Cities in video games 10.08.11


The modern world provides few opportunities to design a city. Wars, oil booms and autocratic regimes have occasionally created the kind of blank slate required for such a project, but still the course of forging a fresh metropolis seldom runs true. Far easier, then, to create a city for virtual purposes: the setting of a book, the backdrop for a movie or – better still – the environments for a video game.

The key value of video game technologies is that they are straightforward ways of creating models that can then be toyed with and manipulated, explored and exploded. Explored seems to be the key concept here, for while other media might take you on a guided tour through their imaginary skylines and their proposed bazaars, it's only in games that you get to delve into them with any degree of freedom. The constraints on these cities are unique. They are not troubled by commerce, or geography, or even inhabitants. The video game city will have but one reason to exist: to mean something within the player's experience.

One of the best examples of the importance of a video game setting is provided by City 17 from 2004 shooter Half-Life 2. This nameless dystopia, a picturesque Old World city that has been colonised by authoritarian alien infrastructure, is one of the best examples of an invented city, providing both the space for play and the reason for action. The contrast of brutalist blue steel and crumbling utilitarian 20th-century architecture create both fascinating places to explore and a sense of other-worldly oppression that the player is immediately motivated to struggle against. Ideal for a game in which the primary mode of interaction was shooting.

Half-Life designer Valve Software brought in the concept artist Viktor Antonov to produce the visual language for City 17. His principles of tweaking the parameters of how cities appear in the real world make for a believable distortion of familiar urban themes. City 17's alien oppressors provided a new layer of the decrepit city in much the same way that modern technologies and architectures sit atop the deeper foundations of older cities of the world. The result is an experience that is a little bit Eastern European, but could really be almost anywhere in the world. It is a hybrid vision, and a city that, like a dream, exists purely for the player of the game.


The question, however, is why go to the time and cost of creating a new city, when so many templates exist in the real world. Game designer Ed Stern explained the principle behind crafting a city from scratch when explaining the setting of his forthcoming game Brink (due in 2011), the floating city of the Ark. Why go to this trouble? Why not 
just redo Manhattan like everyone else? "For exactly the same reason we didn't want Brink to be about Space Marines," says Stern. "Thanks to the movies Aliens and Starship Troopers, the moment you show someone in green combat fatigues on a spaceship, everyone knows what to expect. It's an incredibly useful mise-en-scène. But it's been done before ... Manhattan is the Space Marines of settings – immediately everyone knows what to expect. It does an enormous amount of work for you."

The canyons of New York have been an extremely potent presence in a number of recent games, most notably when riddled with biomorphic horror for Prototype, and ruined and overrun with jungle for future-romp Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and there's little doubt that the city provided an awesome backdrop in these cases. The opportunity for designers like Stern, however, is to make something new that attempts to rival these real-world locations in terms of being a useful and charismatic city-protagonist. A fresh city, created specifically for a game, can be a powerful thing: in this case a vessel that allows Stern's fiction to say interesting things, and to allow his environment artists to exercise the full range of their talents. It also represents a challenge in terms of engaging with imaginations. Where real cities are concerned with being lived in, game cities are concerned only with themselves living in the player's imagination. "It's the classic test of any character in any medium," says Stern. "You turn the page, or leave the cinema, or change the channel. Do they still exist? Were they only there to give you one item of expositionary data, or do they live on in your imagination? Hopefully, the Ark is vivid enough, imaginatively sticky enough, that players care about it, and want to know how it ends up."

The Ark – an experiment in sea-steading and climate-change-battling self-sufficiency that mixes 1970s futurism with 21st-century technologies – is certainly a credible and interesting game city, but what is most tantalising about it is, perhaps, that it is also a palpable character within the game. Even more significant than the personality of real cities, the nature of virtual cities is to be textured with meaning on every panel and pathway. Having been crafted purely to be experienced allows the cities themselves to speak directly to the player, however quietly. Maybe, just maybe, players will notice that they've been pulled outside of the visual language of video games that has so often been supplied with pulpy caricatures of gothic construction handed down from Dungeons & Dragons, or is entirely 
reliant on Blade Runner and Aliens for visions of the future. They might notice that games have other ways of being read, and other things to say. That game designers are beginning to realise that they have an opportunity to create urban environments that can contain a message is extraordinarily exciting.

A few are already seizing this opportunity, too. Swedish studio DICE, famed for the painterly militarism of its Battlefield series, most recently created the white-concrete and glass skyline of Mirror's Edge for release in 2008, and the response was overwhelming. Gone was the gloom that normally signposted dystopia for gamers, and instead bright colour, Mediterranean blue skies, and clear lines provided a bold backdrop for a game based around free-running, momentum and oppression under a regime entirely in control of the flow of information. It was our possible, comfortable, well-designed future, and nevertheless a nightmare. At the other end of the spectrum, the Boston-based Irrational Games has been frequently lauded for its creation of the underwater city of Rapture 
(art deco and Ayn Rand) and its proposals for the new flying city of Columbia (airships and exceptionalism) – both vast visions of an alternate 20th century, fraught with dicey situations and moral ambiguity.

The consequences of seeing video game cities as something more like an antagonist or protagonist within the game world could be far-reaching, and extremely important for games as a whole. Efforts to design cogent, believable cities are already being held up as crucial validations of games as a form. The reason for this seems partly to be the way in which we judge cities, aesthetically, among other forms of human achievement, but it also has something to do with the way that the city is processed by the human mind: a multifarious thing, a shared place that we leave only a passing trace upon. This is a powerful illusion when, in truth, the video game city is the only city that was made entirely for you.






Jim Rossignol

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These cities are not troubled by commerce, or geography, or even inhabitants

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