The night sky in 'Red Dead Redemption'
'Red Dead Redemption 2' screenshot by author

Weather Systems Took on a New Meaning in 2018

Dreams of open worlds in an era of climate change.
December 28, 2018, 4:00pm

Welcome to Waypoint's End of Year celebration! This year, we're digging deep into our favorite games with dedicated podcasts, interviewing each other about our personal top 10 lists, and reflecting on the year with essays from the staff and some of our favorite freelance contributors. Check out the entire package right here!

Pheidippides met the god Pan on Mount Parthenium, above Tegea. Pan, he said, called him by name and told him to ask the Athenians why they paid him no attention, in spite of his friendliness towards them and the fact that he had often been useful to them in the past, and would be so again in the future. The Athenians believed Pheidippides's story, and when their affairs were once more in a prosperous state, they built a shrine to Pan under the Acropolis. — Herodotus, The Histories

Anyone else having these thoughts? I can’t shake them anymore. In fact, they keep hitting me while I’m playing games, and then my mind is churning and spinning once again, late into the night. Almost every night now.

'Assassin's Creed Odyssey' screenshot by author

I’m playing Red Dead Redemption again. I don’t even like this game, but it’s my first night in its fictionalized, early 20th-century Texas and when I look up at the sky it is dark in a way that no sky I have ever seen has been dark, and there are so many stars that—unbidden—I remember that in both Chinese and Japanese, the phenomenon that English calls the Milky Way is described as a “river” that runs across the sky and can you even imagine what it must have looked like, all those centuries and millennia ago, to make people decide that a river was the best analogy for what they saw? I think, in the years to come as terrestrial rivers slow and streams run dry, that maybe all of it goes back to this thoughtless, self-inflicted drought of starlight. This massive, re-definition of our environment that industrializing civilizations made to their world in the name of progress, with hardly a thought or worry about what it might signify about costs distant and unexpected.

I am stopped short the first time I ride north into the foothills of the Pindus Range in Assassin's Creed Odyssey. I crest a ridge, and see miles of mountains covered in snowpack almost into central Greece. But snowfall is even declining in the Alps, and I wonder if the sight of snow-capped peaks around the Mediterranean will become as mythic as running into one of the gods standing at a crossroads, wondering why you’ve never cared about them until now, this moment, when you needed their help?

'Forza Horizon 4' screenshot courtesy of Microsoft

AUTUMN flashes on the screen and I’m in a car racing across Scotland and the leaves are falling like the rain that filled those puddles in rich brown earth, and I am driving so fast in Forza Horizon 4 that it almost makes my eyes water from the wind that I can imagine racing across my face. Then I see another landscape transform and it’s WINTER and I’m behind the wheel of a truck jouncing and rocking across a snow-bright field and look at how beautiful these seasons are. Can you even believe it was ever like this? I remember it, kind-of (because climate change was accelerating before I took my first steps), but I can’t really believe it when it’s mid-October and I’m sitting in my apartment in northern Massachusetts and it’s 85 degrees outside. The air conditioning was turned off days ago because by this time of year you’re supposed to need heat but maybe that, too, is a custom based on a memory. Like referring to a river that flowed above you while you slept, or depicting a thick blanket of white lingering on distant hillsides. So I sit there, knowing but not quite believing—the epitaph of our times—and continue to marvel at this gorgeous natural world depicted in—of all things, at this moment—an automotive fantasia.

Video games love to stun you with the gorgeous vista, the unexpected majesty (or tragicomedy) of a rare animal in the wild. But these depictions started having an unshakably melancholic resonance this year. How much of what the last two Assassin’s Creed games portrayed is in danger of disappearing during our lifetimes? How much is already gone? Red Dead games tend to view nature as a useful backdrop for some comments-section libertarianism, but when I play Red Dead 2 the real source of suspense and dramatic tension is in that clear air, the nights lit by starlight, and the snowpack in the mountains. How am I supposed to take seriously its conflict between individual liberty and a flawed, encroaching legal order when the very setting of the game is the thing that was and is being destroyed by modernity?

'Red Dead Redemption 2' screenshot courtesy of Rockstar

I can’t play Forza Horizon 4 and not think about how idyllic—and now largely vanished—its depiction of the changing seasons is. The place where I live used to have a winter festival every year where there were all kind of contests and games played on snow and ice. They canceled it about twenty years ago because there were too many years where there just wasn’t enough snow.

Forza Horizon 4 is especially poignant because, of course, the entire conceit of the game is that it’s a car festival. There may be no invention and industry that has done more damage to the climate than the automobile, and in Horizon 4 the environment itself is nothing but a giant, weightless playground for cars to explore, traverse, and ultimately trash. So this game I love is freighted with this bizarre tension between the two things it means to celebrate: the car and the countryside.

This much anger and sadness cannot be good for you. I was playing Forza Horizon 4 as the sky lightened on a Monday morning, waiting until it was time to get my partner out of bed. I wanted to get to her before she checked the news on her phone and saw climate projections from the IPCC. We’ve been talking about having kids and now we’re talking about not having kids but I don’t want to think about that. I think about it and I can feel that pit of despair yawn in the darkness of the unknown and unknowable.

Games have always taken nature as a setting and a backdrop, but this was the year these fantasies of an unspoiled planet started to feel every bit as fantastical and unreachable as depictions of different worlds across the stars.