There is a special kind of halo around the things games do that they don’t really have to. The radio stations in GTA, or the fact that the GPS disappears when you go through a tunnel. The tinkle of shell-casings hitting the floor in a shooter that you would assume is too brisk and frowny for such distractions. The plaque you sometimes find by monuments on the battle royale island of Fortnite. These things don’t define a game, but they quietly help to make things feel richer. They are signs that someone cares, and maybe, even, that somebody was having fun thinking of the fun that you would one day have in the worlds they were making.
There are two of these throwaway-but-not-throwaway elements that I always get a bit funny about. I love them far more than I should. The first, which I’m not going to talk about today, is games that have imaginary front-ends, fake desktops, operating systems, DOS prompt lines. I cannot get enough of that mobilis in mobili approach to fiction, in the same way that I can’t go to an art gallery without swooning a little over the frames the paintings are set within. The second, which I am going to talk about today, goes by the name of day/night cycles. What a rubbish name for something so beautiful.
Day/night cycles set the goodly firmament above your head into motion. They are a feature of open-world games, and they all say, in their quiet way, that the world ticks on regardless of the player. You pootle through your missions in GTA, setting the waypoints, thrilling, quietly, to the manner in which the GPS disappears when you go through a tunnel (ever the showoff, GTA also uses rumble to simulate turbulence when you’re in a plane) and wondering just how you’re expected to prosecute an assault on that military base over by the coast, while over your head rosy dawn gives way to another Sega blue noon, or murky SoCal dusk becomes an HD night filled with stars.
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