, at least in this case), and you are still very much in the second-person hero-protagonist role, even if the substories have been designed in such a way as to necessitate inventiveness, making friends, or whatever else.

(To be clear, this isn’t intended as some sort of gotcha; just thinking aloud, here, using the tools to which I am most accustomed.)

Just gonna clip this bit, though (with my bolding):

Ecofiction is all about reframing our ideas of story to look critically at our relationship with the environment. Both Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom tell stories using their worlds, yet, more importantly, they treat the dynamic relationship between the player and the world—exploration, survival mechanics, emergent gameplay within a virtual nature—as a meaningful story in itself. This may not be as flashy as a movie or as idea-driven as some novels, but these games demonstrate a fundamental shift in our understanding of where ecofiction might productively occur.

The idea of “tell[ing] stories… using their worlds” puts open-world gaming into conversation with not just science fiction and fantasy, as Dolan notes, but also with design fiction, experiential futures and other techniques of futuring. I really need to integrate this stuff into my thinking.

(I’m fortunate to know a lot of folk who know the gaming scene better than I do, but nonetheless, I suspect I need to do more first-hand research in the field. I wonder if consoles and games are tax-deductable under such circumstances?)

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