The Continuous City
“At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two passers-by meeting in the crowd, and I think that setting out from there, I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them.”
- Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
The spaces of video games form one of the most complex, contradictory and strange bodies of architecture ever created. Countless worlds, some no bigger than a corridor, others many kilometres across, none of which we can truly enter. Each one seems at once useless and essential, a space that can contain no life, and yet which is derived directly from it. They may have started out as labyrinths and playgrounds, but the spaces of games can now be said to encompass characters, arguments, ideologies, narratives, ideas and experiments. Each one is a proposition, no matter how small or innocuous. They propose new spaces, new ways of using space, of seeing it and understanding it.
Games are, of course, all architecture. There is not a part of them which is not “built space” – the purest definition of architecture we hold. Whether built by artists, programmers and designers or built by the generative systems that those artists, programmers and designers have created, there can be no “natural” space in games. And yet there is still a distinction between that eternal binary of the spaces of human society, the urban and the natural.
Perhaps this is because game spaces are not so much spaces, as images of spaces, always presented to us through screens and frames (even if the frame is a Virtual Reality headset). For that reason, games, like painting or photography, inherit the meanings of the world they depict. When, in a game, a series of empty cubes, textured with bricks and windows and electric writing and piping are arranged in a plan that resembles a grid or spreading pattern of streets, we might say that they are a city. What is worth remembering is that like a pattern of brushstrokes that seem to describe the skyline of New York or the light-reactive chemical residue imprinted on a film that depicts a street in Hong Kong, this is only the appearance of a city we are looking at, not a city in itself.
Why is that important? Because appearances are intensely powerful things. They can, in a handful of lines, or pixels, the grouping of light and shadow, evoke such powerful responses in us. They can evoke memories, suggest new realities, or make us question or current one. And yet they remain flexible, intransient, they can shift between different meanings at different times, for different eyes. For a single image, a painting or photograph, this is powerful enough, but games typically stretch beyond this. They create spaces that while we cannot enter fully, we can direct. As with all art we can find within them a reflection of our own interests, but unlike static forms, they allow us to pursue this. We can fixate on details of their spaces, crawling up to them to better see them, while we ignore others. We can walk away from the grand narrative to shape our own imagined story in some forgotten corner.
If games and those who make them are guilty of anything, it is not always recognising this flexibility, this power. When we talk about games, we are talking about constructions produced by anything from one to hundreds of artists, programmers and designers, over thousands of hours. Above a certain scale it is not possible for them to be singular visions, they are instead multi-faceted worlds, inherently collaborative creations. Yet they so often restrict, blinker, and aggressively direct our presence within these spaces. Like real urban space, there are functions to be served, systems to be fed, orders to be maintained, but unlike real urban space none of this order serves a purpose beyond its own maintenance.
It may be for this reason that game spaces have gone so unrecognised for so long. It takes a commitment to them to shake off the heavy-handed framing that some games are shackled with and to start to see the spaces they depict for what they are, or even what they could be. This book is an attempt to do exactly that. I won’t suggest this is in any way an objective catalogue or itemised encyclopaedia of game worlds. That I am somehow reaching for some truth or essential quality of these worlds. My process is in fact the opposite. I am treating games as a jumping-off point, a staging ground for the creation of new works. I want to draw out the details of these worlds and expand them into new realities, ones that muddy the singular visions we have of game worlds and their “purpose.”
That is why I use analogue photography to capture these digital worlds. I am looking to derail their obvious associations, limit their recognisable aspects, and present them as fresh images which suggest things outside their borders that go beyond the original subject. And, beyond that, analogue photography acts as a kind of stand-in for the forgotten human element of games. After all, these worlds only exist in relation to us. Like language itself, which must be synthesised by a human mind, games require us to imbue their numerically derived, geometric worlds with the meanings and associations that bring them to life. The ambiguity of black and white photography, and the visual clouding of chemical grain kick-start this process, encouraging the viewer to approach the images in this book as real at first glance, and then adjust their perspective. In some cases it might even be possible for the viewer to be convinced of the veracity of these spaces simply through this analogue frame – to mistake the virtual for the real so completely that they are unwilling to accept a correction.
My choice of cities as a focus follows the same logic – there is no denser, more suggestive subject. While we might naïvely treat landscapes as “neutral” ground, there is no way that urban space can be mistaken for the same blank aesthetic. Cities, whether we are a resident of one or not, represent the core of human society, a meeting point of all conflicts and resolutions, all collectives and fragments. I have always been an admirer of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (many of you many have spotted that I have borrowed one of his titles for this book) and what he points to in that slim volume is the power of cities as more than just spaces of high human density. Calvino rightly casts them as political, philosophical and personal symbols, able to describe almost all aspects of society. I suppose what I might be proposing with my own book is that games, and especially game cities, share this property. Like the word city, which uniquely unites many disparate elements in an ungraspable whole, so game points a thousand different definitions of space and systems all within one category. Games and cities then are platforms through which to make arguments about space, about society, and about how images shape the way we encounter the world.