The abandoned wastelands of a fallen society are lonely; the Indie Stone’s isometric survival-sim ‘Project Zomboid’ captures this sense of desperation, despair and futility in its opening line “These are the end times“…
… That is unless you’re playing online with friends, holed up in a safehouse arguing about who ate the last pineapple or coming back from a scavenging run with someone always there to make a hot cuppa (until the power goes out). So, whilst it’s not my favourite genre, the online aspect has made this a growing favourite in weekly gaming sessions. So, like an enthusiastic ornithologist trying desperately to show you their holiday snaps, here’s our group photo taken at the North Farm; our own little slice of the apocalypse that we like to call home.
It’d be a nice Kodak moment of we weren’t all huddled awkwardly behind the couch, and it’s the same in the kitchen; we stand by the oven, cooking dinner and then loiter close to a table and chairs eating. All this isn’t so bad compared to the ultimate crime of standing in the middle of the room next to a perfectly good comfy chair reading a book. In recent sessions this has started to make me physically uncomfortable; I spend a good portion of my day sitting down, getting home and flomping onto the couch is one of the best feelings after a long day. Seeing my character ingame returning from a frantic and risky dash into a warehouse to liberate some playing cards and a dead mouse, unable to kick-back in the lounge for a quick round of Kanasta detracts from the sense of achievement of surviving another 24 hours. It’s not just PZ (which it is worth mentioning is currently still early access so sitting might be implemented later), games in general have a complex relationship with sitting and chairs.
One reason for this is that it’s usually not an issue. Ingame the player is generally expected to be ‘doing something’, chairs feature as ‘common objects’, populating briefing rooms and office space, silently waiting to tumble around in an explosion demonstrating a physics engine or to be theatrically swept away by some rampaging monster. It’s when the player needs to interact with the chair that things start to get awkward.
In real life, many chairs (dining chairs, office chairs etc.) are considered moveable objects, we push them in, pull them out when we sit on them, slide them out the way when we need to go past. In the world of games however things are a little different; if the player needs to interact (or ‘sit’ as many of us call it) with a chair, it is much simpler for the chair to be considered as a fixed object. Around 10 years ago I descended into madness and spent a few months playing only the sims (it all had to stop when I started speaking sim-ish and hallucinating green diamonds hovering over my friends and family). Chair issues are rampant in the sims; your first house is small by necessity, you can spend time carefully planning the smallest room you need in order to contain all the necessary objects before you realise that although the room contains that table and chairs, and it looks like your adopted sim-puppets should be able to move around, they can’t push those fiddly ikea-knockoffs under the table and hours and hours of ingame time is wasted as your sim-minions attempt (and fail) to navigate the kitchen.
Since then, I’d like to think that my gaming tastes have matured… or at least evolved, but the chair problem hasn’t. In the 16-bit era chairs were often relegated to background art; flavour for a tavern or pews in a church. When they weren’t, the two-dimensional world forced the player to jump over them and little has changed in many cases. 1st person games which pride themselves on some level of realism allow the player to leap onto them like they are pillars of immovable granite evoking no flicker of surprise from the vacant stare of any surrounding NPC’s. Move into a region which has fixed-seating such as a cinema where in real life you might consider sidestepping down an aisle and you can be reasonably sure to encounter either an invisible wall, or hum ‘Deeper Underground’ to yourself as you jamiroquai over the top. The use of chairs as just another ‘lump-of-stuff’ in the game-world was cemented in Kim Swift’s post-portal cutesy puzzler ‘Quantum Conundrum’. Here players are forced to essentially use perfectly fine looking couches as platforms and weights to solve puzzles. Admittedly it’s all part of the charm, but given the game’s setting of ‘mansion’ isn’t it telling that a design choice was taken to use a chair as an item, that you might normally find just lying around not serving any other function, to jump all over? So the chair in modern games is largely either an immovable obstacle, a fidgety piece of physics, or (possibly the closest to its actual use) a device to interact with and move the plot along (i.e. Sit Down to talk to character X and find out your next objective).
This isn’t the complete case however, whilst largely overlooked, chairs can be used correctly in games. I’m not about to list my favourite chair-based moments in-game, but it would highlight the meaninglessness of this ramble, I’ll just pick out two good uses of chairs in game:
The Ship, the now ghostly servers allow you to wander around a source engine renderings of Art-Deco cruise ships, sipping cocktails and murdering your fellow passengers for money. It’s a very playable, silly and non-gamer accessible online game if you can find a few friends (Also everyone seems to have multiple gift copies in their Steam Inventory) but it also boasts being able to just sit down and watch the world go by… and of course work out who is a murderer by subtly person watching.
.. and secondly ‘ICO’; saving and seating never merged more perfectly than taking a seat with Yorda or loading a game to find yourself waking up on a stone couch head resting on her shoulder. It’s a mutually exclusive arrangement where either you are sat on the couch and they are running around fighting evil, or they get to sit down and fall asleep on that couch whilst you .. erm.. fight evil (depending on your vocation).
As always I’m not entirely sure I have a point; maybe I’m pining for better ingame seating, or just making an observation. Either way it’s a big part of our lives that games often overlook.. and I like sitting down..