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Why are video games obsessed with ruins?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  March 11, 2014 03:00 PM

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Video games can be set anywhere, but with surprising frequency, they take place amid ruins—the crumbling remnants of an ancient civilization, or the barren landscape of some post-apocalyptic world order.

Why does the medium have such an affinity for decay? Earlier this month the video game magazine Kill Screen ran a smart essay with an interesting explanation: Video games are a natural fit with “the aesthetic of ruins” because “almost every game begins from a place of disorder.”

And within the video game, you, as the player, are charged with putting things back together.

To make his point, write David Chandler begins with Tetris, a video game that isn’t set anywhere, but which asks you to take randomly falling pieces and lay them straight. Among more recent games that feature the “aesthetics of ruin,” Chandler cites the “blown-out” apartments in Fallout 3, a “toppled skyscraper” in The Last of Us, and the “dilapidated city of Rapture” in BioShock. In each, the broken landscape contains the possibility of reconstruction—if you’re a good enough player to achieve it.

Chandler’s essay is a little long and can be taken to over-intellectualize the design decisions that go into video games. He offers that another reason video games are “obsessed” with ruins it that, as pieces of technology, they’re self-aware of their own inevitable slide into obsolescence.

It’s also possible, of course, that ruins, like big guns and blowing things up, are just cool, in a medium where the aesthetics of cool carry outsized weight. There may also be a practical motive behind the aesthetic of ruins. Just like an oriental rug hides stains, the aesthetic of ruins helps to cover graphical limitations: A computer-rendered new house would look fake, but a decomposing house with cracks, age, and patina has texture!

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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