*Community Blog by rathowreck // Exploring Philadelphia in Video Games
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Exploring Philadelphia in Video Games


The first goal you are presented with is jumping over three abandoned cars. You manually set the position of the ramps, the person who issued the challenge nonchalantly tells you to go for it, and soon you're easily hopping over derelict booted vehicles in the heart of Tony Hawk's Proving Ground's (2007) Philadelphia level. The outset of the game continues in this fashion. The player is taught the basics of the controls while using the misshapen design of "Inner City" Philadelphia as a canvas on which to hastily jump, grind, and progress. None of the characters address the condition of the world they inhabit and your strange antics have no impact on this vision.

Unlike the New Jersey neighborhood level in 2003's Tony Hawk's Underground, which was built to be a caricature of the storied perception of a trashy and polluted state, this modern approximation of Philly is meant to have a tonal seriousness. Abandoning the rudimentary progression the game asked of me once I unlocked the "Downtown" portion of the city map, I muted the game's music volume and hopped off of my skateboard in order to take in more of Neversoft's vision of a totally skate-able Philadelphia.

Overcast skies, a drained JFK Plaza fountain, homeless NPC's strewn about. Even a non-interactive event featuring two under-dressed police officers prodding a drunk who had taken refuge in someone's backyard. Sirens echoed in the distance, rain fell onto a giant tarp covering half of a mid-reconstruction City Hall. It was a dismal, dreary, and depressing world. Are these the characteristics of Philadelphia that game developers see when they visit for research? I began to wonder, how else has Philadelphia been portrayed in video games? What do designers choose to leave in when they begin to build? Landmarks? Statues? What do they choose to leave out? Nondescript housing? Sidestreets and alleys? If so, which? How accurate is the portrait they are painting and what kind of attitude does it promote about Philly?

I've always felt jealous when I've explored a real city recreated in a video game. Residents of New York and Los Angeles have had more than a few times to indulge in this fascinating construct of interactive art that only the 21st century could properly produce. Philadelphia, the city I've grown up adjacent to and now work in, unfortunately has been passed over time and again by game studios who want their worlds and settings to have the widest appeal. That is, to make their stories take place in highly recognizable, populated, and thematically dense areas. But what is more intriguing than being able to jump into an artist's lifelike, digital approximation of the city you live in? Philadelphians haven't often been able to delve into such a niche luxury. In fact, I've only discovered that there are only five games that truly feature Philadelphia in some form or another*.

New York & GTAIV's rendition

The first is Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2. Developed by Los Angeles-based Neversoft studios and released in 2000, the Philly level is about as rudimentary as you'd expect from that era, especially for a skateboarding game. Only two landmarks are truly on display here: JFK Plaza and FDR Skatepark. The level has no other characters to interact with and when the music volume is muted, only the sounds of passing traffic and birds chirping can be heard beneath the rattle of your board. If you can ollie up high enough onto a balcony near the start of the level you can turn a valve that empties the fountain at JFK Plaza out, which then becomes skate-able. The only other feature of the environment worth mentioning is how the famous LOVE sculpture by Robert Indiana is replaced with the letters T, H, P, and S. Overall the depiction of Philadelphia here is simple and concise. It's peaceful, grassy, and fun to skate in.

Tony Hawk's Underground 2 (2004) features the same level found in THPS 2, only revamped with better graphics and new goals. The environment is nearly identical, save for scattered "hogeys" (sp) that you have to smash and bright yellow trash bags that, upon contact, break open to spew forever-undulating aluminum cans onto the ground. The background noise now features the occasional blare of sirens as well.

Moving past the aforementioned Tony Hawk's Proving Ground in 2007 is 2010's Heavy Rain. This game technically takes place in a fictional nameless city but it is widely known that its creator, David Cage, wanted Heavy Rain's world to be Philly-influenced. Its plot line revolves around a serial killer and the individual stories of the people interested in his capture. Much like the Tony Hawk games, Heavy Rain doesn't often comment on the state or condition of the setting behind the action, but rather uses it as a backdrop to flavor that action. Here is David Cage on why he chose Philadelphia as the setting for his noir-crime drama:

Not having your story in a specific place helps to make it more universal, but also to reflect the state of mind of everybody; they are all lost in one way or another. I am a big fan of M. Night Shyamalan's movies like Unbreakable and Six Sense; I discovered they were shot in Philadelphia. I was just in the writing process and had no specific idea regarding the background--I knew I wanted a place that would say something. I didn't want just a postcard in the back--make my story happen in New York, or in Miami. So we took a plane to Philadelphia, hired this movie scout that worked on the movie Philadelphia. We asked him, "Could you take us to some poor houses and meet poor people?" The movie scout was surprised by the request. I was inspired by Bowling for Columbine, the movie by Michael Moore. The social background he showed in this movie was a big shock to me, being European. I know the U.S. quite well, but I was always in L.A. or in New York. I never saw what Moore showed in his movie. I thought he was telling something very interesting about the United States--not the Hollywood side where everyone's tanned and has big muscles and is very sexy--but how people actually live.

What we discovered in Philadelphia was beyond anything we could imagine. We saw despair. We saw violence. We saw fear. We saw poverty, in a way that no one in Europe could imagine takes place in the U.S. And we saw all these huge factories near people's houses, these big chimneys with black smoke. You know where Ethan looks for his son near the school, big chimneys just behind it? This is something we saw in Philadelphia. And we met poor people. They kindly let us come into their house and take pictures. We didn't want to just imagine what it looked liked, we wanted to take pictures--which is a very stupid thing to do, when you think about it. I remember one specific time where we went to this family, and the movie scout had arranged it a month before. But when we arrived, their ten-year-old daughter had died the day before in an accident. The family was there crying in the kitchen and we immediately said, "We're going to go. Sorry." And they said, "No. You came from France to take pictures of the house, please come in." We didn't want to say no, we couldn't say no. And we were taking pictures of their house while they were crying about their daughter. This is something that stayed in my mind for all the years I spent writing, this moment of intense sadness, and depression, and death. I hope a little of this is in the final story.

It's clear from this quote that Mr. Cage was looking for something very specific and dark from Philadelphia and was most likely pointed in very distinct directions in order to quickly find it, snap some pictures, and jettison himself back to Europe as hurriedly as possible. Even so, public opinion can be influenced by any sort of popular media and by crafting versions of Philly that are dreary, dark, full of crime and trash and misery, game developers have turned the city into a setting that is just bleak enough to serve their narrative and thematic purposes without requiring players to inhabit a full-on hell scape.

Residents of Philadelphia know that their city has its flaws but there is an enormous amount of clean, beautiful environments and lively, fantastic cityscapes to uncover around every bend. They know that the history, style, and culture of Philly has potential to be a centerpiece for a potent digital world, not merely a one note motif generator to be exploited for narrative or thematic gain. Local developers Port 127 understood this and saw fit to build a fun, lighthearted, and somewhat accurate layout of Philly in their 2011 iOS title, Hipster City Cycle.

The game has you playing as Binky McKee, a mustachioed hipster-type who must navigate traffic and stop lights amidst the clamor of South Philly, Center City, Northern Liberties, and West Philly neighborhoods on his bike. Hipster City Cycle is a painstakingly crafted vision of Philadelphia that recreates entire avenues and neighborhoods, down to the precise location of shops and banks and parks. Despite being the most recent vision of Philly that I can find in video games, the graphics call upon an older style of digital world-building: pixels. This works to the game's benefit as it allowed Port 127 to really go the extra mile in working in every possible unique nuance and tongue-in-cheek reference that they could, all in the name of painting a portrait of a fun, bright, exuberant Philadelphia.

Before doing my research and truly looking into the individual facets of what made Philadelphia levels in video games what they are, I was jealous of the bigger cities that had received more time in the digital spotlight. I thought that exploring a virtual recreation of a city I am familiar with would be interesting and fun, especially when realism was the name of the game. But the more realistic the games got, the more it was clear the designers wanted to showcase pain and misery. They seemed to only be interested in using Philly in the name of gloomy story settings, even in games that had almost zero narrative to begin with. These details, forged in the name of substance, must be what New Yorkers are confronted with every time they load up an open world game like Grand Theft Auto IV or Mafia 2. I found out that there is little pride in exploring a world that is yours when it is decrepit and broken. So I no longer feel jealous.

If grit and grime are the only details that big name game developers are interested in showcasing about America's largest and proudest cities, then I say let 'em have their realism: I'll be weaving in between cars on my way to sit in the shade at Rittenhouse Square.

*Assassin's Creed III (2012) places you in Philadelphia for a brief moment, but only within a depiction of Independence Hall in 1775.
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About rathowreckone of us since 10:15 PM on 11.22.2010

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