The city-as-backdrop, from simulacrum to simulation [2/6]
Urban presence in videogame did not start yesterday. Even better, it goes all the way back to their earliest origins. For example: in Defender (1980), where a sketch of skyline can be seen, as terrestrial backdrop. For lack of being able to represent the humans he must protect from an alien invasion, a few pixelated city blocks will make do as context, allowing the player to fully assess the situation – and thus his videoplaying objectives.
Simulacra of cities
This is the first of four major incarnations of the city that will be examined in this series. The city-as-backdrop is, by definition, a city that cannot be directly manipulated, and whose primary function is to immerse the player in a familiar context. The logic: the player must be able to find in this setting benchmarks necessary for his immersion, a fundamental element of any video game. But due to limited graphics capabilities, these videogame sets had to just "exaggerate" these urban representations for a long time, thus making them caricatures. Combat games and other beat’em all’s from the 80s and 90s are perhaps the best testimonies, giving in passing their credentials to this city-as-backdrop. Urban perspectives, displayed in the background, thus rely on a handful of sometimes vulgar stereotypes to set the stage and thus contextualize the fight scenes: an ersatz Statue of Liberty for New York, a few pagoda roofs for China, an aging building for Europe, the Red Square for Moscow, etc.
Despite their limitations, these backdrops nevertheless yield great urban texture, as evidenced by « Petite géographie de South Town » designed by A Game on the excellent blog La Faute à la Manette (Blame it on the joy stick), which dissects the backdrops of the different games taking place there (Art of Fighting series and Fatal Fury series).
The lovelessness of youth
Moreover, these backdrops are also the product of their times, and thus allow to decipher the evolution of popular representations of the city through time. Combat games of the 90s, for example, were particularly good at staging street violence supposedly inherent to the metropolis, especially New York. As Game On explains in yet another analysis, this time devoted to the game Final Fight:
« Can we be satisfied with a simple coincidence between the trend of the beat'em up’s that lasted a good four years and the crime wave that was overwhelming the United States at about the same time? The hegemony of the American media at the time could easily have contaminated "the zeitgeist" of the world, and the number of combat games of the era could have been a consequence, a testimony, and a way to channel that anxiety all at once. »
The ambiguity of the rapport that video games have with the city – especially the "big city" – is found in that relationship of love / hate, reflecting a tension between the need for immersion and the natural rejection of the city itself. We will come back to it in the near future, in an article devoted to the paradoxes of the "city-stage", particularly in the Japanese RPG.
The new model of immersion
In fact, the decline of the American empire and the end of the bipolarization of the world would contribute to the emergence of new urban forms in video games. In parallel, the evolution of graphics capabilities would allow developers to significantly improve the quality of their backdrops. There were less caricatures, urban representations were refined, and the games gradually got closer to a photo-realism that would result, two decades later, in the standard Grand Theft Auto, in particular the episodes in 3D. A photo-realism so realistic that it became confusing, and even hyper-real when it almost merged with reality.
In the meantime, the nature of the city-backdrop had therefore changed: initially a simple background, it now encompasses the player who travels through it, for lack of being able to manipulate it (this will be the subject of a future column on the "city-platform"). The reign of 3D imposed its specifications, defining the new paradigm of virtual immersion. It's not without a reason that urban mapping or urban planning tools draw directly from video games, like the urban consulting tool Urban Participatory Chinatown, winner of a prize at the Games for Change Festival, which puts players in the shoes of a GTA-like hero.
Towards the simulated city
But the realism of GTA or other games of the same ilk is not so much due to its quality reproduction of real sets, but rather to the care taken by developers to build a real city, far from the clichés that their predecessors settled for. An iconoclastic approach when compared to the traditions of the time, which has since become the standard. As explained by the designers of GTA IV in an interview reported by Nicolas Nova:
« We created an approximation, an abbreviation of a real city, conceived in detail with the variety of visual and typographical elements we wanted. (...) We try to build a world that, at first glance, seems completely normal but that reveals its absurdity when you play. (...) We always build the urban structure first and then we include missions and stories inside. »
It's not without a reason that the next GTA reflects – almost duplicates – the conclusions emblematic of urban sociology in recent years, following in the footsteps of Mike Davis in particular. It will, however, have taken two decades to see this way of thinking nourish video games, where other arts had been able to draw from it a lot sooner. Proof that video games still have a lot to learn in their unfinished quest for total realism.
Author’s note: thanks to Antoine for his help