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City Life: An Unfulfilled Setting

Jeremy Signor | 29 Apr 2013 18:00
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Videogames offer a plethora of prospective settings, but none play to the medium's strengths like the big city. It only makes sense that the promise of a game set in a metropolis would be appealing. City planning is essentially level design, each individual building holds the potential for telling an interesting story, and neighborhoods serve as microcosms of activity and interaction. But unfortunately, developers are often more interested in providing players with an epic, world-spanning journey.

Why restrict players when you can put the world in the palm of their hands? The result of this thinking, however, is rarely as epic as developers hope. In order to simulate an entire world, they shrink the scale so that it will realistically fit into a game both from a technical and practical standpoint, leaving us with a planet abstracted to be no bigger than a college campus. They assume that confining players to a single location will make the experience ordinary, but in reality, a virtual city can be vast and varied.

In a climate where games are only getting bigger, an all-encompassing city setting can meet this growing need while providing plenty of possibilities for interesting environments and level design.

In a climate where games are only getting bigger, an all-encompassing city setting can meet this growing need while providing plenty of possibilities for interesting environments and level design. The Grand Theft Auto series proves to be the most literal interpretation of the concept by recreating an approximation of a modern city. Each game takes place in a single city modeled after a real-world one - Vice City, for example, is based on Miami. The player is given missions throughout the metropolis, each of which are marked on a mini-map meant to simulate a GPS. In addition to these missions, you can wander around finding different collectables, shop at gun stores, eat at fast food restaurants, and even meet up with friends. And though GTA's cities pale in comparison to their inspirations, they feel as big as the real thing.

But though each city is quite large for a game locale, most of what you see is superfluous. Pretend apartments and stores are wallpapered onto some rectangular geometry, with the occasional blip on the GPS indicating an actual store you can interact with. Mindless pedestrians will walk along the sidewalks, and though some interact with you, most merely serve as window dressing. Of course, it's unrealistic to expect a game city of this size to let you explore every single one of these features, but making a large metropolis without addressing these restrictions short-circuits one of the setting's greatest strengths. The Grand Theft Auto games absolutely illustrate how to fill the vastness that today's gamers crave with style, but they also show there's more to the city experience than square footage or architecture. It's also about the people that reside in these large settlements and their interactions with each other - something games can innately excel at. But this is difficult to pull off in such a large package.

In order to address this, many other games attempt to fake the feeling of a large city by portraying a bustling metropolis in a smaller area, relying on interactions between its residents to sell it as a community. The gameplay of works such as Yakuza and The Last Story focus on smaller areas, compressing the city experience into a more easily-manageable package. This way, players become more intimate with their surroundings as they learn landmarks and meet significant people. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask takes this one step further by featuring a tiny town full of named NPCs that go about their routines during three days of game time. Real-world time is simulated, and each citizen of Clock Town wanders to different locations at different times of day to take care of their own needs. Players can intercept each one at a certain juncture in their routine in order to help them with their problems and reap the rewards. You still lose the vastness of an actual city - Clock Town itself proves especially small and merely serves as a hub for the rest of the world - but simulating city life makes it feel alive and vibrant in the way that a real one would.

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