Great Southern Landscape – Exploring Australia in Games

As someone who doesn’t feel the same pull to racing and cars as many in this country, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Forza Horizon 3. Sure I still have those moments in the lure of a magical song beckoning my foot down, hoping to squeeze out a higher pitch from the beast below the bonnet, but racing isn’t my game.

That the game is set in an Australia of sorts, cobbled together from sights across this varied nation? That was another lure in itself. I figured the demo of the game would be enough to indulge the developers a moment, but that a sideshow of familiarity would not hold any lasting impact for me.

Instead I find I’ve had a day of reckoning – cause I reckon there’s something special to take away from the game’s virtual take on the southern land.

One of the best attributes of games are their ability to transport us into somewhere other, be it a new place, new time or a new perspective. No matter how faithfully these environments are crafted or how many compromises are made for the sake of playability, it’s that sense of exploration that makes them special.

When it comes to taking us to places, it’s sport that is king. The virtual golf courses are the most reliant on an authentic representation of their real world counterparts, as the players strive toward a dream round at their ream course.

Team-based sports tend to push for recreation of famous stadiums as a way to present the atmosphere of being on those hallowed pitches, with a target dead centre between adoration and wish fulfilment.

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Other game genres do target recreations of places, whether from the now or history as is common in the Assassin’s Creed games, or a simulacrum stand-in running by a stage name as seen in Grand Theft Auto, but they don’t approach sports.

Sport games (with a loose tie to racing games under that banner) are most concerned with the feeling of the real thing. When done faithfully, these locations can trigger the player’s familiarity.

The first game that delivered that recognition of knowing your surrounds in a virtual yet real city was Project Gotham Racing 2 on the original Xbox. It was with delight that I discovered a particular area of a track was so familiar that I sacrificed position to pull a 180°, to see a building I’d seen in Florence with my own eyes.

It was my first significant bout of virtual tourism, and carried an impact even greater that hooning down Dickson Road in Sydney – thankfully also in-game.

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If Project Gotham conveyed a real sense of Florence, it might be said that Assassin’s Creed 2 brought me to a place. It was memories of Italian cities once visited that evoked the reaction again, with Venice, Rome and once more Florence being places to explore, and a way to indulge my own memories.

With the shift in Assassin’s Creed 3 to the period of the American Revolution, it became clear that sites closer to home might lend themselves to this immersive style of exploration.

To experience the early years of colonisation where now we have folk songs and history that are often treated as interchangeable might aid in understanding how the Australia that is came to be.

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With a few exceptions, often used an excuse to get drunk and/or say questionable things about our neighbours, we don’t possess a lot of reverence for our past.

Whether part of the cultural cringe referred to by former Prime Minister Paul Keating or a detached aloofness that prevents pride in any facet of this country that can’t be measured in medals, points, or slurs, we don’t linger on where we came from unless it’s in context of telling others to return to where they did.

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We don’t possess reenactment societies concerned with the formation of Australia in its current guise, and beyond passing references to the likes of Cook, Botany, Rum Corps, Ned Kelly, Eureka, Anzac and tall ships, there isn’t a lot of investment in our past as a contributor to the Australian identity.

Even without considering the tens of thousands of years of populated Australia before Europe came across the continent, there have been many interesting and intriguing events or periods in our relatively short Anglocentric history alone. Many of our homegrown creations either play at settings from further afield, or invest in larrikins and quirky happenstance – there isn’t a confidence apparent in target.

The ambition tends to lack, as though there is self-doubt at a national level, around our history and identity.

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Though concerned more with the events and not the place, 1979 Revolution by iNK Stories, a narrative driven game based around the revolution in Iran carried a particular weight for me – not because Tehran was familiar to me as it was not, but because it so thoroughly tossed me into a history of the world I was not intimately familiar with.

While similar style games pushed my emotions as a player, that it was a telling of a real world event made it fraught with tension.

Aside from the importance that 1979 Revolution carries because of its subject matter, it demonstrates the capacity that games have to educate, transport and create understanding. There is an obvious example here – that these narrative driven games might be used to tell stories set in this country’s past.

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Another game that does this with culture instead is Never Alone, which uses a puzzle platformer as a vehicle to tell the stories of the Iñupiat. Developed in partnership with those tied to the stories, it presented well as a way to share these stories with the world without them being coopted or misrepresented.

The obvious leap from here is that the same could be done for the traditions and stories of Australia’s first people, which would not only share them with the world, but with other Australians. Much as the exemplary TV series Cleverman has brought stories and elements of The Dreaming to a greater audience, so too could games bring understanding where now there is none.

Yet without the culture of an eon-enduring civilization or the airs of written history, it’s the place itself that has inspired this, after the focus given to our unique landscape by Forza Horizon 3.  

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In just the demo alone, it carries that authenticity I’d first experienced in Project Gotham Racing 2. As is now well-known, Horizon 3 plays loose with the geography for the sake of the game, yet in spite of its unauthentic map, it carries an authentic air.

The rapid shift from beach to countryside in a land that can be as wet or dry as you like within a gear shift feels natural and organic, even when it rolls between bush, scrub and farmland. The country-seeming towns where there seem to be no strangers, tiny roadside farms or even just long wide stretches with a steady beast of white posts and the occasional brown signpost of a tourist drive.

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Driving about the seaside suburbs of Horizon took me back to the roadtrips of my childhood, where each holiday house stood on a wide unfenced parcel, often lined with an angled wood lattice and built with either fibro, brick or weatherboard. It was trips to Narooma, drives through Bega, or towns along a highway in search of that pie shop you’d go through a tank for. It was driving through an inland country town with five pubs, two butchers and not a lot else.

What became clear in the demo is that as identifiable as its places were, I wanted more. I wanted to step out of the car and have a chat with the guy standing on the verandah, or sit at the picnic table listening to conversations as we watched boats sail past together.

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The unfortunate state of the current government’s support for the game industry means we aren’t keeping pace with game industries overseas, and that without the proper investment in tech infrastructure, even those who try to are kept at a disadvantage as our online capacity languishes. Games are the next media challenge, and we should use them to share the culture of all people within these shores.

Exploring the Australia of Forza Horizon 3 will present those elements and details we live with day-to-day that we forget about, but that are quintessentially of our land, our people and our heritage – right down to the red and yellow bin lids.

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Rather than a backdrop, it would be great to see more of an Australia we can love easily, and to share that with the rest of the world. Our shaky stabs at homegrown apartheid, vilification and detention centres aren’t the values that need to be propagated beyond our shores, or here at home.

Perhaps through games we might be better to understand ourselves, and share that with everyone. What Forza Horizon 3 reminded me of is that our lives are worth sharing as they are, without the need for gilded edges. To let the rest of the world experience the place is just a start.

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