In the hands of engineers

[Getting back to both posting on a regular schedule and back to the environmental design series, I thought I would talk about something that is right in front of the face of every gamer: artifacts.]

I’ve gunned down every person, animal or otherwise that has come across my path. I am a one-woman army against this twisted, run-down, left-behind, ugly landscape. It is me versus the world — and I always win.

I jump out of my vehicle, after smashing yet another skag, and approach an area I was told to seek out. There are weapon caches here and, for good money, I’m tasked to take them out. As I walk up to a wall, I notice the writing.

“Piss off!”

The game is Borderlands. A game in which I’ve invested dozens of hours across two different platforms. But for all enemies gunned down and quests completed, I never really thought about the signs. These warnings, messages and painted indifferences are everywhere though. On frequent walls and around many corners, there are bits of written culture left behind. For the longest time, I thought little of them. They are just flavor texts, some small touches to make me feel part of the world. Only, are they really?

I’m not going to argue they are not as I just called them, flavor texts. They are. But they are more because it shows something about the environments of many virtual worlds that most players never think about but are right there in front of them:

Every artifact is a set of choices.

This may be obvious to anyone who has thought about archeology or anthropology. After all, look at any craved item, any modeled metal. A hand was at work there. That jade statue was designed and made with skill. That wooden clock was crafted by an artisan, each gear craved and placed in a special place and way. Even on a more basic level, the items we eat with are all designed. Forks, spoons and knives are all designed. So, why not games?

A video game is a designed item. Often times, teams of anywhere from tens to hundreds of people make one. Every written line or graphical model was planned, drawn and executed. All is code. All is made. A virtual environment is entirely made up from the imagination of the creators. Every item then is a distinct choice. Someone, somewhere, made a choice about what I am seeing. A game then, a summation of choices and therefore both an artifact in its own right and a combination of artifacts, is a collection of many, many choices.

Getting back to Borderlands then, I am to assume that when I see a message, it is for me. After all, who else would read it? The enemies in the game? No. The animals? No. The only reason to have a message in the game is for the player(s) to see it. The message then, the “Piss off” is for me. It is for me, as the character. The enemies do not want me there, they do not want me to kill them. And they, through the lens of the developers, have left me these messages. Some developer made a choice to include a written statement for the player-character combination. This message is an artifact, a set of choices, and was left for me.