The excessively overused anthropocentric thought experiment of the tree that falls unobserved in the forest and therefore may not have fallen at all has a much more tangible equivalent in video games.
One can merely assume that reality is only created by human observation, but the little boy running excitedly through Breath of the Wild‘s Kakariko is only realized by the program when my character approaches the village. When I leave it, he is mercilessly dissolved and disappears into the data nirvana. The world is created around me, it is only there for me. The illusion of a living, gigantic world is successfully maintained by games in very different ways.
I abandoned Red Dead Redemption early on. Instead of following the next waypoint, I rode into a settlement that was marked on the map. There was nothing there. No NPCs, no life, no opened saloon. A little later, the game took me there again. Upon my arrival: Lively activity! A stagecoach pulled up, people filled the streets, it was straight out of Lucky Luke. Even though I am fully aware of the illusion, this moment made the game turn sour for me.
Majora’s Mask may have been the first game that gave me a sense of simultaneity with its time loop. Everyone I met followed precisely traceable and thus predictable daily routines. While I was rolling over an icy mountain as a goron, I could accurately tell that right now, far away, two lovers were secretly meeting. They weren’t really meeting, but it felt like they were. And if I had gone there at that moment, they really would have.
Or you take it even further, dispense with the illusion and really calculate everything at the same time. That’s what the tiny marvel that is Outer Wilds does. In that game, trees fall even when I’m not watching them. I’m just a small element in a world that’s not just there for me. A good, humbling feeling.
This text is not about Outer Wilds, though. It’s about The Sexy Brutale. A game that has chosen a particularly interesting way to deal with the illusion of simultaneity: Sound. In this game, I explore an extensive mansion where nine guests are creatively murdered over the course of a day. It’s up to me to gradually and secretly prevent the murders. As I take my first steps, I hear sounds woven into the magnificent soundtrack. They are heard at the same time in every run. Rattling, brizzling, ringing, a gunshot. I barely pay attention to them. They are just background sounds.
But with every murder uncovered, with every peek through a keyhole, with every secretly overheard conversation, I learn what’s happening in those 12 hours. A lot. Every sound suddenly becomes very relevant at some point in the game because it is linked to a brutal murder. Since time resets after a successfully prevented killing, even the rescued people die over and over again, right on time. And no matter where I am in the building, the little sound cues are friendly reminders that right now someone is dangling from the bell tower, poisoned, shot, or burned alive. It’s just a sound playing, but it’s enough to make me believe that two stories above me, a murder is really happening right now. It turns the game into a groove, a deadly precision ballet in which everything interlocks. The world does not emerge around me, it exists for itself and I dance through the gaps of this choreography unnoticed.
The Sexy Brutale was jointly developed by UK-based Cavalier Game Studios and Spanish studio Tequila Works, and was released in 2017 for all main consoles and PC. It wove the simultaneity of all into its sound design, finding not only a perfect fit for the gameplay, but also a strangely satisfying way to create a game world. A working illusion.
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