If my greatest passion in life is video games, for my girlfriend, it’s plants.
They fill our one bedroom apartment – plants of all sizes. She’s particularly fascinated by terrariums, of which we have several. Each day I walk by them and watch their microcosmic ecosystem grow and decay, one plant giving way to another, fungus sprouting in certain places to be removed later. The condensation rolls down the side in even beads. Life in the terrarium is entirely self contained. I sometimes imagine myself inside of them, my hands against the glass wall that separates me from the outside world, my breath quickly gathering in front of me.
Originally invented by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, the terrarium was originally called the “Wardian Case” and intended to take samples of plants from one country to another for pollination.
Terrariums as we know them now, first came into popularity during the industrial revolution. As people rapidly began to don urban lives, in small apartments, they kept terrariums to have a piece of the outside world with them. The world outside the brick and mortar and dust and steam. A small child, reminding them that there is beauty in the natural world.
When I inspect our terrariums each morning, I’m reminded of playing Arkane’s 2017 reboot of Prey. Prey belongs to a very specific family tree of games that dates back to System Shock, and includes the Thief, Bioshock, Deus Ex, and Dishonored franchises. All of which focus on player expressivity. There should always be far more than one way to tackle any objective, based on how the player has decided to grow their character. Want to get into that security station? Climb through the roof, go through a vent, hack the door, find a keycard, etc. They’re generally played in first person and build complex systems of metaphorical pulleys and counterweights – systems that interact with one another regardless of player interaction. They’re called “immersive sims” precisely because they attempt to mimic the complexity of the world around us. They attempt to shatter the glass walls that bind a player in any other game.
System Shock 1 and 2, it’s spiritual successors Bioshock 1, 2, and Infinite as well as Prey play into the concept of interlocking environmental systems by being set in enclosed environments. The System Shocks and Prey, on a space station, and Bioshock, in a city built under water or flying in the air. All of their fictional spaces share the principle that inside their respective terrariums is safety. Outside of them, death.
Each of those terrariums is a self-contained world.
The people of each develop their own cultures, rituals, and customs. Their inhabitants fall in love with each other, or don’t, because after all, there are only so many people on Talos 1. If one person catches a cold, they all do. If the fish served in the cafeteria is off, then everybody has the same food poisoning; it’s Airplane writ large (with far fewer instances of off-the-cuff racism and sexism). These biomes are reliant on the resources inside of them. There is no master gardener walking by each morning inspecting them, pulling out fungus, opening them up to allow excess moisture to dissipate. In fact, if the lid of any of these terrariums in question was lifted, it would mean certain death for the life inside of it.
And here we reach the crux of each of these fictional worlds: when the player character enters the equation, either the lid has been lifted or the fungus that popped up last week was left unchecked. We see these ecosystems after collapse, due to one circumstance or another. We see the aftermath of the fungus spreading to every living thing inside of the terrarium, twisting it, warping it. All we have left are the histories of the people inside that once were. Be it through audio-logs, emails, or notes written by one inhabitant to another. We’re left with the artifice, the communications that were the structure for all relations and operations.
That the aforementioned games take place in a contained space, marries seamlessly with the goals of the immersive sim. In Prey, every single crew member of the Talos 1 space station is accounted for, alive or dead. You follow their narratives before their deaths. What they were doing, eating, or what character build they chose to play Dungeons and Dragons with during rec-hours. Those people exist in the immaterial, you can see who they loved, what their job was. Their interwoven relationships exist as a mirror for the inter-dependent mechanical systems in Prey.
When standing there, reading the story of Annalise Gallegos, we’re reminded of a time on Talos 1 when everybody was safe. Talos 1 and Rapture are so effective as fictional worlds exactly because their closed systems have been cracked open. When you explore the crew quarters that were once a place of rest, they’re now a minefield of enemies and traps. There is a tension between the space as it was, and how it is now. That tension is heightened by its setting. You can’t leave. The last escape pod or lifeboat has left, leaving you inside that decaying terrarium, with the crushing vacuum of space or the pressure of the ocean around you. When you look outside of your glass cage, it doesn’t actually seem so bad being inside of it.
The most terrifying portions of Prey are spent outside of the station in zero gravity.
The moment you leave the airlock, everything that was once familiar is gone. You are drifting, with just the meager power of your in-suit propulsion systems to guide you. You might see a corpse floating in the distance and go to it. When you look back, you realize just how small you are, and how hopelessly far you are from the safety of Earth. Similarly, in Bioshock, during the few instances in which you don a diving apparatus and walk the surface of the ocean floor, your movements are sluggish, your vision obscured by your helmet. You’re vulnerable. Exposed. When you return to your terrarium you breath a sigh of relief to be back in it’s hellish interior.
Upon the release of a game in this mold I become overjoyed. The blood-splattered walls will be my new home, a chance to be inside the cabinet of curiosities, to look through the glass at the horrors of the outside world.