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Cities of Dust and Light

The bleak urban spaces of indie videogames.

 

Solitaries, by Serbian game developer Ivan Notaros, is a hauntingly beautiful, brutalist screensaver. Each time the software loads, an algorithm generates a new, unique city. Certain core elements remain the same: a collection of concrete and glass apartment blocks stand alone in a desert, sand dunes cover what perhaps used to be streets and parks. The camera’s cinematic movements seem intentional—crane shots soar across the landscape or slowly glide up-close to gaze deeply into the material—but are in fact generated uniquely by an algorithm similar to the one generating the buildings. Occasionally, you get a glimpse of the shimmering amorphous metal body hovering over the city, a mirrored material that reflects the solid lines of the modernist ruin back into the camera as distorted, unstable forms. It is a perfect formulaic city, made and navigated by nonhumans.

To describe this procedurally-generated city as lonely would be to understate the point. This is a disembodied experience. The camera is drone-like in its movements; there are no people ever seen on screen; and with no interactive elements to this software, there is no player to speak of. This is a world without humans, social housing blocks without a society — a city without citizens. It is disturbing to see urban forms that look so familiar, the everywhere-and-nowhere shape of modernism, emptied of all life, yet it is also calming, as though austerity had shed its polite smile and gazed at you with its cold, dead eyes. The dream of social democracy is in ruins, and the needs of humans abandoned to the wasteland.

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Solitaries, Ivan Notaros . Image: courtesy of Ivan Notaros.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, commentators were excited about the “interactivity” of software games. There was something liberating, even democratizing, about interactive media. The connoisseur of visual art in the white cube of the gallery is replaced in games by a “player,” someone who is not posturing but experimenting, empowered with the ability to push back at a work and find its edges, to engage with a narrative on their own terms. Game design is still thought by many to be about providing a player with meaningful choices, a notion that echoes the ethos behind liberalizing public services: prizing individual choice and social mobility over the universal social good pursued in the mid-20th century.

This neoliberal urbanism is expressed readily in the “open world” sandbox multi-million dollar games of studios such as Rockstar, the developers behind the Grand Theft Auto-series. Open world refers to the fact that the player can choose to access any part of the simulated city at any time, regardless of what plot events have been triggered. Often, the narrative structure of open world games is relatively free, with multiple smaller story arcs beginning and ending as the player flits from one activity to the next. The politics of open-world games are always ambiguous.  In these hyper-violent games, libertarian individualism is clearly paired with mayhem, but that mayhem is not presented as a bad outcome; in fact, it is a desirable quality in the high-octane fantasies of target audiences. Even the titles designed to parody Grand Theft Auto, such as the cartoonish Saints Row games, reinforce the sense that there is an anarchic joy to living in a chaotic world, even as they make fun of the self-aggrandizing fantasies that games such as GTA were built to serve.

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Solitaries, Ivan Notaros. Image: screenshot by the author.

Open world games are the epitome of “freedom to” over “freedom from.” These worlds are open, but hostile. Players can do anything they please, within an ever-widening verb set — “Whether or not you can swim in Grand Theft Auto is very important,” wrote critic Leigh Alexander in a satirical commentary — but they will face resistance in the form of a large number of threats to the player-character’s physical integrity. Rival criminals and police, for instance, present violent threats at regular intervals, making any journey across the city potentially hazardous. The speed pushes the player towards misbehavior, both in terms of the pace at which threats appear and the velocity at which vehicles lurch forward under the player’s control, careering across the city and wreaking havoc along the way. This manic compulsion to transgress is its own constraint; since it is hard to make any journey without getting into a fight or causing a road accident, it is hard to avoid the attention of the police, which in turn increases the number of hazards the player-character encounters on future journeys. The police are often the only public service one encounters, except perhaps for commuter transit such as the bus system, which primarily exists in order to be violently re-appropriated for private amusement.

The dominant focus on the individual freedom of the player-character has been challenged in recent years by critical writers on game design. In “Death of the Player” (2013) and “Queer as in Fuck Me” (2014), Mattie Brice argued for game designs that are indifferent or even hostile to the player, that position themselves not as escapes from consensual reality but reflections of it. Building on these pieces, Lana Polansky more directly called for game designers to “fuck the player,” to engage players in a two-way relationship rather than constructing a narcissistic fantasy in which all non-player-controlled agents merely exist as vehicles for the player-characters self-actualization. “Do you want to feel like your accomplishments are really your own? Then converse with a game instead of trying to monopolize everything all the time. Then you can actually tell which part of the conversation is yours and which part of it belongs to someone else.” These pieces visualize games in which the player is primarily aware of being limited and constrained by their environment, rather than of being enabled and liberated; games that center on a designer’s voice, rather than a player’s desires; games that show what it is really like to live in a contemporary city as a marginalized person, rather than simply embodying a fantasy about the antisocial abandon of a character who is both privileged and has nothing to lose.

 

 

These arguments resist the dominant focus on player agency, but still centered interactivity, albeit with greater friction. But there is yet another way of thinking about videogames that short-circuits the conversation about agency altogether — thinking of them as spaces.

Avant-garde indie game design has moved away from player interactivity as the central feature of game software, and towards spatiality. Solitaries is an extreme example — a program built using game software and skills, but which is not intended to be “played” at all. The trend is better exemplified by the rise of what some have derisively termed the “walking simulator.” A pun on the “flight simulator,” which is built similarly to a game but lacks a win-or-lose proposition, and simply exists as a site of the player’s performance, the “walking simulator” exists as a space to be traversed. Typically, walking simulators are operated using the “wasd” keys of a computer keyboard, which move the camera forward, left, back and right, respectively. The mouse rotates the camera in 360 degrees around a point located about five and a half feet from the ground to simulate embodiment, and sometimes additional keys are used to “run,” “jump,” or carry out simple actions such as opening doors or turning on lights. The point is less what you do, and more what you see and where you go.

These kind of low-interaction, environmental narrative games have taken on a number of different settings, from a middle-class American domestic space of the 1990s (Gone Home, Fulbright 2014) to an alien planet bursting with strange life-forms (Orchids to Dusk, Pol Clarissou 2015), but in this essay I’m going to focus on some of the games that give players modern and postmodern cities to explore.

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Condor, Connor Sherlock. Image: courtesy of Connor Sherlock.

Condor, by Connor Sherlock, is a cyberpunk cityscape experienced at precarious heights. On-screen text informs the player that they have a jetpack among other accoutrements, and though the player does not see the character’s body, the movements of the camera create a clear sense of operating a body that is vulnerable to gravity yet empowered to jump higher and further thanks to jetpack enhancement. At the start, the player is told to get to the top of an unseen structure referred to as “the spire,” and the ambiguity of this instruction encourages open-ended exploration. The city seems to extend in all directions, but only a few limited possibilities are available for traversal at any time: perhaps a series of floating platforms or a high-wire or a small ledge running round the outer wall of a building. It is an exercise in trial and error: I jump from one building to another: I fall: I am instantly returned to the starting location.

Like Solitaries, this is a city that seems devoid of humanity. The city has supposedly been evacuated due to a series of terror attacks. There are no other characters to be seen at any point, only the blaring neon lights of a colossal city that seems to be independently bustling with some kind of non-human activity. The only hint at what is happening in the various buildings and facilities is a single building with “waste” written on the side in large, red letters. I had a desire to throw myself into the waste facility for processing, but I never found a way to get there, so I followed the instructions I had been given and kept trying to reach this fabled “spire.” Despite the loneliness of this environment and its visual trappings of a dystopian future, I was eager to take in the beauty of this city’s shining neon lights, as I perched on ledges hundreds of stories high.

While the neon lights of Condor are angular,  mechanical structures standing against a perpetual night, Strangethink’s Secret Habitat reverses this relationship, constructing a jet-black suburban campus in a world awash with pastel neons that blend into one another amid a glowing haze. Like Solitaries, everything in Secret Habitat is generated anew each time the game is opened. This includes not only buildings, but their contents: every one of these structures is an art gallery, displaying dozens of procedurally-generated glitch art pieces with randomly-assigned names, as well as ambient electronic sounds played from points represented as magnetic tape decks more than a meter wide.

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Secret Habitat, Strangethink. Image: screenshot by the author.

Secret Habitat feels like an anthropological field trip to study an alien bourgeoisie. The camera movements suggest that I am walking on two legs as usual; the glowing pools of an unidentified liquid drags the same way that water would, as I wade through them. However, the buildings are accessed solely via ramps, as though in this society buildings are not designed on the assumption that most people are accessing the space on foot. When I reach the top of a ramp, I cannot help but exercise the habitual propriety that a gallery space seems to demand of me: I look at each picture in turn, read its name, and contemplate the juxtaposition of form and content; I listen to each tape deck, trying not to feel frightened by the occasional uncanny auditory illusion of a human or alien larynx. In contrast, as soon as I leave the gallery space and traverse the garden, I behave like an excited child, jumping and climbing things and splashing about in those ethereal ponds.

Whereas Secret Habitat’s aliens are unseen, in North, by Outlands, I actually meet the aliens. I suspect, in fact, that the protagonist is one of them; text artifacts in the game state that the player-character is a refugee from somewhere south of here, presumably from the same planet. It is a strange feeling, to realize that you are an alien. My compatriots are found in domestic and in religious spaces, dusty, charcoal-grey figures with long fingers that grasp at their heads as if in terrible pain. I was frightened by them long before I realized that I was one of them.

 

 

I wander this alien city and try my best to make sense of it, despite having no friend or companion to guide me. Like Condor, it is a city in perpetual darkness, but it is a monochromatic world lit by cold, white lights. Buildings tower above me, and I am quickly made aware that in this society I am the lowest of the low, both spatially and socially. Security cameras rotate to follow me as I tread silently through a small courtyard. On-screen text informs me that the protagonist has been seen, and a shiver runs down my spine.  I make my way through a small orchard of looming, featureless pillars, and find myself at the entrance to my workplace. Knowing that I am being watched, I decide I had better get to work.

Periodically while playing North, a letter is shown on-screen that the protagonist is sending to their family back home. Everything that has been learned about this alien society is summarized for the player’s benefit, so that they can keep trying to make a life in this subtly hostile environment. The letter helps me to make sense of what is happening: I have a job in a mine, but the toxic air keeps hurting me so I can only work for a few seconds at a time. I need to activate a number of switches in the mine in order to extract the material I am expected to gather for my job. It is an arcane process that requires working against the limitations of my alien character’s body, but if I make enough money, I can send some back to my family to help them.

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North, Outlands. Image: screenshot by the author.

I soon realize that while in Condor I was above the city, watching it move, wondering who or what was powering it all, in North, it is the protagonist and the people around them who are powering the city from below. Above me towers a city that depends on my labor, and around me I see people in pain due to circumstances I do not understand. In Condor, I am trying to get somewhere, thrilled by the adventure of rising above a dystopia. In North, I am just trying to make something out of the dark place I have found myself in.

These low-interaction games are perhaps not about simulating walking so much as simulating participant-observation studies in alien worlds. While much of the discussion about games has revolved around the interactivity of the environment, I am fascinated by these urban spaces that I simply occupy, experience, and never fully understand. Here I experience cities not as a liberated, empowered citizen exercising personal choices, but as an isolated, confused wanderer, feeling out of place and in a city that cares little about the needs of humans. In such beautiful virtual environments, leaning into a sense of powerlessness and isolation is bittersweet. Perhaps I am giving in to a reality that the physical cities I inhabit work to conceal.