Maybe it’s not a totally new phenomenon in video games; most of our earliest gaming memories are about exploring new worlds — as linear as they may be — but I feel like 2010 presented a wide variety of experiences in the discovery and mastery of the frontier. The experience of the frontier is something extremely North American – both the United-Sates and Canada developed by pushing the western frontier, the wilderness both natural and human, back and putting forth the basis of civilization.
Many games this year allowed us to experience what our ancestors experienced: the exploration of a seemingly dangerous new world and the effort to regulate it. Not only did they allowed us to live it through their systems and their narratives, but they presented it from a multitude of points of view. You could be the explorer, charting the frontier and facing its dangers; an agent of the civilized forces, giving order to chaos; or a victim of progress’ non-stop advancement.
Let’s take a look at a few of those different games from 2010 and how they presented the experience of the frontier.
1: Sid Meier’s Civilization V
The link between the experience of the frontier and a game of Civilization V is pretty easy to establish: you start with a single settler in an unknown land and expand your civilization through the world you inhabit. You don’t know what is beyond that hill but both your need to expand and your need to discover (supported by ruins bonuses and natural wonders) will push you forward, and possibly into danger. While in the western American frontier the dangers were natives and wildlife, the dangers populating the frontiers of a Civilization game take the form of barbarians and other civilizations.
A Civilization game will put the player in front of the same choices settlers faced on their expansion west, albeit on a grander scale. Do you build a city near these important resources, knowing that barbarians are camping nearby? Do you focus on the military protection of a small region or on expanding your reach to grab as much resources as possible (the major difference between New England and New France back during colonization)? The questions you face in an early game of Civilization are the same settlers faced in the days of colonization.
And just like in the real world, once the frontier becomes known and controlled, the world seems to get smaller; you know what the continent you live on looks like, you know who are your neighbors and what are the borders you share, and you somehow run out of place to expand or to explore. The only frontier left is beyond the stars, and it is no wonder that pushing back this frontier is one of the possible roads to victory.
2: Red Dead Redemption
Red Dead Redemption, and by extension its hero John Marston, represents the last days of the Wild West. The government is taming the frontier and the wild cowboy is a dying breed of men. One thing Rockstar did really well in this game is passing on to the player the feeling of uncertainty and change that is about to come to the western frontier. Like in every open world games, it’s the details that make the world believable and interesting. There is the little movie theatre in Armadillo, the telephone lines that starts to populate the sky around towns, and the ever-growing presence of the government in the people’s life.
Marston himself is caught up in governmental affairs when he has to go after the members of his former gang. As the game reveals more and more about the reasons behind Marston’s missions, it is clear that the authorities are set on taming the wild plains of New Austin. Civilization is making its way west, and bandits like Dutch and Williamson needs to be dealt with – they do not belong in a civilized world. Sadly, neither does Marston.
A true gut punch, the ending is the proof that men like Marston are not deemed fit for this “new world” that is making its way west. After fulfilling its duty toward the government, he is given a shot at a new life. Maybe he can be a rancher, a father and a husband, and even be a productive member of society, but he is denied his redemption — not by the forces of chaos, but by those of order. Red Dead Redemption let’s us experience the frontier from the point of view of those who lived it and, ultimately, lost it to civilization.
3: Fallout: New Vegas
War, war never changes. Those words echo the idea that we never really change. The Mojave Desert surrounding New Vegas supports this idea, as the state of the world 200 years after the apocalypse is not much different from its state 200 years before. From rangers trying to keep order to small settlement living of a single trade (from salvaging ruins of our world to prostitution), the world of New Vegas is has much inspired by the western frontier than games like Red Dead Redemption — give or take a few laser guns and mutants.
Much like Red Dead Redemption, New Vegas is showing us a world that is changing. Order is coming to the frontier, with the only difference being that civilization’s spreading from west to east, mirroring the real world evolution of society. Once again, we see a clash between order and chaos. A speaking example of this is a mission taking place in the small settlement of Primm. After the death of their sheriff, they need someone else to defend them and keep order. The two main solutions are: taking an ex-sheriff from a high security prison and get him a pardon from the authorities, or just convince the NCR (New California Republic, a bureaucratic and military power representing order and civilization) to protect the town. By becoming an NCR settlement, Primm gains protection from a trained military force, but needs to pay taxes and obey certain rules.
In the Fallout universe, the Wild East is the next frontier that the NCR regime wants to take over, but there is strong opposition from the people who live on those lands and do not want to change their ways of living. New Vegas being what it is, the fate of the Mojave Desert is up to you. Whether it is going to be ruled by an all-powerful corporation, a democratic but heavy bureaucratic government, by a merciless unifying dictatorship, or even by you, is entirely up to the choices you make.
Arriving on the borders of a new world in Minecraft feels overwhelming. You stand there, alone and powerless, with an immense and ever expanding world in front of you. It is empty and dangerous, especially at night; and then you build a house. Once your house is done and you start pilling up those resources from the giant mines and caverns you foraged, you build a garden, then a waterfall, a second house in a tree, a lighthouse to find your way home, a monument to your glory and whatever other structure you can imagine, even if they defy the laws of physics. You tame the wild land, this brand new frontier world, and make your mark on it. You create yourself places of safety. Your house or castle becomes a controlled environment, a symbol of order and intent in a chaotic world created at random.
What’s even more interesting is when you multiply that experience by hundreds of players each settling into a new land on a server. Groups will form, people will look for the best place to make their town, and once basic survival needs are met (coal for light, ore for weapons and armors and wheat for bread), they either expand or build more complex structure. Like an accelerated course through American colonial history, once towns are built, railroads will link them and trade will begin. Rich iron town will trade with that desert town that is swimming in glass, and they themselves trade with that forest town for the wood they lack. Laws are made to settle disputes between neighbors and decide who owns certain plots of land.
Minecraft is, in many ways, a true digital frontier experience. Whether it is alone or in a community, the player is thrown into an unknown world that he must learn to control and use. Once this is done, nothing really limits the him in his crazy architectural dreams, except for resources. And just like the settlers that set down the basis of North America, the player will look for them, not letting the wild nature of the world stop him or her from leaving a trace.
You can find more from Bruno and contact him at Press A to Jump