I’ve been playing video games, for my sins, since 1987. For all my flailing pretensions elsewhere, I’ve measured out my life with endless flashing Insert Coin to Continue temptations. For a long time, I became distracted by meaningless things like life but gradually I returned penitently to the fold; following Montaigne’s example that everything is interesting and revealing, and also because indie games, in particular, are enjoying a golden age. Also, have you seen the fucking state of the real world at the minute?
In that motivational spirit, I’ve written a piece on the first 16-bit game I fell in love with, Strider, and what it tells us about Soviet and Japanese futurism. It’s published in Gareth Damian Martin’s excellent and brand-new Heterotopias, a publication destined for great things. Here’s a glimpse:
On the subject of games, until recently I had the pleasure of writing a column for Kill Screen. It was and probably still is a fine magazine, which I wrote for on the intersection of real and virtual architecture, but something about them abruptly sacking their staff rankled with me. So I stepped down and here, in the nostalgic spirit of what was once called solidarity and probably my last piece on games, is my final column.
The Belly of the Beast.
Rats colonise our sewers. Birds nest in the eaves of buildings. Foxes, mice, and seagulls lay claim to our refuse. We think of cities as the antithesis of the environment rather than environments in themselves. We are relieved of this misconception by creatures labelled as pests when their territories overlap with ours.
In the forthcoming Home Free, you navigate a dog around a city. “There is something intrinsically different and interesting about seeing a city from down where a dog is a couple of feet above ground” the game’s designer Kevin Cancienne points out, “You notice different details, and buildings and vehicles loom even larger.”
This shift in focus goes further than simply a change in scale. The limitations of animal interactions with the urban environment make them relatable. “Open world games like Grand Theft Auto are usually about gaining some form of dominion over the cities they simulate,” Cancienne says. “You start as a small-time crook, and then work your way up until the city is basically yours. In Home Free, you start out as one of the least important creatures in the city — a stray dog — and by the end, you’re still pretty unimportant. I think that more closely matches our real life experience with cities.”
There is, however, a duality to how humans view animals that games address. We often treat animals as subordinate creatures, simply there to aid us in our ventures, but at the same time they are totemic and enigmatic. They are inferior cognitively to human beings only from a human perspective; a shark, for example, is much more ably adapted to its environment than we would be. Despite these differences, we underline our superiority by ascribing human characteristics to animals. Our initial encounters in games likely come through cute anthropomorphized pet-like characters. Yet even these are notable for progressing faster or higher than human characters convincingly can. Games like Ecco the Dolphin and the stunning Ōkami went to uncharted places in terms of setting, atmosphere, and painterly visuals. Playing these games feels strangely elegiac, otherworldly even, as if supposedly soulless animals had translated the world back to us in an improbably soulful way. By the time we reach a game like Papa & Yo, set in a Brazilian favela, the totemic quality of other creatures becomes an incredibly powerful way of addressing who we are.
Using animals as analogous to our urban experiences points to jarring absences in games that feature human avatars. Namely, they tend to assume one particular experience of the urban environment. Yet what is the city to the homeless citizen? To someone who is blind? To an agoraphobic inhabitant? Cities, by their very nature, are plural. While they may be restrictive alienating environments, they also offer versions of sanctuary. Cancienne is quick to address fatalism with Home Free, “I find it oddly liberating. I hope I’m able to express some of the incredible contradiction in cities — that they’re loud and dirty and sometimes scary but also miraculous. You’re free to explore and make sense of the terrible wonders of a city as if for the first time.”
In cities, animals can access places we strain to. The death-defying poses adopted by practitioners of roof-topping are second-nature to birds. The feline, prowling along ledges and through cramped alleyways in the forthcoming Kowloon Walled City-inspired HK Project, has an agility that free-runners can only mimic. Similarly they have access and evasion that Metal Gear Solid characters could only envy. There’s a sense in games like the Mirror’s Edge series of hacking the urban environment (long a cyberpunk obsession); especially forgotten, inaccessible areas and hidden systems. Animals got there long ago. They also remind us of the verticality of cities while we exist day-to-day largely in the horizontal. Comic books have been aware of this for a century; it is no accident that Batman scowling high up on gothic and art deco crags, and Spiderman swinging a path through skyscraper canyons are human-animal hybrids to varying degrees.
While animals may change our approach to cities, the urban environment can alter the behaviour of animals in turn. They adapt surprisingly quickly. The sewer gators of New York may be urban myth but the dogs of Ceaușescu’s Romania were not. The communist dictator’s Sistematizarea plan involved bulldozing traditional housing and pushing the population into concrete tower blocks. An unforeseen consequence of this was that families were forced to abandon their pet dogs, many of whom turned semi-feral, in packs that haunted and terrorised the inner cities. They joined other animals, like rodents and cockroaches, who are seen as vermin for having carving out an urban existence conflicting with ours. Yet they’ve had as much time to adapt to such surroundings as we have.
Those who adapt too well, to the point of actively interfering with human convenience, are conditioned or eradicated.
What happens if we were to remove the human component? In the forthcoming Lost Ember, a wolf, bird, fish and mole explore Mesoamerican ruins. Each offers unique viewpoints and skills in traversing an environment originally designed for the people of a now-fallen civilisation. It is worth comparing to the area around the irradiated ghost town of Pripyat, abandoned by the population following the Chernobyl disaster, which has seen burgeoning populations of wildlife including boars, eagles, deer and wolves. Similarly, the apartment blocks of the Soviet Arctic mining settlement Pyramiden have been largely deserted by people and colonised by seabirds. From Korea to Croatia, every forsaken human habitation, however devastated by war and ruin, is soon cultivated by other creatures. After humanity, nature will, no doubt, reclaim our cities. In post-apocalyptic games, films and literature, we assume the last survivors to gaze upon the ruins will be members of our resilient, albeit self-destructive, species. In the long term, it’s likely very different eyes will survey what is left.