Space and Story in Treasure Hunter Simulator

So I’m still hung up on this Treasure Hunter Simulator game. It’s one of those weird ones where if you describe the game, it doesn’t sound like there’s much to say about it, but it just – you know, it just tugs at something. Anyway, this week we’re talking about what Treasure Hunter Simulator tells us about space in video games. In the broadest terms, space is an element that exists prior to a story. In almost all cases, when a story starts, it starts in a space that is already established, that has its own history and context and heritage. And after that story is done, the space persists. This is something that applies in the real world too, right – I mean, let’s take a practical example. Think about a university. As a student, there’s a pretty clearly defined arc for your time at university. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, and then after your university story ends, you leave, and another bunch of fresh faces start their own stories. And amongst it all, the university as a space remains constant, one single location hosting all these concurrent and overlapping stories. ‘Constant’ is maybe a bit of a messy term – obviously many people leave their mark on a place, whether it’s through graffiti, a dent in a wall somewhere, a rip in the dust jacket of a book from the library, or even, if you’re the Vice Chancellor, through whole new buildings. And, yes, the changes that we do make remain as archived traces of our existence. But whatever the space looks like, it was there before the stories of the first arrivals, and after we’re all gone, it will carry on without us. The land holds all of our stories, but it is not limited to them.

And so you get some texts that are interested in this archival quality of space. Police procedurals always have the investigators going to the scene of the crime – they look for the traces and impressions that a criminal might have left behind. Often you’ll see snippets of the original event while they’re there, either as flashbacks or as the mental reconstructions of the investigators. You get the impression that by being in that location, the police are able to empathise and connect with the experience of both criminal and victim. And games do this sort of thing too. There are the obvious options, such as games that include explicit detective work – like the Batman Arkham games, which ask you to reconstruct crime scenes using evidence from your environment. And then there are more complex examples. I’ve just started playing Halo ODST, now that it’s out on PC, and the first half of the game focuses on a new recruit wandering around a city in the wake of a battle and finding debris and detritus from all the fighting that he missed. Every time he finds some particular piece of scrap, you see in a flashback how it factored in to his squad’s actions.

In both of those examples, though, that archival function of space is invoked in support of very specific events. Batman needs to solve a crime, and the guy in Halo missed a fight and is trying to figure out what’s going on. In both instances, our view of the environment is oriented around those events. Batman doesn’t care about the architectural period of the building he’s in – he’s trying to figure out who shot Sally. He’s only interested in the environment insofar as it can answer that question. The same goes for Halo, and for most of the police procedurals. They only want the specific traces and marks left on the land that are relevant to their interests. What’s interesting about Treasure Hunter Simulator, then, is that it liberates you from that singular view on what a space holds. Rather than looking for anything specific, you’re able to survey the broad sweep of history as preserved in these different places. Beer can tabs lie next to cannonballs and tenth century Viking helmets – the same space hosted all those stories, all those lives, across hundreds and thousands of years, and you can see it all. There’s just something compelling about that juxtaposition. A button from the fifteenth century can be found a few meters away from a button from a WWII uniform. Five hundred years, just a few meters. The same land held both of those stories.

What we see in Treasure Hunter Simulator is this temporal accordion effect, unfurling the wide span of history within each relatively contained location. It shows the potential of video games as a vehicle for exploring the nature of space rather than as a vehicle for narrative per se. And – again, these terms get a little messy, so let’s just stay with the text. Treasure Hunter Simulator presents itself as having a ‘Story Mode’ and an ‘Exploration Mode’. In Story Mode, you receive an email about the death of your uncle, and mysterious instructions about his inheritance. You play through a pretty standard narrative progression: you unlock maps in sequence after completing specific missions in each one, along with unlocking new gear. In Exploration Mode, it’s more like a sandbox. You can go around all the different maps however you like right from the start, and there’s no mention of an uncle anywhere. The maps are the same, and the treasure locating mechanics are the same, but one mode has a story attached, and the other doesn’t. Exploration Mode allows you to experience the game as a vehicle for exploring space separate from the narrative over in Story Mode. Some people might argue about whether Exploration Mode actually comprises its own very minimal story – but let’s put that aside for now and acknowledge that at the very least, this game sees its story as a detachable module, as something distinct from the practice of walking around and exploring the space. That practice is incorporated into the story during Story Mode, but it also maintains its own character and presence when those narrative trappings are removed. Treasure Hunter Simulator allows us to explore space and appreciate its archival function, appreciate its longevity and permanence outside of individual narrative arcs. It reminds us that the land has existed for a long time, and that it’ll continue after we’re gone.

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