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Explosive Realism

Let's get this out there now: I love explosions. Like any 80s kid, it originated with cartoons - although I'm sure each of us has our own story, going back to a specific movie or show. For me, it was the original Danger Mouse, which premiered in the UK the year Andy and I were both born: 1981. By the mid-80s, it was on Nickelodeon here in the states, and required viewing for my father, my sister, and myself. The opening is a frenetic, yet oddly sparse, mess of energy, serving as a great lead-in to the show itself, with the titular Danger Mouse and his hamster assistant Penfold running from a number of old-fashioned  bombs, each punctuated with an onscreen "BANG" or "BOOM." With each of these "blow-ups," as I called them, my father would lift me and my sister into the air and we'd go into the episode energized and giggling. Blow-ups were not only moments of excitement, but familial joy. Before long, I'd be exposed to the ur-text of cinematic explosions in the Star Wars movies, their bevy of imitators (at least one of which I was a tad obsessed with), Star Trek in its various forms, and yes, video games. Most games early on showed only a flash, overlaid effect, or a spaceship breaking apart, although the "scattering debris" effect in the mighty (and influential) Star Raiders was quite memorable. The first game explosion I remember making me feel like a real movie blow-up, though, was its (ostensible) sequel, Star Raiders II, with colorful blasts and plumes that gave me just a little tingle of the thrill from the "real" ones I'd see on TV. This wouldn't be topped until Star Wars: X-Wing on the PC a number of years later - an actual recreation of the explosion effect from the films! My heart could have stopped right then and there. And since then, things have only improved, with stunning blow-ups that not only look right, but present physical effects and other layered gameplay elements, good, bad, and just plain awesome. I love explosions... on-screen.

This was going to be such a simple post - Andy and I have been playing the final entry in the Grand Theft Auto "3D Universe" (i.e, all the games that were released on the PS2), Vice City Stories. While I was goofing off pondering what to write about this week and playing the game, I caught myself grinning at how satisfying the explosions were, even when they were unintended hassles that meant you had to do a mission all over again. "Ah ha!" I thought. "I'll do a post about explosions, why they're cool, and what makes a good video game explosion. Blow-ups!" I started my usual patented research process (Googling to see what other people have already said), and while many results appeared discussing the "best" video game explosions, several (including the top one) discussed "realistic" explosions... and that put my head in a very different place. Because real-world explosions are something entirely different. 

I understand that, in most circumstances, when people say they want "realism" in electronic games, they actually mean "cinematic," the sort of representational, stand-in imagery that makes a handful of buildings into a town or twenty minutes into a day. But even in a representational sense, real-world explosions, barring the work of pyrotechnicists and demolition/excavation professionals, are moments of unrelenting horror and suffering. The phrase "realistic explosions" instantly brought to mind stories of industrial and infrastructure accidents... and that was even before I considered the history of aerial bombardment. And that's the difference here from things like gun battles or sword fights - things that have certainly traumatized real people, but (generally) aren't as likely to suddenly take place and devastate the lives of regular people. Real explosions aren't the brief fireballs of my beloved blow-ups, they're the sudden release of stored energy as uncontrolled physical movement, and that's where things are scary: human advancement is based around stored energy, from clockwork springs to steam engines to nuclear plants. Explosions, in the real world, mean that things are breaking down, that something has gone wrong with the fundamental unseen workings of the systems driving society.

And those are accidental explosions - intentional ones are just as vital to understanding our history as a species, with all the horror that entails. There's a reason we can cleanly divide human civilization into a simple "before and after" with the invention of gunpowder. Naval and aerial developments brought the threat of incendiary attack beyond the battlefield and into civilian areas all the way up to the twentieth century concept of "total war," where every person in a nation at conflict could be considered a viable target. Our blow-ups may have been a family bonding moment for us, but the real world version is wiping entire families out in Gaza as I type this.

So why am I bringing this up, and what does it have to do with games? If we're going to consider games, electronic or otherwise, art (which they very much are), then we need to think about them the way we do as other artforms, as both mirrors and lenses reflecting that offer new perspectives to (and about) the people that make and play them. What is it about explosions, in the contexts of games and other narrative media that makes them feel both exciting and satisfying, given the nightmarish consequences of their real-world counterparts? We can't ignore the response of our own nervous systems (even without the joy of being tossed in the air by a family member). The rush of adrenaline that comes with the visual and auditory (and, with controllers from the fifth console generation on, physical) stimulus - we love firework displays for a reason, after all.

There can also be a sense of un-making, particularly with the clean nature of cinematic explosions: the force for evil (or at least, threat to the world as we'd like it to be) is completely removed, and all trace of it has been functionally erased from existence. This is especially satisfying if the object destroyed has the potential of an equivalent destructive force, doubly so if that's already been seen - no one cheers when Alderaan is destroyed (at least I hope not), but we all want to when the first Death Star goes up. There's no moral quandry there, just as there isn't when we wipe out a clutch of Doom demons with a couple shots to one of those oh-so-convenient red barrels. There is simply a moment of cleansing fire, a thrilling flash and sound, and it's as if the evil had never existed. That reclamation of power is a wonderful thought in stories and games, sealed away from the complications of collateral damage that muddy real-world uses of such force. Not that the muddying is never completely absent - to go back to the aforementioned Star Raiders II, even as a kid it seemed odd to be that the targets on enemy planets were "bases," but the ones on your own were "cities." I recognize that as Cold War-era othering, but even here there might have been a subversive bent in the way you could use the very weapons provided to destroy their "bases" could be used on your own "cities." They both blew up just the same, not that different after all.

And then there's the opposite direction, too, the one we see in GTA: rather than removing the cause of disorder, an explosion can embody it and make manifest the disassembly of systems and oppressive order. Sometimes we want to become the agents of chaos ourselves, ushering in mayhem against the efforts of those who would stop us, whether as a means to nefarious ends of our own or simply because we find catharsis the world onscreen falling apart for a bit. It may sound contradictory in light of what I said earlier about the consequences of breakdown in the real world, but that's very much the point here: it's not real, existing in a midpoint between Loony Tunes and the 90s crime film revival... two ranges of media that I greatly enjoy. Like I enjoy GTA, like I enjoy my beloved blow-ups.

This isn't a screed against against video game violence, quite the opposite - I hope I've articulated some reasons we love things that we absolutely don't want to see in the real world. But I also think it's worth it to keep in mind what the echoes we see in media say about who we are, why we make what we do, and what that says about us. I don't really believe that games, or any other media, are ever true escapism - we wrap so much of ourselves into what we create and consumer, we'll never be able to drown it out completely. And that's why I don't want my explosions to be "realistic," I want them the be the blow-ups that launched me into the air as a kid (via my father), even when I'm fighting alien demons or trying to pull off a legendary caper.

- B

 Send questions, comments, and detailed descriptions of your favorite onscreen explosions to neversaydice20@gmail.com or Tweet us @nevesaydice2.

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