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AwesomeExMachina avatar 8:02 AM on 09.21.2010  (server time)
Writing on the Wall: How Graffiti Builds Universes

I love graffiti. Whether itís someone scratching profanity into a bathroom stall or stencil-painting a six-foot mural in the dead of night. I love the idea of anonymous expression, leaving a message for others to read without caring if anyone knows you wrote it. In reality, these graffiti artists are unsung vandals. Renegade expressionists. But, in video games, graffiti can often become something different. Like anything a video game designer programs into a game, if a wall has been graffitiíd, itís been done for a reason. There are no unimportant characters in a story because if they exist at all, they do so to serve a purpose. So when we find words scrawled across a wall or doodles defacing a derelict warehouse, itís not accidental. Itís not random chance. Itís communication. But it doesnít come from some lone stranger. Even more importantly, it doesn't come from the big end-game boss or any of the subsequent enemies. Instead, Itís a chance for the gameís narrative to speak directly to the player. The message? For better or worse, youíre not alone.

I recently explained the concept of Valveís Portal to my very much non-gaming father and he nodded approvingly. He liked the sound of the quiet paced, thought-provoking, puzzle-based gameplay. But it wasnít until I recalled finding a wall of comically insane rhetoric scrawled on a tiny storage area that he seemed truly impressed. I had mentioned the 'promise of cake' line from GLaDoS as I explained the game and he chuckled. But it wasn't until I described the first real break that turned the jokes from a comically aloof comedy to something darker. The cake is a lie. Nowadays, we lament the joke's existence from over-saturation. Regardless, my father didnít need to see it on the wall himself or hear an explanation to understand; he followed the self-referential meta-joke and loved it. But he also saw the clever narrative trickery this little hidden room had played on the player.

The discovery that a different protagonist had ventured the same path as you was subconsciously unsettling. He or she had been promised the same cake, was given the same cube to befriend, and led through the same puzzles. Yet this presumably equally worthy problem solver was nowhere to be found. Even less comforting, your counterpart had gone quite literally insane trying to survive. Suddenly, a thought partially formed at the back of the playerís head. What hope do I have? My father saw it too, laughing at the creepiness of the message he said ďThat is eerie.Ē

Valve has a penchant for this sort of thing. Both iterations of their Left 4 Dead franchise have used graffiti as not only an incredible source of humor, but also as arguably their main avenue for exposition. Both games have featured cutscenes, but that's all we really get for a story. And it's not much of one. All the intros serve to do is introduce us to who the characters are, the way in which the enemies operate, and just how fucked we may well soon be. But besides telling us how long since the infection began, we know nothing about whatís happening outside the characters or how the zombie apocalypse began. Origins, scope, and current state of the United States government. We know next to nothing.

Just how it should be.

But Valve doesnít leave players completely isolated. Snippets on the walls throughout both games start to piece together a much larger puzzle. As we move past the quirky jokes about zombies being nocturnal and Chicago Ted, we find a quiet message start to form. We see the word Ďcarriersí reappear, especially in Left 4 Dead 2. The walls of each safe room start to whisper ideas of people who have the infection but donít present it. They just spread it. We start to wonder, how have our favorite survivors made it this far without turning infected? Could our four lead characters be unwittingly exacerbating the infection as they fight their way across the city, encountering other survivors in ways that all end quite horribly?

More than likely. Yet, rather than burden the story with cutscenes or some goofy scientist with a clipboard to bludgeon us with exposition, Valve makes the player come to their own conclusions. The story comes out and manifests outside the games - in forums and message boards - and slowly becomes validated as the story opens wider with each mission. All because some unknown survivor scribbled the only good carrier is a dead carrier on a safe room wall.

Survival horror games too have this concept on lock. Games like Bioshock and F.E.A.R. goaded the protagonist and player with alarming messages, witling away at their composure with death threats and cryptic morbid declarations. Using some strange luminescent paint, the titular character in Alan Wake is taunted by messages left on rock outcroppings and sheds. (Good advice: Trust no one in the dark) Someone, not Alan or the enemies, understands what is going on and knows the dangers, but isnít revealing who they are. They even seem to know the route that Alan will take and leave supplies scattered along this path. Each time I discovered another cache of flashlight batteries and ammunition, Iíd read these alarmingly clairvoyant messages and at the back of my mind I wondered Who is this and how can they know so much?

Thatís whatís exciting. These messages are scratched there by an unseen third party. Survivors, civilians, hostages, prisoners. Other people whoíve cowered from the same enemies you fought or survived the same apocalypse youíve lived through. If these characters were to appear, theyíd be no more communicative than the background. They canít tell you their story, their experiences. Frantic civilians running from a car explosion donít give us much insight. But this is why their input is so intriguing. Theyíre not part of the story, or involved with the protagonist in the slightest. Graffiti isnít about the hero; itís about everyone else. So through these indirect contributors, we watch an expanded story unfold.

Hidden somewhere in GTA IV is a wall graffiti with RIP messages towards all previous characters. More than likely just an easter egg, a goof from the developers, the mural is a homage to Rockstarís work. More importantly, it progresses the concept that all these characters exist in the same concept design, which is easy to forget. Viewing each characterís plight in this grand scale of things is rather humbling, which is hard to do with a main character who shoots helicopters out of the air with a RPG over a major metropolis.

When the story starts expanding like this, imagining whatís happened and will happen outside what the player can see and interact with, we start to see something bigger take shape. A universe. We get a sense of events acting independently of the player, and that said hero or heroine is part of them rather than an aimless figure stumbling into pre-programmed triggers. Most importantly, we begin to understand that the protagonist we spur onward is not alone. Comrades exist or have existed. Thereís something bigger than the hero. Graffiti isnít just a goofy environmental flare or designer quirk. Because itís not the short messages or cryptic pictures themselves that are interesting, but that their existence indicates a drive from the writers to go beyond just writing a story and instead construct an entire world.

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