Meet me down south: A neglected gaming locale
I’m a southerner, born and raised in the state of Mississippi. Needless to say, I’ve heard every damn stereotype joke out there. I’m intimately acquainted with all the problems and history that comes with the region, and, growing up there, I’ve come to appreciate its complexity as a beautifully haunted region of America with a guilty past and unsure future. The American South is not a simple place to live and it’s an even harder place to defend–which is why I’d like to see some developers take a crack at the region.
Despite its rich presence in literature and film, the South lacks a solid presence in video games, and, of the games set in the region, none that I’ve played have used it to its full potential. While games such as The Walking Dead, Left 4 Dead 2, and Infamous 2 are all set in the American South, they rarely make an effort to use the location mechanically and narratively to great effect. Perhaps this one specific area speaks to the video games’ broader sense of regionalism (or its erasure). In an industry saturated with urban jungles like Liberty City, Steelport, Los Angeles, Manhattan and countless others, I find myself getting excited when I catch word that a game takes place in the land of cotton, hoping in vain that a game are bold enough to explore the South and its values in meaningful and critical ways.
When I heard that Infamous 2 was taking place in New Orleans (though in the game it’s New Marais), I couldn’t wait to play it. New Orleans is my favorite city in the world. The architecture, the music, the food, the endless flow of alcohol…I have fond and foggy memories of each. Running and climbing across the rooftops of New Orleans (New Marais) as Cole MacGrath offered a whole new way to experience the Big Easy and before the game released I had planned routes in my head to visit familiar places like Bourbon Street, the Garden District, and Jackson Square.
The architecture of New Marais is beautiful and bizarre, equal parts elegance and debauched slum–much like its real-life counterpart. The city boasts beautiful cemeteries, an old cathedral, swamps, a plantation, parishes, and even a flooded region due to a hurricane that hit sometime in the recent past. It plays host to an excellent game with all the trappings a superhero experience needs and since I no longer live three hours away from the Big Easy, I must admit that nostalgia plays no small part in my attachment to the game.
As much as the setting factors into the game’s traversal mechanics, I could not help but feel that Infamous 2 shortchanged its locale because it’s mostly a covering. New Orleans is a weird, wonderful, haunted place full of fascinating people and a painful, beautiful history. There is nowhere like it in this country or any other, yet the game seems bent on keeping these aspects under wraps. We get hints of the racial tensions that possess the town with Cole’s war against Bertrand and the Militia as well as Nix’s origin, and we get the weirder folklore side of the city in Festival of Blood. There are hints at religious fervor and drunken debauchery, the trauma of a natural disaster, and plenty of redneck stereotypes, but it just seemed to lack soul.
I get that it’s a “fish-out-of-water” type game in that you play an outsider in a hostile insider world, and for the most part that’s fine–it’s a hell of a lot of fun. So much of the game, though, could have taken place in damn near any other city out there. After I finished it, I couldn’t help but ask, “Why did this game need to be set in the South?” It was the South “lite,” which, to be honest, is fair for a game that’s not about a Southerner–just a guy passing through on his way to better things. But for God’s sake, the game’s set in New Orleans, and they did so little with it. If you set a game in New Orleans (or some type of facsimile), then you best give this southern boy some home cookin’.
New Orleans provides the easiest entry into this field because it is both urban and southern, and it’s different enough in its own right to not be completely absorbed by the South so much that it alienates visitors. Yet there’s something about the Deep South that compels artists to untangle its mysteries. In William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Quentin Compson (a native Southerner) fields his Canadian’s roommate’s request for him to “[t]ell about the South. What’s it like there? What do they do there? Why do they live there? Why do they live at all?” Slightly exasperated and annoyed, Quentin responds, “You cant understand it. You would have to be born there.” The novel is largely about the difficulty to encapsulate history and culture of the South through written and spoken language; perhaps interactive texts like video games could give writers and players new insight into the issues of regional identity through play. What better way to experience the strangeness of that region and its people than through a medium that necessitates new perspectives by proxy?
There’s no shortage of sources for inspiration. The Southern literary tradition boasts some of the most grotesque characters out there, and, as Flannery O’Connor one said in an interview, “Whenever I am asked why Southern writers particularly have this penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.” The Southern Gothic style of storytelling begs for exploration in digital media, and, though we get a bit of it in a game like The Walking Dead, there’s still so much untapped potential to mine as games start looking for more complex narratives.
The South is a place where the values of the old are constantly troubled by the region’s bloody past and the encroaching progress of the new, and so much of Southern fiction focuses on trauma. For Faulkner, the two greatest sins of the South were the destruction of virgin land for industrial agriculture and, of course, slavery. While there have been plenty of games that deal with a protagonist fighting an evil corporation that wants to greedily tear up the land for whatever reason, few, if any, games deal directly with the history of American slavery. It’s a tough topic, but if film and literature can attempt it, I see no reason why games could not. The shadow of slavery looms long over the South, but it hasn’t made it into the video game medium as it has in film and literature.
Perhaps a game set in the American South that deals with the issue of race directly could broaden the very, very problematic portrayal of race in video games. There are so many stories left untold, even Quentin Tarantino is tackling the issue with his new exploitation-western Django Unchained (the popularity of which may ignite interest in the issues of Southern culture ripe for games to explore). A similar project could conceivably work in a video game. Though a Tarantino unltraviolence-soaked revenge fantasy provides an interesting experiment with the subject, a quieter, more contemplative game could provide an equally interesting approach to the subject. We just need a development team brave enough to try.
Many different genres are well-suited for Southern settings. A survival horror or mystery game à la Amnesia: The Dark Descent set in an old, haunted plantation would work well in the Southern Gothic tradition. The drug trade with the Dixie Mafia could make a great background for a shooter game. A historical epic about the Civil War would also work brilliantly; it’s been done before, but not recently–and not very well. A neo-noir story like Winter’s Bone could provide a fascinating game set in the Appalachian hills, or something more action-oriented along the lines of Justified would make for a hell of a story about renegade cops and corrupt families. A survival game about a journey across the post-Katrina coastline of Louisiana and Mississippi practically writes itself.
Southerners are, by nature, storytellers–God knows I’ve got mine. It’s what we’re raised to do, and I would love to see that tradition reflected in the games we play. The rolling hills of Appalachia, the long coastline from east Texas to the Florida panhandle, the deep woods of the Natchez Trace, the stain of human bondage that pervades the still standing plantations, and the small towns that dot the region all contain untapped potential for video game settings and stories. Someone needs to take a chance on the mysteries of that strange place below the Mason-Dixon Line.