Monstering In The City

Prototype 2

I’ve written before about Prototype, and how the way the player-character, Alex Mercer, operates within the urban space. I just recently finished playing through the sequel, and I’ve found it interesting how the dynamic between the urban space and the player-character in Prototype 2, James Heller, is different from that of the first game, and how it’s the same. In particular, what’s interesting to me is how both games present a somewhat different perspective on what it means for their player-characters to move between the street level of the urban space and the skyline.

This difference between how people relate to urban space at street level and from the heights of skyscrapers is one of the things Michel de Certeau talks about in the Walking In The City chapter of his 1984 book, The Practice of Everyday Life. This chapter is almost a cliche in discussions of space and spatiality, and especially in discussions of urban space, particularly the opening passage where Certeau describes “seeing Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center”.  What Certeau argues is that the New York City he sees “from above”, laid out before him, and the one he sees walking in the city at street level, “from below” are essentially two different urban spaces. Certeau says this is because the sense of the urban space “from above”, the God’s-eye view that makes the city seem easily readable and comprehensible, bears little relation to the reality of the urban space at street level. In effect, he says, the view from above is illusory, it doesn’t exist, at least not in the way the street level reality does.

Seeing Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center.

“Beneath the haze stirred up by the winds, the urban island, a sea in the middle of the sea, lifts up the skyscrapers over Wall Street, sinks down at Greenwich, then rises again to the crests of Midtown, quietly passes over Central Park and finally undulates off into the distance beyond Harlem.” – Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, pg. 91

This idea that the space of the city is only really experienced when it is walked is not without its problems, and not just for the demi-god monsters of the Prototype games. Nigel Thrift argues that Certeau’s focus on “walking” as particular, special mode of being in the city ignores the extensive experience many people have with driving in the city, which Thrift argues is just as valid a way of experiencing the urban space. Thrift says that drivers commonly experience their cars as an extension of their body, feeling their personal space disrupted when they’re cut off in traffic, and having a very bodily sense of their car’s movements and capabilities, a muscle-memory of how it can move, speed up, stop suddenly if necessary. And so, says Thrift, driving in New York as part of this car-human hybrid is just as much a bodily experience of the city as walking is. The experience of New York you have while driving is quite different from the experience you have while walking, but this doesn’t mean either is a more “true” experience of the urban space. And the idea “walking in the city” puts you in the true space of New York gets even more problematic once you take into account that (if you have access to a car at least) even while you’re walking, you can choose to go get your car and drive: you have that capability.

Where this gets interesting for video game space is that the player-characters of the Prototype games, like the player-characters of many games, are almost like vehicles themselves for the player of the game. You learn the capabilities of the player-character, and you put them to work for you. So in the Prototype games, the player experiences the games’ versions of New York City as a part of this hybrid of player and player-character. Once you’re accustomed to the way they move, what they can do, how fast they can speed up or stop suddenly,  you get a kind of muscle-memory.  Developing and utilitising just that bodily sense of a player-character is a big part of what the player is asked to do in a lot of games. To continue progressing through the game, you have to make the player-character something like an extension of your body. You, the player, can’t explore the streets of the game’s Manhattan on your own, because without the player-character, you have no way of moving within the game. And left to themselves, Alex Mercer and James Heller will just stand there, unable to move around the city, because they rely on you, the player, to move them. Only together, as a hybrid, can either of you do anything within the game’s space. Doing anything in this games demands sort of becoming a human-monster hybrid.

Because the Prototype games have player-characters with capabilities that are monstrously inhuman, the experience of the urban space that players have is drastically different from the experience they’d have if they were in the exact same space as humans. And not just because Mercer and Heller are monsters who have zero risk of being killed and/or eaten by the zombie-like ‘Infected’ that roam the streets, whereas a human would be very sensible to run and hide from them. When you’re playing these games, as part of a hybrid with one of these monsters, you’re not walking or driving in the city, you’re monstering in the city. Well, human-monstering-hybrid-ing, maybe, but that just sounds clunky.

As the human-monster hybrid, you can just casually walk down the street. But you can just as easily run up a wall and take a gliding leap from the top of a skyscraper. Mercer and Heller can perform all these monstrous movements relying only on the capabilities of their bodies, which makes this monstering through city their equivalent to the walking that Certeau can do with his body. Which means that as part of the human-monster hybrid, within the game space, you can move between Certeau’s “from below” and “from above” spaces while still doing the equivalent of “walking in the city”. Starting on the street, you can seamlessly run to the top of the Empire State Building and jump off, soaring above the streets.

For the human-monster hybrid, there is no distinct, marked separation between “from above” and “from below”, and certainly neither is illusory. The city “from above” and “from below” becomes just a single urban space with “from above” and “from below” areas, which you can freely monster between, just as Certeau could freely walk between Central Park and Manhattan’s street grid.

Where Prototype 2 differs in this respect from the first game is that it parcels out urban space, creating a separation and progression of access to the “from above” areas of the urban space.

In Prototype, the whole of the game’s version of Manhattan is accessible from the start, and the details of the urban landscape change as the game’s story progresses, becoming more filled with the ‘Infected’ and other monsters, and more covered with the “virus” organism’s tendrils that evoke the red weed of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Mercer can scale the tallest buildings and experience the city from above, right from the start.

However, while Prototype 2 starts James Heller briefly in Manhattan, infested with the virus after the events of the first game and now called “the Red Zone”, it quickly moves him to a “Yellow Zone” that’s an amalgam of New York City’s other boroughs, where the buildings are mostly low-rise. Here, despite Heller’s capabilities, the low-rise buildings give little access to the city “from above”. Heller must spend time completing missions in the Yellow Zone before he can access the “Green Zone”, another amalgam of New York boroughs, this time with taller buildings. There he must complete more missions before gaining access again to the Red Zone of Manhattan again, with its skyscrapers and urban canyons.

Manhattan is where the restrictions on Heller’s access to that “from above” space fall away. And it’s notable that Manhattan is also where Heller gains the ability to hijack and pilot helicopters. Piloting helicopters adds another vehicle layer to the interaction with the space, and one that allows an even greater freedom of movement within that “from above” space. And not just because the helicopters can hover and fly freely, as opposed to Heller’s usual gliding, but also because they make it much easier for Heller to hide from his pursuers.

The most interesting thing to me, however, is that Heller’s access to the space “from above” comes as a result of his becoming more of a monster, and less human. The monstrous capabilities he gains give him greater access to the space “from above”, but take him further from the street level of human pedestrians. In this respect, the way that Heller’s relationship to the game’s space changes reinforces the narrative arc of his transformation.

Looking at how Prototype 2 negotiates and develops the relationship between its player-character and its space opens up all kinds of avenues for further analysis. There’s the transition from the irregular street layout of the earlier areas to the grid layout of Manhattan to consider. You could also consider the movement from the relatively civilian refugee camp starting area to the totally military dominance of the game’s Manhattan. And then there’s the question of how the transition from more human to less human interactions with the game’s urban space might relate to its African-American player-character. It’s also worth considering that while Alex Mercer discovers he was never human to start with, and seems to embrace this through game abilities like his alien-looking full-body armour, even at the end of Protorype 2, James Heller never fully loses his humanity. There’s way too much to cover for a single blog post, certainly.

The central idea remains the same: where Prototype‘s space largely stayed the same as its player-character’s capabilities for interacting with it change, Prototype 2 makes the interesting move of having its space change as the player-character does.

“Must one finally fall back into the dark space where crowds move back and forth, crowds that, though visible from on high, are themselves unable to see down below? An Icarian fall.” – Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, pg. 92

  1. June 23rd, 2014
    Trackback from : On Cities | bigtallwords

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