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Saturday, March 2, 2024

You Can Go Home, and This Time Be the Hero

I’m weaving my way down the streets of Manhattan when I stumble upon it rather suddenly: my old apartment, right at the corner of 8th Avenue and 23rd street. I’m astonished at how similar it looks. Of course, the burger restaurant that was here 10 years ago isn’t here anymore, replaced by a foggy-windowed shop called White’s Bookshop Café. The movie theater next door, with those giant speakers that made our apartment shake every time a blockbuster reached its climax, is missing, too, replaced by Tom’s Cuts and Rapid’s Dry Cleaning.

But the bricks are the same shade, the building the same height, the sunlight slanting down 8th Avenue the same sunlight that made me feel like a movie star every time I walked out our front door. I think back to who I was then, when I lived here: drinking too much, hating my job where I was always “the gay one” and where my clients–oil companies, pharmaceutical giants, chemical empires—were literal evildoers. This time, things are different. I’m here to fight the evildoers. I turn and run up the face of the building, only pausing when I reach the top, where I can peer down and search for signs of crime.

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Did I mention I’m Spider-Man? More specifically, I’m Miles Morales. I’m playing Spider-Man: Miles Morales, which builds on its predecessor’s legendary re-creation of Manhattan. Insomniac Games’ achievement is a true marvel; I truly feel like I’m in the game’s New York but also in my own New York.

Being here (there, then) inside the game gives me a little twist, right in my chest. The ache of nostalgia. But there’s something else there too.

The familiarity of it is, of course, exciting. When a video game world mimics our own, it becomes a kind of digital scrapbook. A more interactive version of Google Street View. When I played Sleeping Dogs, I ventured up to my old Hong Kong apartment. I did the same in Watch Dogs’ Chicago, and it was such a vivid depiction that I had nightmares about my horrible Chicago boss. I used Assassin's Creed II to make my husband show me what part of Florence he'd lived in before we met. I've even lingered around in games that I didn't necessarily vibe with, just to let nostalgia waft over me. I couldn't quite get into Persona 5 (because thinking about high school gives me panic attacks), but simply lurking about Shibuya took me back to a Christmastime visit to Tokyo in 2006, and it made me remember how young and full of wonder I was back then.

But this “something else” is more than that. Think about it: In almost every video game, what is the objective? With rare exceptions, the goal is to win. The goal is to be a hero. The hero.

Every time I visit a gaming world that is based on a “real-world” location, I get to feel what it’s like to be the hero there. The star. The winner.

I spent much of the first 30 years of my life being bullied. I’m a loud, tall gay man from rural Pennsylvania. I was made fun of for being gay before I knew what being gay was. I survived that, but I didn’t realize the bullies would follow me into my twenties. I went to London for graduate school, and then, in my first job in advertising in Old Blighty, my team had their own “Mike Voice” they would use to mimic me, even when I was just a desk away. This voice came with a lisp and incredible wrist dexterity. It turns out that these creatives weren’t very creative at all.

Cruelty about my sexuality, my background, my appearance, my sound, my choices, my everything followed me around the world, from my job in London to jobs in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Hong Kong, New York, Chicago, and Atlanta. I grew strong, but I certainly never felt like a hero. I didn’t feel like I was winning. Like many gamers, many who have it far worse, I escaped my bullies in video game worlds.

But by turning the real world into levels, worlds, and playgrounds, game developers give players like me a chance to return to locations where we were the underdogs and give us the agency to finally win.

There’s more to these new spins on real places than simply mimicking the real world. It’s not just a digital Madam Tussaud’s, and there’s more to it than simply reminiscence. I spoke with Gavin Goulden, an art director at Insomniac Games, who worked on Spider-Man and Spider-Man: Miles Morales. He said that one of their goals when creating their version of Manhattan was for it to feel familiar and relatable to those who live in the city, those who have visited, or even those who have seen it from afar. One thing that really struck me was how Goulden described his team’s goals for creating their version of Harlem, where Miles lives in the game.

“We had also wanted to enforce a sense of home in our Harlem neighborhood, where Miles Morales now lives,” Goulden said. “This included spotlighting the rich culture in the area to ensure that it felt relatable and was a welcoming place to explore as a new hero.”

This care and relatability, the comfort of finding a “home” in a gaming world, is what gives players the wings to fly in these new versions of our own worlds. I love the idea of the developers creating a sense of home for us to feel comfortable in as we, as Miles, test out what it means to be a new hero.

When I played Pilotwings 64 back in the late '90s, I would use my jetpack to fly to the small corner of the US where I grew up, right at the edge of Lake Erie, and I’d look down at the pixelated, camo-colored blob representing my hometown of Meadville, Pennsylvania. (To be honest, it was a pretty accurate representation.) And I remember being so boggled and so thankful that the game studio, Paradigm Simulation, had decided to include my little corner of the world in their game. I felt seen and included. I felt free, in a way, now that I was able to soar above a place that was holding me down.

Of course, it was easy to imagine my version of Meadville there because console technology wasn’t advanced enough for the developers to even try. But now, there are games that can recreate our cities right down to the apartment. No matter where you live, you can find it in a game. For example, in Microsoft’s Flight Simulator, you can land anywhere in the world courtesy of Bing Maps and a fancy algorithm that makes everything 3D.

I’d argue that even Flight Simulator offers gamers a level of control that they may not have in the “real” world. How wonderful to soar above your small town, how incredible to fly–direct–from Meadville to Buenos Aires, to Accra, to Tokyo?

And, of course, the pandemic brought another angle to this situation.

Even for the places that don’t quite traverse the uncanny valley, there is a uniquely satisfying sadness that comes from visiting a real-world place in a video game. If you've lived there, or visited there, or even wanted to visit these places in "real" life, you might have a longing for them that is simultaneously inflamed and eased by going to their video game versions.

We are slowly emerging, perhaps, from a time when we couldn’t safely travel anywhere, let alone to cherished places. The pandemic certainly made this kind of armchair traveling more satisfying. It enabled us to visit places that were temporarily lost to us. How wonderful that games could give us this, the chance to visit places from our past and our future and to ache for them.

All of this reminds me of a beloved film from my childhood, Labyrinth. In the film, Jennifer Connelly’s Sarah somehow ends up back in her bedroom, even though she was, just moments before, deep in the heart of the titular labyrinth. The Junk Lady shows up and starts offering her keepsakes from her childhood, reminding her of how much she loves the toys in her room. But Sarah has a nagging feeling that something is wrong, that it is impossible for her to be in her bedroom. Soon she realizes that she isn’t in her bedroom but rather in a pile of garbage spun into an illusion of her home. The walls crash down around her. She tears them down.

Today, the quality of game worlds is so high and their evolution so rapid that it is a certainty that video games will soon allow us to more thoroughly traverse re-creations or reimaginings of our old haunts. We will be able to, like Sarah, visit an immaculate re-creation of our own bedrooms. This time, though, we won’t have to contend with bullies, with rules, with being trapped in small towns or disliked for who we are or how we like. We will be able to break down the walls of the past, we’ll be able to change what was unchangeable, we will be able to pick up our swords and venture out.

And this time, we’ll be heroes.

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