I've been visiting various cities recently, which always fill me with confusion and wonder, then Dishonored made me think about how much I miss Looking Glass. Put the two together and this happens. Join me in a meandering word-search for cohesion and theme in the use of the city across Thief, and the selected works of Rockstar and Charles Dickens. Be warned, there are spoilers for all three Thief games.
For the past week I’ve had my brain buried in a book far more often than in a computer game and while that hasn’t led me to tiresomely compare the benefits of one form in comparison to the other, one thing has been niggling at the back of my brain, which is where thoughts tend to fester and rot unless I excavate them and give them form. In the past few weeks, I’ve revisited London several times, sometimes in person sometimes through print, and a great deal of the latter has been due to the Charles Dickens’ bicentenary. Which game, pondered my brain, best encapsulates a place through exaggeration, metaphor and mystery, as Dickens did with grubby old London town and others?
To my mind, Dickens is more often than not ill-served by adaptations of his work. It’s too frequently the case that everything from set design to performance seems based around an agreed-upon interpretation of the works that is costumed in the twee rather than the grimy, uncomfortably amusing and horrific. The trappings of period television don’t well suit the hallucinatory and grotesque vision of progress and the city that is usually the most fascinating part of any Dickens’ novel.
When I think of cities captured in games Grand Theft Auto is close to the front of my mind (which is where thoughts clamour for attention and refuse to be silenced). In fact, it’s not even Grand Theft Auto, it’s Rockstar in general who apply a great deal of effort and skill in attempting to capture the essence of times and places. LA Noire, though developed externally, is both the strongest and strangest example. It’s a game that exists to conjure up the memories of something which all of us have only experienced through film, a construction of artistic and cultural nostalgia that has its roots in a real place with real problems.
However, the recreation is not recreational; it’s a backdrop, much like the superimposed streets and boulevards projected onto a back window during a driving scene in the films noir that were the inspiration for Team Bondi’s adventure throwback. LA Noire is a game about a city that takes place at limited islands of interaction throughout that city rather than truly within it.
As for Grand Theft Auto, the detail of the cities has impressed for a long time, not only in the experience of exploring it on foot or at the wheel, but in the television shows, cabaret and, of course, those radio stations, which are the satirical sound of America echoing back at itself.
There are few games like Grand Theft Auto IV, creations of place so pleasing that I’m content just to walk around and watch the world pretend to go by. I like hearing strangers talk among themselves or to themselves, I like seeing accidents happen and I love the Euphoria engine, which means that brushing against someone at high speed can result in a collapse that is performance art, a slow motion Buster Keaton.
For all the artificial life in them, for all the gags, puns and hours of dialogue, the cities in Grand Theft Auto’s America don’t actually have a language of their own though. They are not statements about time or place, they are mirrors held up to popular culture and, with enough frequency to detract from any meaning of their own, they are quotes, riffs and paraphrased homages. Liberty City, astounding as it can be to exist in for a while, is a compilation tape, or to be as generous as it deserves, it’s a compilation tape spliced with a DJ set of slick remixes, supported by a decent covers band.
Also, if you’ve got enough money to get into the VIP room, it all takes place in a club with a heck of a lightshow.
But what does Grand Theft Auto, any of them, tell me about these cities? That crime takes place in them, that the American dream is not all it’s cracked up to be, that the urban migration is a highway to social decay and depravity, that men like women, drugs and power? Grand Theft Auto has always been a series of narratives with a debt to cinema and television, the very things it so often mocks, and it has little to say about the experiences of its citizens that hasn’t been said elsewhere and, despite the intricate stage on which those players strut their stuff, Rockstar have very little to say about the setting itself. So much of the storytelling is noise rather than meaning.
All of that is an observation rather than a complaint. It may sound like a negative screed but if so, that’s because I realised I was looking for a different approach to City, I wanted a thesis rather than a reconstruction, and that’s how we come back to Dickens.
Read Our Mutual Friend. Actually, if you haven’t already, don’t do it right now because it’s really long. Enormously, intimidatingly long. It’s also brilliant, so do read it, just don’t think you have to stop reading RPS before you’ve finished it. For all I know you don’t even have a copy so you’ll have to go and buy it first. Sit back down, carry on reading this for now.
Dickens’ last completed novel is full of oddities, less social realism and more experimental surrealism, it’s a book in which the Thames seems a living thing, perhaps even a dying thing. It’s a book in which killers are given away by the names they are stuck with, and are so filled with lust and hatred that it becomes manifest and exudes as gouts of blood. In this London, corpses are just more dust and detritus in a world that collects garbage. It’s also very funny, sometimes even while it’s delving through the unnerving dead-ends that bloom up cancerous in every urban sprawl.
Why can’t games allude to this sort of thing rather than Ensemble Crime Film and Latest War Shoot? Oh, but they can and they do it so very well.
Two examples spring to mind, the first of which I don’t need to put any effort into writing about because a wise man already has. Quinns’ dissection of Pathologic sees him pull out all the innards, take a good look at them and scribble down autopsical ravings. While he’s talking about far more than the setting, a town rather than a city here, it’s central to everything: the diseased place, a prison of quarantine, a cluster of cells that must be cut off from the rest.
The other game that I reckon deals with urban themes better than any other is Thief. It takes place in The City, for crying out loud, a place that is so much the ideal of its type it needs no other name. It may well be The City because it is all cities, the good and the bad rolled into one, every extreme from bear-baiting in a beer-stained tavern, dingy and dark, to decadence and luxury, from hard-headed fundamentalism to progressive, philosophical thinking. Magic and metal, steam and sorcery.
There have always been cities like this in our world, the kind that inspire men like Samuel Johnson to proclaim: "…when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." I’d modify that to say that “when a man’s bank account becomes tired, London quickly tires of him; for there is in London far more than some lives can afford.” That's one reason why crime is an inevitability in these warrens, whether real or fictional, because the availability of so much that is conducive to living a good life (any and every sort of good) causes people to feel the lack of what they do not have more sharply than ever.
But it’s not just the inevitability of Garrett’s initial role that makes him compelling, it’s what it allows us to see through his eyes. Here, crime is not an excuse for action, it is a reason to avoid it, but it is a vehicle by which we see the City as it sleeps, pulling back the curtain, peering through the window, learning how people live behind closed doors.
It’s a game for anyone who has ever wondered what happens in the grandest house in town once the lights go out at night. It’s for anyone who has ever seen two men slumped at a hotel bar and wondered what other secrets are contained in such temporary lives. Thief is a game for anyone who has ever walked through a city at night and thought, which parts are still breathing and what does each seclusion contain.
Every alleyway, doorway and chamber has a story to tell and - as with Charles again with Looking Glass - those stories are comedy, tragedy and horror. How rare it is to find a series of games that contains some of the most terrifying moments in the medium alongside some of the funniest dialogue. There are social concerns that find expression in nightmarish exaggeration as well, most notably Karras’ servants, the workshop fodder of The City at first dehumanised, and then used as a weapon against the prosperous and the penniless alike.
The law and religion are powerful forces but they are replaceable, if only by reiterations, and it is the idea of progress itself that is at the heart of things. The final lines of The Dark Project are the finest in any game ever and you’re wrong if you think I’m wrong. Not only do they tell us there will be a sequel, much desired, they also tell us that sequel’s name: The Metal Age. They tell us that getting involved in the bigger picture was, just as Garrett always knew it would be, a colossal mistake. Unavoidable perhaps but all the meddling has only made things worse. Nature defeated, the dawn of the industrial era is truly beginning.
Garrett needs The City, if he didn’t have it he’d be a bandit instead of a thief, a merryman in some Godawful band. The City allows him to lurk in shadows and to survive alone, or at least mostly alone, making it the greatest part of his character. Garrett simply couldn’t be anywhere else.
But by striking a blow against the (super)natural in favour of artifice, he isn’t guaranteeing a future because this is a world, like Dickens’, that fears all progress may be toward ruin. The Metal Age will contain automatons that hunt the shadows, lights without fire and even cameras obscure and threatening. The secret places shrink and a balance is lost with the realisation that cities move forwards, always, but only up until the moment that they break and perhaps the truth is that they break at different times for different people.
Johnson may have believed London could never break for the man of culture, being so full of opportunity, but it was certainly a broken place for Blake’s chimney sweep no matter how sharp the infant intellect. The Metal Age shows the point at which Garrett’s City is on the verge of rejecting him, even though his own body has undergone an Industrial Revolution, his mechanical eye swivelling in the socket, a constant reminder that he is a part of this terrible future.
The railway heralded Dickens’ own Metal Age. He understood that it could be a tool for good, helping the economy and allowing people to travel for friendship, family and a fair wage, but he also feared it. Even before surviving a rail crash, in Dombey and Son he describes a train as devilish:
Away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, from the town, burrowing among the dwellings of men and making the streets hum…through the fields, through the woods, through the corn, through the hay, through the chalk, through the mould, through the clay, through the rock, among objects close at hand and almost in the grasp, ever flying from the traveller, and a deceitful distance ever moving slowly within him: like as in the track of the remorseless monster, Death!
These metal maggots writhing through England are even more unnatural than the buildings and bridges. There are similarities with the Mechanists, who represent both schism and progress, but also seem impossible at first. Their buildings and machines, like the railway stations, are interruptions to what has become a familiar landscape, great upheavals that seem as out of place as the first villages that scarred the countryside. What starts with a clearing becomes a metropolis and ends with a crater, with certain steps forward so preposterous and destructive that it seems impossible they will ever be accepted.
For me, Deadly Shadows isn’t a wholly fitting part of the Thief series but that’s not because I don’t enjoy playing it, it’s because it doesn’t move forward the idea of The City in the same way that The Metal Age did. That was the character I wanted to see more of and although there are moments of brilliance, there was no real progression. The cyclical story works for Garrett, perhaps, but not for The City. It must grind onwards until it is dust. Let's see what developments number four holds.