A surveillance drone whirrs in the skies above the Financial Times’ London office. A fleet of gleaming driverless cars whizz past nearby St Paul’s Cathedral, which is emblazoned with the logo of private security company Albion and their ominous slogan, “Keeping You Safe”. Across from Tate Modern, half of Blackfriars Bridge has collapsed following a bombing, its wreckage jutting from the water in a sculptural plume of twisted metal. Flowers and photographs line the roadside, commemorating the missing and the dead.
This is the London of Watch Dogs: Legion, a new game following a group of hackers who rise up against a powerful corporation in a near-future, post-Brexit Britain. Open-world games have been set in London before: there was 1999’s Grand Theft Auto: London and 2002’s The Getaway, inspired by Guy Ritchie’s cockney gangster films. The hallmarks of the city are always there: sooty grey stone, persistent rain, a colourful smorgasbord of accents. But Watch Dogs presents central London with an unmatched verisimilitude, down to the psychedelic paint-job on a bank opposite King’s Cross, and the spectral hotel which looms over Old Street like a stealth bomber.
There’s no shortage of memorable fictional cities in gaming, from the underwater art-deco designs of Bioshock to Dishonored’s steampunk aesthetics and the cosy high-fantasy taverns of The Witcher. But real-world cities offer their own allure: their atmosphere, culture and history is already known. We feel emotionally implicated when we see familiar places destroyed, whether it’s by war, famine or — with tiresome frequency — zombies. So the eerily empty Manhattan of The Division is genuinely emotive, as are the motorways reclaimed by vegetation in The Last of Us Part II’s Seattle. When I see militias patrolling the British Museum in Watch Dogs: Legion, I take it as a personal affront.
Even if we’ve never visited them, these cities live in our minds, their images engraved by pop culture. How many people’s idea of New York is drawn from Taxi Driver, or Mumbai from Slumdog Millionaire? Games offer the natural evolution of this mediatisation of the city, giving you not just a lens on these spaces but the agency to navigate them at leisure. Cities are the undisputed stars of the Grand Theft Auto series, from the neon-soaked Miami of Vice City to New York and Los Angeles in later games. As a teenager on a family holiday in the pre-Google Maps days, I was able to navigate my parents through the side streets of Manhattan thanks to my experience cruising those same streets in GTA IV — though with significantly fewer pedestrian casualties.
The Assassin’s Creed series offers virtual tourism through time as well as space, with games offering gorgeous recreations of Renaissance Florence or London in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. Unity’s depiction of Paris during the French Revolution contained a virtual Notre-Dame which took two years to design, proving such a labour of love that when the real cathedral caught fire last year, developer Ubisoft pledged €500,000 to the reconstruction fund and made the game available for free download.
Making a city feel realistic is an enormous endeavour. Many games abbreviate urban space to bring iconic landmarks closer together, which can make for an uncanny driving experience for locals. Convincing urban texture is complicated; it is the architectural palimpsest of layered history, logical systems of transport and power, weather patterns and plant life. A believable population is also crucial. Nothing breaks the illusion faster than bad crowd physics, when passers-by crash into each other or repeat the same corny lines of dialogue like parrots.
In Watch Dogs: Legion, each pedestrian is playable and is randomly allocated their own face, voice, friends and routines. It approaches the zenith of urban illusion: you believe the virtual city continues to breathe and go about its business even when you are not present, rather than simply dissolving into the digital ether at the vanishing point of your rear-view mirror.
The best gaming cities are their own protagonists, places you will want to protect, destroy, or simply stroll through as a digital flâneur, ignoring all your assigned missions. Like a game, a city is a complex weave of interlocking systems, and the purest pleasure is to see how this space reacts to your actions and choices. These games set you loose in the urban imaginary, and, in so doing, evoke the thrill of true freedom. As Italo Calvino writes in his playful novel Invisible Cities: “You take delight not in a city’s seven or 70 wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”
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