Urban Chaos: Games And The Untameable City

From the fractured festivities of The Division’s Manhattan to the lo-fi confusion of Bernband, urban spaces in games are drawn from many reference points and they all communicate their own ideas about cities. What they are, on what terms we relate to them and how they behave. Thomas McMullan explores how game mechanics attempt to make sense of cities.

French detectives, shopping centres and terrorist acts: how games deal with the systems that make up the city.

We’re all a bit lost in the big city. We’re on our way, in between, from one job to the next. We’re living in the not too distant future, waiting to see what’s around the next corner, biding our time. We are liminal, and our cities are full of spaces that encourage us to be so. Spaces like Westfield London.

If you’re not familiar with Westfield London, it’s a monolithic shopping centre owned by the Westfield Corporation. The Westfield Corp and its sister company, the Scentre Group, have interests in 80 shopping complexes across Australia, New Zealand, the US, the UK and the EU. These are architecturally homogenised space, designed to be bright, comfortingly familiar platforms for consumerism, yet they symbolise in many ways the oppressive sense of capital. They are alienating. They encourage liminality. You pass through but do not linger, lest you be thrown out or arrested.

There is a distinct feeling of placelessness and timelessness in buildings like Westfield London. Identity is replaced with pleasant neutrality, and wandering along the levels, beside the shops, it’s hard not to feel directionless. How much perverse pleasure there is, then, in imaging their destruction. Blockbuster games, like blockbuster films, revel in the destruction of shopping centres, turning these spaces into sites of post-apocalyptic play. Ubisoft’s The Division, to name one recent game, has a prominent mission inside a vast mall; decked out in burning Christmas decorations, make-up counters transformed into cover for gunfire. The Last of Us has a mission in an abandoned mall, as do Left 4 Dead 2, Dead Rising, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and a generous scoop of others.

These games inject a sense of time into spaces that deal in placelessness. In a game like The Division the character’s actions are focused on a moment-to-moment present. Drifting between shops is replaced with purposeful survival. It gives us the impression that we are in control, that we can impose our own actions on the architecture, and that we can make sense of things.

Outside the mall, into the city

The philosopher Louis Marin, writing about Thomas Moore’s Utopia, said: “Catastrophe is the sublime way to open a neutral space, one that is absolutely different.” The fantasy of opening up this neutral space isn’t limited to shopping centres, many games set in cities will show that city being beset by catastrophe, normally through the metonymic destruction of landmarks – Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the White House going to pot.

In these games we take on the role of empowered hero/soldier/cartographer, charting new routes through a shaken landscape. We take pleasure in this because it is an enormous relief to imagine the complex mesh of systems that make up a modern city flattened to a single plane – to image a future in which our political and social responsibilities are lifted because the only thing we have to do is subsist. We are abdicated of political responsibility and slip into the almost animalistic role of heroic survivor.

By throwing the status quo into chaos, things can be much easier to comprehend. The city is made simple, uneasy liminality is evaporated and our everyday burdens are lifted, replaced with a manageable handful of rules. Games are adept at dealing out this fantasy, tending as they do towards explicit systems that are learned and mastered. As the protagonist of these adventures, we are put in a position where we are able to see and wield these systems to our advantage.

Warriors, knights and detectives

This taps into a very old tendency in storytelling, that of seeing the hero as a sense-making figure of comprehension, a light against the dark. In older societies that figure may be a knight or a warrior, going against the incomprehensible monsters and dragons of the world, making them comprehensible by stabbing them to death.

Fast-forward to the 19th century and the small, largely agricultural communities of previous centuries shift towards big, urban centres. Between 1800 and 1900 the population of London grew from 1 million to 6.7 million, and these swelling urban centres require a new hero of comprehension. That hero comes in the form of the detective. Edgar Allen Poe’s Auguste Dupin and, later, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, replace swords with rational deduction. They sift the streets and draw parallels between seemingly incomprehensible strands of lives. As a knight in an old romance defeats (and makes rational) the irrational figures of monsters, so the knight of modernity finds reason in the irrational mesh of overlapping lives in the city.

It’s no coincidence that games that are plonked within a city tend to cast their players as soldiers or detectives, or a combination of both – the assassin. Point and click games may not have you surviving shootouts in abandoned shopping centres, but by streamlining a near limitless number options to a handful of object combinations and branching conversations, the complexity of the city is once again made manageable. Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars combines the detective and the catastrophe, opening on a terrorist act in a Parisian café and thrusting the player into a position where – although ostensibly a tourist – they are able to make sense of events and solve an obscure mystery.

The Assassin’s Creed series has you physically transcending the limits of the city, taking to the rooftops and using special senses to track and map your quarry. All boundaries can be surpasses, all problems solved. The city, as a space for free-running that enables bloody solutions, is a series of pathways, all leading to sensible conclusions and victories.

Untameable cities

The games mentioned so far lean towards the fantasy of making sense of cities, and of stamping the player’s own agency onto spaces that resist individuality, but there are games that do the opposite – that celebrate making the player feel lost, or explore the alienation of urban life.

Tom van den Boogaart’s Bernband drops you unceremoniously into a low-res alien space station/city, provides nothing in the way of guidance, and disorientates you with strange crowds, lights and sounds. If space stations in games are normally inclined towards familiar quest points and shop-fronts to upgrade equipment – the Westfield London’s of space, if you will – Bernband is a gleefully incomprehensible place. Vents lead to crowded bars or bridges over zipping ships or aliens pissing against urinals. The scenes you encounter are recognisibly human, but performed by pixelated creatures in a language you can’t hope to understand. All you can do is wander the labyrinth, taking in one area at a time without comprehending the whole.

Less irreverently, Julian Palacios’ Cartas also deals with a dislocated city. The short game opens with a letter, written by a 19th century immigrant in Argentina, and proceeds across several vignettes with buildings standing dislodged against a dark void. In the game’s standout section, you move from one abstracted façade to another, interacting with doors only for the buildings to disappear. In their wake are sounds of barking dogs, reaching a hostile crescendo when no other options for shelter remain.

These are games that, in one way or another, make you feel lost in the city. Cartas does this to foreground social barriers and the dysphoria of immigration, while Bernband makes you bask in the confusion of living in an alien society, but both show that games have the potential to play up to disorientation, to the subjective experience of living in a city, and to the strange, fleeting encounters that make-up city life. Indeed, the glitches that intrude into big urban games like GTA V and Assassin’s Creed show that minimaps and quest markers can’t ever hope to totally cover the bizarre sights that pop up, even in virtual cities.

Games like Assassin’s Creed and The Division provide much-needed relief, flattening a city’s vast network of lives, systems and history into a manageable playground, and injecting a sense of agency into oppressive consumerist spaces. But there is much to be made of feeling mixed-up – of standing in a crowd, baffled at the passing voices. Cities are jumbled knots of lives lived across thousands of rooms, and that can be lost when we try to make easy sense of it all.


  1. theblazeuk says:

    GOTY = Super Smash Westfield.

    I would buy it.

  2. caff says:

    Great article!

    Particularly for reminding me of Bernband. But also for describing the conveyor belt experience that is Westfield so perfectly.

  3. Freud says:

    What I don’t like about cities in games is that it’s hard for us as gamers to explore them in a natural way but it’s more about going everywhere and talking to everyone just so we don’t miss anything. That makes cities feel like a chore in many games. Like we have to clear the place of fog of war more than anything.

    Perhaps the inelegant solution of having places and persons of interest being so clearly identified by quest markers and map icons isn’t such a bad thing. At least it allows the designers to create big cities (Novigrad in Witcher 3 and the cities in the Assassin’s Creed games) and let players enjoy them without worrying about talking to ever NPC they see.

    • unacom says:

      Yet, maybe this inelegant solution of simplicity (rather than complexity and transparency) makes you accept the shallow space that developer-architecture dishes out. To me the problem with cities in computer games lies in the fact that civitas does not emerge from simple, conflict-less urban situations, but from friction. The need to negotiate a solution to a trivial but time-consuming problem in order to be able to proceed with finding your standing in the city. The real city is a complex fabric. Like in Calvinos´ Invisible Cities. It can be read and experienced in different layers. The shooty-bang interaction is neither complex, nor urban, but fleeting. It may be therefore that such non-spaces give themselves readily to the linear experience of ego-shooting. And yet, there are urban spaces in small scenarios. Battery Park from Deus Ex comes to mind. Or parts of System Shock. Whatever you do, please do not accept Potemkin-cities. Rather accept and forgive inaccuracies or outright errors, but demand a City. Filled with contradiction, barriers, divergent narratives and every wrinkle and nook you possibly couldn´t expect.

      A very interesting article. Thank you very much.

  4. Tacroy says:

    I find it interesting that you put “detective” instead of “sage” – they’re both archetypes who tend to know more than the audience. The difference is that the sage simply knows things the audience doesn’t – the ideal detective makes inferences (generating more knowledge) from things the audience could have picked up on. It’s an interesting difference in paradigm.

  5. Velleic says:

    “The city is made simple, uneasy liminality is evaporated and our everyday burdens are lifted, replaced with a manageable handful of rules.”
    Isn’t this true of almost every game, though? Conversation is reduced to a list of options, or simply doesn’t require a response. Even war and fighting, which games do a lot, are vastly simplified in games – as a natural consequence of having to create all the rules from scratch.
    Anyway, interesting article. Especially the theory of detectives being the “knights” when problems move from being nature-based in the country to person-based in the city.
    I also think cities in games could do with more complexity – one of their good features in real life is that there’s always something going on; they feel alive. Behind every door is someone living their own life. Non-disastered cities in games can’t really replicate that. The short time I played it, Bernband got close, but I can’t really think of anything else like that.

  6. baozi says:

    Slightly curious that a post about cities in games with a title from a game that’s set in a city doesn’t actually talk about that game

  7. cpt_freakout says:

    Good stuff. Another interesting ‘game city’ is as puzzle/labyrinth, like that Hong Kong section in Deus Ex. I liked what DX:HR did with that legacy, too, as a kind of hackable space, a city that is half puzzle half code, traversing it like a puzzle to be ordered while at the same time inscribing it with your ‘abilities’. In any case, I think that HK section in the original is a mixture between a space to be mastered and a space you cannot fully control, a totality just out of sight. At least that’s my memory of it – I’m probably misremembering it as bigger than it actually is, because it’s been years since I last played DX. I just remember making my way through, even though I was never entirely sure of where exactly I was.

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  9. Aetylus says:

    Oi! Westfield London holds a special place in my family’s heart. It was our local shops for a couple of years after our son was born. It providing a comforting way for us to reorient our old pre-child lives with our new ones. It melded the safety and security of baby changing rooms and flat surfaces with the bustle of teeming shopping hordes. Yes it is sterile, but over time that sterility dissolved – for us at least – into something peculiarly Ours. Even unlovable spaces can be loved when the need arises.

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    Waltorious says:

    Good piece! But I was a little disappointed not to see the Thief series mentioned, as it has the most evocative city I’ve ever visited in a game. It’s even called The City! Plus it makes for interesting contrasts with the few sections set outside the city, which offer a different fear, that of the wild and unknown.

    But I really enjoyed reading this. I will be paying special attention to the cities in games I play in the future.