Video Games Make Trespassers Out Of Us All

By Gus Mastrapa in Pretension +1
Friday, January 21, 2011 at 9:00 am
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Games transform us into heroes. They transport us to other worlds. When we play we're immortal and we're privy to sights rarely seen by the average Joe. Our foes include zombies, dragons, vampires and demonic beasts too horrible to mention. We meet and slay them all. Video games help us realize the fantasy of power. And yet they also have a capacity to deliver mundane, forbidden experiences too.

Fallout 3 may take place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but some of the game's greatest pleasures have little to do with fantasy or heroism. I'm talking about the instances where the game allows the player to break everyday social norms. As a wastelander I've done deeds worthy of legend and unspeakable acts of evil. But I've also done things I could do every day, but simply don't. Those actions stick with me just as much as the time I took down a Deathclaw with a crowbar.

When I first moved to Northeast Minneapolis from California I was struck by what I saw as a strange behavior in some of my neighbors. I noticed that the local teenagers loved walking in the street. In Los Angeles that kind of behavior wouldn't fly -- not because cops give jaywalking tickets, but because there's too much traffic to get away with that kind of tomfoolery. But in my quiet Nordeast neighborhood, cars were the exception. More often than not the roads were empty. And the kids took them over whenever they could, strutting down the asphalt like they owned the place. 

We don't realize it, but our everyday lives are full of limitations. Our daily rituals take place in a narrow channel walled by invisible barriers. When you take a stroll through your neighborhood you're surrounded on all sides by off-limit space. And if I remember the life of a teenager accurately, those aren't the only ways that choice is removed from the average American teen's life. The young Minnesotans who, at first, befuddled me were wresting a tiny victory from a reality that rarely let them win. I soon learned to let them have that victory and drive around them when they got in my way.

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But part of me wanted to lean out the window and yell at them, "go home and play some video games!" Because as Nico Bellic in Grand Theft Auto IV, you've got an entire city at your disposal. If you don't trespass while exploring Liberty City you're doing it wrong. Fences must be climbed. Empty warehouses beg to be explored. Apartment doors (rarely locked) are kicked down without a thought.

Remember that scene in Point Break where Keanu Reeves chases Patrick Swayze on foot? The scene is thrilling because much of the pursuit takes place just off the sidewalk. Swayze squeezes through the gap between two buildings, books down an alley and soon starts tearing through yards. He jumps fences and eventually starts cutting right through houses. Eventually the chase spills into a cement drainage ditch -- the domain of the homeless and graffiti vandals. Part of what makes the sequence so cool is that Swayze isn't just trying to escape -- he's also giving Keanu a crash course in line-crossing.

When I play Fallout I cross that line all the time. If I see a locked door I pick it. If there's a working computer on a desk I hack it. If I see something I want (even if it belongs to somebody else) I take it. Game makers have a sort of sixth sense around these kind of base desires. They fill their games with opportunities to trespass in familiar places.  In Fallout: New Vegas, the path to the Sierra Madre casino is through a metal grating and down a rusty ladder. I see and ignore similar manholes everyday. But beyond this cement hole, like a twisted version of C.S. Lewis' wardrobe,  I found vast treasure, old ghosts, new allies and a boatload of death. 

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Many of my favorite video games subvert the mundane in this way. I can't recall ever climbing the ladder on the side of a building in real life. But in video games I do it all the time. I've never been in the sewer. But in every other video game I play I find myself under the manhole cover, exploring the dank tunnels beneath a city. I've never climbed into an air duct like Bruce Willis in Die Hard. I've crept through the ceiling hundreds of times since Final Final Fantasy VII

Games set during the apocalypse seem particularly tuned to deliver this kind of rebellion. Because once the shit hits the fan all rules are off. In Left 4 Dead you can go behind the counter of your local bar. You can barge into the kitchen of a restaurant. And you can trespass beyond the barbed wire of a farm. And, of course, Left 4 Dead 2 lets you walk in the middle of the street. 

Sometimes those little victories are the sweetest.

Pretension +1 is a weekly column by Gus Mastrapa that explores the back alleys and abandoned lots of video game culture.
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