“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
We all have that one medium of entertainment that we’re so obsessed with, that we take it to the point of making sure everyone else obsesses about it too.
“You have to watch House of Cards”, I’ll say, “Kevin Spacey is just fantastic.”
“Everything Jennifer Lawrence is in is gold…she’s perfect!” I’ll scream.
While both statements have left my mouth from time to time (and are of course obviously true), my real passion is video gaming. I’m a player, a crafter, and a believer in the worlds that developers across the industry create for us to run around in, forgetting about dissertations that are due in a couple of months. For me, video games hold one key advantage over other mediums: The unique ability of each player to have different interpretations of the environment they’re exploring–it’s our own life experience that shapes our perceptions in a video game. A film or television show for example can be-and at times will flawlessly execute-an ambiguity, allowing the audience to make up their own minds about what they just experienced (just watch any Christopher Nolan film). They are, however, restricted–we can’t jump into the screen and point the camera slightly to the left to see something going on over in the corner. With video games though, we absolutely can.
Play Bioshock and you’ll craft more of a story in your mind than the developers can do in the entire game. Blood on the wall, money scattered around the floor, bullet holes riddling a doorway, the developers provide us with tools to envisage the story of what happened here, leaving it to the player to cultivate their own perceptions of the world whilst maintaining a living, breathing atmosphere. This technique is known as ‘environmental storytelling’: the ability to present a narrative to audiences through the world alone, removing the reliance on characters or cut-scenes, allowing the environment to become a central character in itself.
One of my favourite examples of this is Gone Home. If you haven’t played it, leave now and experience it for yourselves. It quickly became my “go-to-game-to-show-anyone-who-hasn’t-played-a-game” game. It’s the game I want to show my parents and to my children – I want them to know exactly what the medium can do and Gone Home is a great example of it.
Without spoiling too much, the game’s narrative explores homosexuality and that often-dreaded moment of coming out. As someone whose own experiences, whilst terrifying, turned out happily I am well aware of the countless others out there who could not say the same. How could I then, as someone who wants to make video games, bridge the worlds of gaming and the homosexual experience? What approach could I use that-like the work that inspired me-features a homosexual-centric narrative? Gone Home 2? Well, if they’ll have me, I’m available for hire…
Instead I turned to history, which takes us back to the very first line of this article.
Since last September I have lived and breathed the life of Alan Turing. Dubbed the “Father of Computer Science” Turing made some of the most startling advancements in mathematical and scientific research in history; helping to mastermind the breaking of the German Enigma code during the Second World War, articulating the first design of a digital computer and paving the way for artificial intelligence, Turing’s contributions were invaluable. He was however deemed a security threat by the government due to his homosexuality and was driven to a life of solitude and eventually, his suicide. I can’t quite imagine having to repress my feelings like he did, it’s impossible. I have felt for this man with every word I have read and as each day goes by, when I think of him I can only experience three things-anger, disappointment and dread. Soon, these changed into three words: tell a story. Tell his story.
And that’s exactly what I’m planning to do.
As part of my course in Game Design and Production Management at the University of Abertay Dundee I am working to explore the following as my dissertation:
“To investigate the effects of architecture and interior design on navigation and narrative in video games.”
To do so I have been creating a 3D interactive environment (a house), wherein I will observe players navigating the space. This is largely based on theory–implementing particular architectural elements to influence a person’s direction of movement. The narrative however, was something I needed to craft myself. Turing’s life then, would help to create that story.
I wanted to express Turing’s personality and life through the home in which he lived. Throughout, players will find documents, books and experiments that represent the life’s work of such an extraordinary man.
There are three central narrative themes embedded within the environment: Turing’s accomplishments as an academic, the persecution he suffered due to his sexuality, and the love he endured for Christopher Morcom. During their late teens, both Turing and Morcom shared a passion for mathematics and science which quickly developed into a deep friendship. Turing expressed his feelings for him through private letters, but their time together was cut short when Morcom tragically passed away of bovine tuberculosis. At that point Turing vowed to continue his exploration of the sciences, only because Morcom no longer could. Despite meeting other men throughout his life, Morcom remained his first and only love.
Interestingly, Turing maintained an obsession with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs throughout his life with many of his close friends claiming his own suicide was a reflection of the scene in which the Queen poisons an apple. On the 7th of June, 1954 a half-eaten red apple was placed neatly at the bedside table where he had taken his life. These details are pivotal to the interactive exploration of his home, acting as reminder of the man and his deeply upsetting story.
There have been many attempts to explore Turing’s life in many mediums. Derek Jacobi’s brilliant performance in Breaking the Code focuses on the heart-breaking notion of Turing coming to the realisation that his life was no longer his own. When he was convicted in 1952, he was given two choices-go to prison, or endure injections of oestrogen that were intended to reduce his libido. He chose the latter, facing a humiliating period that saw his body transform into something that he no longer recognised. The government revoked his access to Bletchley Park and maintained a vigilant watch on his actions, noting where he went and who he met. This man, this wonderful man, was turned away because of something he could not control.
Like Gone Home, my project offers people the chance to explore a stranger’s house, which is the most private part of anyone’s life. Players can absorb this narrative–this man’s life–and come to their own conclusions. What was this man feeling? Why did he read these letters at the breakfast table? Why is that chess piece out of place? I want the environment to provide the questions, but I want individual views to fill that space. I want people to know that one of the greatest pioneers in British history was held up to humiliation, to see him as more than facts and accomplishments, and I know that only video games can offer that level of interactivity in their storytelling.
While we have gone some way in providing a fitting end for Turing, we are at a point in time where our history is quite literally repeating itself. This year has seen an unprecedented amount of attention on Russia, and whether it’s focusing on the Sochi Games or their recent military actions, there is only one image in my mind. Seeing a young, helpless man beaten to the edge of his life. Having his teeth knocked out and begging for his survival–all for being homosexual. That man can choose to fight for his life, and fight he did, but he cannot choose his sexuality.
I’m angry because Alan Turing was a true wonder that was taken before his time.
I’m disappointed because our government took over fifty years to pardon his crimes.
And I dread that the world will stand by as we let our history repeat itself.
I’m a firm believer in the term “It Gets Better” which has helped so many in the LGBT community, but it only truly gets better if we fight for it. My story may only go some way towards that cause, maybe even not at all. But it’s my way of saying sorry, and that Alan–you deserved so much better.