I did a game improvement post earlier this month
, so rather than do something similar with another game, how about I finish up the post I was writing for last week? Cool? Cool. Not cool? This is Improvement: Every Game Set in New York.
Hey, remember that game where you’re running around in Manhattan and doing all this crazy crap, and you can go to Central Park and the Financial District, and you can see the Statue of Liberty and yellow cabs and stuff?
Yeah, me neither.
True Crime: Streets of New York
Wikipedia lists over 125 games
set in New York or an obvious fictional analogue, helpfully noting that this list is actually incomplete. No other city on Earth comes close; the distant runner up is Las Vegas, fully half of whose pitiful 41 games are either casino titles or CSI “games”. Even if we exclude sports titles and other such games that include New York without necessarily featuring it as their main setting, we could say without much exaggeration that “New York” and “city” are synonymous in gaming, much the same way that we say “Xerox” when we mean “photocopy” or “casual” when we mean “shitty”.
It’s easy to see why New York – by which we really mean Manhattan because come the fuck on, who wants to play a game set in Brooklyn or Queens? – is such a tempting setting for games:
1) It’s an island, so the player’s movement is inherently limited by the surrounding geography. No need to make up a reason for the finite world.
2) It has varied terrain. Skyscrapers, parks, ports, bridges, tenements, and a lovely regular grid of city streets. Almost any sort of urban landscape can appear in a New York-style setting without too much suspension of disbelief, so a game set there can have a variety of environments to navigate without feeling contrived.
3) Everyone’s heard of it. New York is littered with landmarks that are recognized worldwide, giving it an easily-induced sense of place. Bonus: reduced concept art budget. Just hand the art department a copy of New York: Portrait of a City and have them get modelling.
4) It’s American as all hell. As arguably the capital of American culture, wealth and industry, New York symbolizes the entire US in a single handy location. If you want your themes and characters to comment on the US, technocratic imperialism, opportunity, cultural dominance, vast class divides, or just to be so redolent of American-ness that you can practically see the stink lines radiating from them, New York brings all of that into your story pre-packaged and ready to go.
5) 9/11 made it vulnerable. For all the bravado that stereotypically characterizes the New York populace, we’ve come to see it as quintessentially exposed in the post 9/11 era. We know that New York really can be damaged and hurt in a visceral experiential way that, say, Hyrule just can’t match. A lot of people adopted New York as a sort of distant second home after the attack, and have a weird sense of ownership now that makes them want to protect it.
The combination of these factors, as well as lots of others I’m likely not thinking of, is practically alchemical. The New York setting is a tightly-wound rubber band ball of conveniences, none of which means as much outside of the whole. And when you throw that ball at the game you're developing, the motherfucker bounces every time.
With all of these reasons to set a game in New York, what list of reasons can I give not to? How about
1) It's been done. Lots.
That's a pretty good list.
I don’t want to diminish the fine technical work that game artists and engineers do in bringing each particular rendition of New York to fruition in their given project; I’ve seen how much sweat goes into the technical end of even the simplest video games, and those efforts deserve any pause to appreciate them that we can afford. I do
have a problem with writers, designers, and producers in the concept phase that make the choice to take the easy, unoriginal way out of developing a setting by using Ol’ Reliable New York, and even worse those who don’t
think about it and set their game in New York because where else would you put it? Well…
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
I can’t suggest a different “perfect video game setting” for developers to switch over to; there may not be one that has all the same good points of New York, although if we spent some time talking about it we might think of other places that had strong combinations of different factors. Even if we did, I’m not suggesting that developers find a new single setting to bleed dry. Rather, I’m saying I wish they’d try harder to develop original settings rather than copying the most popular one-size-fits-all solution. I know I said a few paragraphs up that variety for its own sake is reason enough to mix up the game's setting, but if you’re not convinced by that let me also suggest that working within the constraints of less common and more unfamiliar locations might also help our game developers to stumble upon entirely new themes and senses of place that wouldn’t occur to them in the familiar gray blur of New York.
That would be cool.