I wrote a piece on Gameranx this week about how the spaces of Papo & Yo relate to the reality of life in the shantytowns of Latin America that it represents. Go read it!
Posts Tagged ‘ urban space ’
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.
The way that players move around a game space has a big impact on the way they use and make sense of it. So what happens when the usual way of moving around a space changes? I’ve been experiencing just such a change, playing through the GTA IV add-ons, The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony.
I bought GTA IV on release (got the special edition and everything) and played through Niko Bellic’s story, but I never finished the final mission. Now I’m finally getting around to playing the add-ons, and two particular things about the way I’m moving around Liberty City have changed, one in each add-on. The first is the use of motorcycles in The Lost and Damned, and the second is my own self-imposed challenge of obeying traffic rules as I play through The Ballad of Gay Tony.
Riding motorcycles is, obviously, a major focus of The Lost and Damned. There’s no rule that Johnny Klebitz always has to ride a bike, but you’re definitely encouraged to do so, outside of the missions that provide four-wheeled transport. Part of this encouragement comes from the fictional context of Johnny’s biker character, but there’s also the easy access to motorcycles due to their placement outside safe houses and the end locations of missions, as well as the ability to call up The Lost’s road captain to have a bike delivered at any time.
But there are certain characteristics peculiar to riding motorcycles that change the way the player experiences the space of Liberty City. Firstly, motorcycles are smaller than cars, allowing the player to weave between traffic and generally avoid having their movement obstructed by cars. Second, the bikes The Lost ride are slower at top speed than the fastest cars or other bikes in the city. This means more time as you ride around to see the city. And third, bikes put the player-character – and through them, the player – closer to the road, and more open to the city around them, even when cruising the streets much faster than on foot. These factors all contribute to a greater sense of the player-character inhabiting the space.
On the other hand, obeying traffic rules delivers a greater sense of existing within the city, even if it also exposes some of the flaws in the game’s presentation of urban space within the gameplay.
Obeying traffic rules is entirely self-imposed in GTA games, and there’s not a whole lot of support for the practice provided by the game. Traffic moves slowly in Liberty City, and the lights can take a long time to change. Any timed mission is pretty much impossible to complete while obeying traffic rules, and the completion times for missions in The Ballad of Gay Tony are equally out of reach. In addition to this, traffic lights aren’t easily visible a lot of the time while driving. They pop in late on the console version, and are hard to keep in sight if you pull up close to an intersection, requiring a lot of fiddly camera movement to watch. And forget about indicating turns, there’s no provided functionality for that. Not to mention that NPC drivers are often imperfect in their own adherence to the traffic rules, running red lights, jostling in lanes, and nudging other cars out of the way while waiting for lights to change. Attempting to obey traffic rules almost immediately reveals that driving safely was never something the player was intended to do.
All that said, actually trying to obey traffic rules despite the effort required yields its own particular perspective on Liberty City. Waiting at lights and jogging the camera to keep them in view affords the player plenty of opportunities to take in the sights of the city, watch the people go by, and observe the finer details of the streets. You’ll also gain a sense of the flow of traffic around the city if you stay in your lane and follow the lane markings, taking note of one-way and single-lane streets.
What both of these different modes of moving around the game space demonstrate is the impact of the material workings of these means of travel on the player’s experience of space. It’s the particular way they work within the game’s systems that creates a distinctive experience. This points to the usefulness of a close analysis of game systems and their impact on play in understanding the player’s experience of the game space. It’s not enough to look just at the spaces of a game, you have to take account of the details of how the player comes to experience those spaces. Only then can you get a really meaningful understanding of the space.
I played Prototype when it came out in 2009, and enjoyed it immensely. But I’ve only recently had a chance to play Infamous, since I got it as part of the PSN Welcome Back package. Infamous was released two weeks before Prototype, and the two games are often compared, because both games feature super-powered player-characters in gritty urban environments. Playing Infamous, the similarities to Prototype are striking, but so too are the differences. The aspect of both games that I’m most interested in is their urban spaces, and the ways the player-characters of the two games use those spaces in very different ways. There’s something fundamental to the player-characters in both games that’s represented in their differing uses of similar urban environments. Since both games’ plots revolve around the player-character’s origins and natures, discussing this necessarily means spoiling both games’ stories, so you have been warned.
Let’s start with Infamous. Cole McGrath has a lot of ways in which he can make use of the urban environment, both in and out of the combat that forms the bulk of the game’s activity. In combat, Cole takes cover, lobs electric grenades to force enemies out of their own cover, and has a limited power supply that forces the player to always keep in mind where Cole can get his next charge. Out of combat, Cole traverses the environment using the features of the cityscape. Cole sticks to the cityscape in a distinctively tactile way. He climbs buildings handhold-by-handhold, runs and grinds along power lines and train tracks, crosses streets and alleyways and bridges. Occasionally he might glide from one point to another, but any aerial manoeuvre is short-lived. Walls without handholds are an impassable obstacle (as are the much-maligned chain-link fences, which makes less sense), and due to his electricity-based powers, blacked-out areas are danger zones, and bodies of water are a death-trap. Running around the city, Cole passes dozens of injured civilians, each of which represents a moral choice (though the game mechanics could do with reinforcing that more), forging a connection between Cole and the populace of Empire City that is strengthened by their responses to him on the street. The posters of Cole that the citizens put up reflect the player’s actions, inscribing them on the physical urban geography itself. This inscription becomes even more pronounced with each area that Cole brings under his control. Cole travels on the train tracks just as the humans of the city do, even if he does so by grinding on them, and this method of fast travel is dependent on the urban infrastructure, like so many of Cole’s abilities. In fact, Cole is just as dependent on that infrastructure as the people of the city are. All of which is to say that the player-character’s activities in Infamous are fundamentally tied to the affordances of the urban environment for humans, despite Cole’s superhuman abilities.
In contrast, Prototype’s Alex Mercer doesn’t stick to the urban environment if he can instead soar above it. In combat, Mercer dive-bombs tanks, kicks helicopters out of the sky, and generally stomps his way through the city. Even the nature of the lock-on system used in combat means that the urban landscape becomes a peripheral concern to the player as Mercer manoeuvres during fights. Mercer doesn’t take cover except to briefly regenerate his health when seriously wounded, and makes extensive use of acrobatic and aerial fighting moves to smash through his foes, who are largely restrained to the ground. Out of combat, Mercer disregards the people of the city, brushing, pushing or even violently sending them flying as he charges down sidewalks. He disguises his identity and infiltrates military bases, then dismantles them from the inside. Mercer is bound by no social order, or even by the physical laws that restrain humans. He scales the vertical surfaces of buildings without a thought, as easily as any horizontal surface, then jumps off the highest points and soars over the streets and buildings. Cole might glide between buildings, or across a street, but Mercer flies for several city blocks with a single leap. Everything in the city is nothing more than an obstacle for Mercer to overcome or run right over and ignore. Unlike Cole, Mercer leaves no marks of his own on the city; any military base or infestation he destroys is restored in a relatively short span of time. Nothing Mercer himself does has any lasting impact on the geography. All of Mercer’s abilities serve to distance him from the urban landscape, to set Mercer apart from the people and the city. Alex Mercer simply does not operate in the urban environment the way the people who live there do. To Mercer it’s not even a city, just a geography of obstacles that happens to include buildings and streets and people.
These two contrasting ways of operating in urban environments represent the fundamental nature of the games’ player-characters. Cole discovers the source of his powers is his own future self, motivated by love and family, the most human of concerns. His destiny is ultimately tied to Empire City (sequel notwithstanding), as its benevolent protector or malevolent overlord. Cole is a regular human who just happens to have extraordinary abilities, and that goes down to his very core. Alex Mercer, on the other hand is not. It turns out that even the ‘Alex Mercer’ identity is a sham, a fiction, and the real Mercer died before the game starts. The player discovers late in the game that the player-character they’ve controlled throughout is actually the sentient virus infestation that took over Mercer’s body and identity. You’re not Mercer, you never were, you just thought you were. Ultimately, the player-character isn’t human at all, they’re an alien sentience that just happens to have adopted a human shape.
Despite the superficial similarities of these two games featuring super-powered player characters in urban environments, both games have player-characters who are very different, and who operate in these city spaces in equally different ways. That one player-character inhabits the city in a very human way, while the other hardly inhabits it as a city at all, turns out to be entirely appropriate to their essential natures.