Why do video games find it so difficult to reflect real cities?

A screenshot from Sleeping Dogs, set in Hong Kong. Image: Ubisoft.

Taking a real city and putting it in a videogame sounds like a great idea. You get all that sense of place, all that rich history to draw on; and every city has its own character, its unique blend of people, politics and culture. Great cities are more distinct to a global audience even than the countries they are situated in. From London and Paris to New York and Hong Kong, these metropolises stand as some of the most significant cultural touchstones for people all over the world.

And yet attempts to put these great edifices into a videogame can often be disappointing. Almost without exception, the best cities in videogames are fictional.

The first set of problems in basing a game in a real world city stem from geography. One example of this is the 2002 game The Getaway, which in spite of its age is perhaps the closest anybody has come to a modern Grand Theft Auto game set in London. (That said, the GTA series did dip into London in 1995’s top-down GTA: London, a dip that has fuelled rumours ever since that the series may one day return).

A screenshot from The Getaway.

The problem The Getaway had, as a GTA style game, was the driving. As a setting for a crime game you can’t really fault London – but you wouldn’t want to drive there. The game captured the absurd traffic congestion and frustrating road layout of the city surprisingly well. Which meant driving wasn’t fun, so neither was the game.

By contrast, the more recent Driver: San Francisco is a game that involves, unsurprisingly, driving in San Francisco. This is perhaps the best example of a game nailing down what makes a city work as a location for the type of play the game is offering. San Francisco is the best city in the world for car chases because it’s got those ludicrously cool hills. And from a game design perspective, everything else is a footnote.

Further problems relate to how a game and its characters treat the city and its people – and it is here that scope exists for a game to become horribly unstuck. Consider 2014’s Watch_Dogs, a game about a vigilante hacker set in Chicago.

A screenshot from Watch_dogs.

Watch_Dogs aimed for a fairly naturalistic tone, painting the city as being full of interesting yet familiar, believable characters. This would be fine, except that your principle methods of interacting with these citizens, in your role as their self-appointed guardian, is to hack into their personal information, rob their bank accounts or kill them with near total impunity. It feels very off.

For this kind of interaction with the general population to be entertaining it requires a completely different tone. This is something that recent GTA games have mastered – that cruel, overt humour, the deep sense of misanthropy and cynicism. There are almost no good people in those worlds, so everybody is fair game. Notably the GTA games all take place (with the exception of the aforementioned GTA: London) in fictional cities which draw from the very worst qualities of their real world counterparts: an evil twin of New York, or an evil twin of Los Angeles.

A game that had a much better angle on how the character interacts with people in a real city is 2012’s Sleeping Dogs. Set in Hong Kong, the game takes its inspiration very much from the movie making tradition there. There are corrupt cops, powerful crime families and a heavy emphasis on using Kung Fu to solve your day to day problems rather than guns.

A screenshot from Sleeping Dogs.

In Sleeping Dogs you played an undercover cop and were discouraged from attacking civilians. You could pick on rival criminals if you wanted to, but the game moved away from the random acts of violence that characterise GTA and Watch_Dogs.

This was an approach also adopted by LA Noire, a 2011 game that also leaned heavily on the cinematic heritage of its location, and which also saw you play a cop – albeit with a heavier emphasis on detective work than on kicking people in the face over and over again. This again is a game that sacrificed the freewheeling fun of random violence in favour of a narrower focus that fit more comfortably with the setting.

By tapping into the culture of these cities, both games are trading on familiar and accepted themes. You don’t play Sleeping Dogs and think Hong Kong is a city with a massive organised crime problem: you play it and think it looks like a fascinating place to visit, and that maybe you should watch Infernal Affairs and Hard Boiled again.

The lesson here is that, if you want to embrace the culture of a city within a game, you have to do so with a degree of affection and respect. If I want to feel a connection to a place in a game, it helps if I’m not being encouraged to brutalise the citizenry and massacre its law enforcement officials for trying to stop me.


 

 
 
 
 

Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.


At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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