When I was 12 my family drove south through Atlanta, Georgia. We never stopped, we just drove right through to see some family friends in Orlando. But of that week vacation what I remember most vividly is passing through Atlanta and looking up from the freeway at the myriad of lit up skyscrapers and just marvelling at their enormity. Like a lot of people from southwestern Ontario, I grew up in one of the innumerable, identical small towns filling the space between cities. So seeing a major city like Atlanta for the first time and knowing nothing about it—and still knowing nothing about it—but feeling an identity in the nexus of buildings and freeways had an impact on me.
I write with the belief that culture creates (Filipowich, Mark. “Representation and the Power of the Media as Discussed through Exit Fate.” bigtallwords. Aug 14 2013.) but I think that’s especially true for cities. The “idea” of Toronto or Detroit or Montreal or Atlanta extends well beyond the buildings they’re composed of just as those buildings come to represent and augment the “idea” of the city they’re located in. I enjoy seeing what media does to cities because they play such a major role in my life, in sociopolitical identity, in ecology, in class and in culture. For instance, film noir is predicated on urban duplicity and mobility, after looking at a skyline of New York it’s impossible not to want to fling from rooftop to rooftop like so many masked crimefighters, and even though most videogames aren’t set in a real-world city of the present day, many have featured imaginative and compelling urban environments (Simins, Elizabeth. If I actually reviewed games… Bad at Games. Feb 12 2014.).
I’m only now approaching the first quarter of Resonance of Fate but already I’m enamoured by the cluttered, hyper-industrialized megacity the game is set in. Basel, the game’s mechanical tower, is built like a massive clock with brick Victorian houses and cobblestone roads built around and into moving gears and pistons. Higher up the tower space becomes more open and clearer and the machinery and its pollution become less visible. Appropriately, that’s where the player can find the wealthy few governing Basel. This reflects the game’s central interest in class conflict: the lower, labouring classes literally live lower than the wealthy and they are literally mechanized in that it is their labour that sustains the machine that preserves civilization. Meanwhile the rich live in brighter, more luxurious areas.
This might sound familiar to those that have played Final Fantasy VII, which included its own megacity, Midgar. Like Resonance of Fate’s Basel, Midgar is physically structured to reflect the world’s social hierarchy: the rich live atop the business class who live atop the impoverished masses. And Midgar isn’t the only city in FFVII designed to reflect one of the game’s themes. Cosmo Canyon is built into a natural cave system but it’s also characterized by a massive telescope emphasizing the symbiosis between technology and nature that the game idealizes; Nibelheim’s rustic post-war style suburb eerily reflects the town’s dark history; Icicle Inn’s warm, woody interiors and bright lights against the bleak snowscape make it feel safe and comfortable, which fits as it’s the last town the player visits before embarking on a long quest that will remove the main character from the party. The cities and settlements reflect what is going on at that point in the plot, a major theme and each character’s hometown goes on to reflect something of that character’s own personal conflict.
In fact, the Final Fantasy series has built some of the most memorable and thematically mimetic cities partially because of each entry’s relationship to the rest of the series. The claustrophobia and anxiety of Final Fantasy VII’s cities differ considerably from those of its immediate successor’s. Final Fantasy VIII’s cities are all clean, clear and open. Cities gradually become more infused with machines, culminating in Esthar city, a techno-utopia strung together by sleek, round and reflective engines and solidified light. Again, this is appropriate since the antagonist’s goal is to compress time in a single moment, living forever in frozen time. Furthermore, the cast is made up of teenagers all fixated on bygone era of their childhood: they’re all kids stuck in their youth struggling to move on into healthy adulthood. Therefore technology and progress in Final Fantasy VIII represent salvation, not the danger its predecessor. It makes sense that it is more prominent in the game’s cities, how even the besieged Dollet still has bright, warm lights and neat thoroughfares or the authoritarian capital Deling City remains clear and open in spite of its harsh political atmosphere. In Final Fantasy VIII, progress is liberty threatened by aggressive conservatism, which contrasts greatly from the expectations established in Final Fantasy VII.
This is a staple of the Final Fantasy series. Early on locales were cobbles of indistinguishable buildings but by VI, each city is characterized by the game’s war, which side they stand with and the people living there. The bleak silence of Narshe’s abandoned mining village or the rigidly ordered buildings under the muted orange fog of the imperial city Vector start to speak more to the world and stylized geopolitics of the game. These aspects explode in the tonally similar Final Fantasy IX and become reversed in the tropical post-apocalypse of Final Fantasy X. Throughout the series architecture shifts wildly but it is always used to subtextually enforce its artistic statements.
These cities help disseminate the game’s purpose and give personality to locations and the people that live there. In that regard, they function much like a character’s home (Filipowich, Mark. “Where the Heart is: the Use of Home in Video Games.” PopMatters. Mar 12 2013.) but represent a large chunk of the world rather than a single character. This is especially the case for games that take place in a single location. Dragon Age II’s Kirkwall, The Last Story’s Lazulis, Vagrant Story’s Leá Monde, Resident Evil 3’s Raccoon City, even the hometowns in Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing speak to the kinds of tones and atmospheres the player is supposed to experience. These cities take on lives of their own and contribute to their stories. The three tragedies of Kirkwall the player participates reshape the city as much as they reshape the Hawke and their allies. The ways that the different districts change (or don’t) augment the tone of a game. Access to new areas, changes in how non-playable characters react to playable characters, changes to the physical landscape or background, variations in difficult and challenges all speak to a subsurface change in the city that relate to plot and character arcs.
A part of the complaints with Watch_Dogs, L.A. Noire, and Deadlight have been how their respective cities have been empty (Hughes, Nathan. “Are Game Worlds Getting Too Big?” Only Single Player. May 23 2014.), disingenuous (Machkovech, Sam. “Dead Wrong.” Unwinnable. Aug 31 2012.), or oversimplified (Jackson, Gita. “The Chicago of Watch Dogs vs. The Chicago of Reality.” Paste. May 9 2014.). These cities are unchanging playgrounds that don’t react to the changes the player is told are happening in the world. Granted, a part of the appeal of sandboxes is that they allow the player the freedom to explore and romp about as they please, but that doesn’t prevent series like Prototype to explore the relationship of its protagonists with their environments (Forest, Adrien. “Monstering in the City.” Three Parts Theory. Aug 12 2012.). As much as an empty city can speak to loss, death or abandonment in a game like Shadow of the Colossus, it detracts from the experience when a city is nothing but a collection of meaningless set pieces (Hernandez, Patricia. “Wonderful but Lonely: The Empty Spaces of Halo 4, Dishonored and Recent Video Games.” Kotaku. Apr 11 2012.).
Speculative fiction has always used setting and environment as a way to connect ideas together. Setting speaks to a lot of what a piece is trying to communicate and in a way the exploratory nature of videogames makes locations feel even more personal. The architecture of cities make up some of the most powerful and memorable content in games. Whether it’s the quiet mystery of Myst (Swain, Eric. “The Size and Wisdom of Myst.” PopMatters. Jun 12 2014.) or the crowded anonymity found in Assassin Creed: Brotherhood (Kunzelman, Cameron. “On Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood – City.” This Cage is Worms. Mar 6 2014.), the way that a game chooses to represent its populated areas deeply changes the reading of a game.
Further reading: Nelson, Samantha. “There’s hidden beauty in abandoned World Of Warcraft cities.” The A.V. Club. Apr 24 2014.
Rossignol, Jim. “Procedural Destruction and the Algorithmic Fiction of the City.” BLDG Blog. Aug 28 2009.
Rush-Cooper, Nick. “In the Zone: How Gamers Experience The Real Chernobyl.” Rock, Paper, Shotgun. May 14 2014