Videogames are usually about action, about competitive confrontation and about the glory of victory. “Afrika” may be a videogame, but isn’t about either of these, it is about mere contemplation. As an intrepid wild-life journalist, you’re invited to journey to the mythical African landscape, bearing the task of shooting stunning pictures of animals in their natural habitats. The game’s inner matrix shows strong simulation character, transforming it into a living encyclopedia of naturalist and realist aesthetic ideals. You’ll find these in the uncanny precision of the camera control (like for like for each of the real-life SONY models), but also in the scientifically correct animal behavior, and naturally, in the indescribable scenic beauty, brought about by graphical and animation works of art that eschew any comparison whatsoever with its contemporary brethren (save but one or maybe two rare examples).
In “Afrika”, you’ll find pleasure in the smallest, most meaningful of details: from the careful study of each species’ habits, to learning how to shoot the camera professionally and artistically, or by simply inhabiting the atmospheric surroundings. There is really nothing like venturing into the hot savannah in a jeep, as Hokoyama’s riveting soundtrack lunges your safari towards the horizon with a cheerful, upbeat orchestration, and then slowing down, stopping by the shade of a century-old tree, relaxing, holding your breath, camera steady in hand, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting for that special moment, delighting yourself in the mellow gaze of animals’ gracious movements, their soft fur caressed by the Sun’s warm orange hues, lulled by the now serene, almost quiet soundscape: the gentle water creeks… the mild breeze blowing… the leaves rustling softly… the rhythmic sound of your feet in the earthy gravel as you step closer, slowly… slowly… and then, click. Interactive bliss.
The remaining ludic logic is “Afrika’s” Achilles’ heel, awkwardly imposing goals and structure in a work that begs a free environment for playful exploration. Nothing however, that can impair the single most important experience the current generation consoles can offer. Its provoking nature starts to explain why it has been so consistently overlooked in the west: there was no European release, and in the US the title was met with ridicule and harsh criticism. A work that focuses solely on taking pictures of animals seems dull, boring and uneventful for a generation brought up to think entertainment a synonym of rifle in hand and shooting down the animals/monsters/aliens/nazis/terrorists. Creative musings and aesthetic appreciation are pleasures thought to belong elsewhere, somewhen in the times of yore, amongst dead media such as photography, painting and sculpture. And some still wonder why videogames are so infantile!
For here is “Afrika”, a game that forfeits all populist and commercial conventions, that is innovative and unique for its time and that shows qualities unheard of in years. Sure, it is slow paced, relaxing and demanding of the player, but that is the only way in which one can relate with and uphold its finest qualities. Consider this: could there be any engagement with Africa’s lavish setting, its awe-inspiring atmosphere, its charming fauna and flora, if one were forced to be on frantic combat mode, gunning down ferocious animals, jumping by trees or looting corpses? Of course not, and proving that is the lack of any emotional gravitas in popular mainstream titles. Daisaku Ikejiri and Rhino Studios should have received multiple awards for upholding the classicist virtues of meditation, beauty, nature and peace, in a form of expression governed by senseless violence and immature escapism. And yet, such is but a fleeting dream, and all remain trapped in the most insidious of logics, unaware of the true value and potential of our beloved interactive art. Death death death win win win pleasure pleasure pleasure more more more again again again… ad eternum. It is saddening to consider that the old war games, battle games and conquest games have, once again, overshadowed one of the finest artifacts of our time, in this medium of ours that needs it so much, now more than ever. For a brighter sunrise, don’t let this continue. Go play “Afrika”.