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When video games showcase urban dystopia

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A town planner's fantasy, the SimCity video game  , created in 1989, provided the means to build and administer his ideal city. But over time, utopia has lost its suggestive power; it is dystopia that stimulates game designers. Recent titles like  Watch Dogs 2 ,  Mirror's Edge Catalyst  or  Remember Me  lead the player into nightmare cities, embodiments of our collective anxieties.


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When video games showcase urban dystopia

Usbek & Rica

Apr 12, 2017

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A town planner's fantasy, the SimCity video game  , created in 1989, provided the means to build and administer his ideal city. But over time, utopia has lost its suggestive power; it is dystopia that stimulates game designers. Recent titles like  Watch Dogs 2 ,  Mirror's Edge Catalyst  or  Remember Me  lead the player into nightmare cities, embodiments of our collective anxieties.

Video games have long been fascinated by urban universes . The most famous of them, the pioneer, is  SimCity . The franchise allows you to build and manage the city of your dreams from a blank map. But today, the trend, in video games as in fiction in general, is no longer dreaming. Most of the time, it is a question of surveying dystopian universes , worlds in which urban space contributes to the idea of ​​impossible happiness. All-powerful multinationals, totalitarian architectures, loss of individuality… Opuses like  Watch Dogs 2  (Ubisoft, 2016),  Mirror's Edge Catalyst  (DICE, 2016) or  Remember Me (Capcom, 2014) appear as so many windows open on the futures that we fear, and on the roles that we imagine playing there.

Anguish: the smart city gone mad

The “smart” city scares us. Ultraconnected, it identifies us, knows our habits and constantly records our data, in the pretext of optimizing our exchanges and protecting us. This is the case in  Watch Dogs 2  as in  Mirror's Edge Catalyst . The first game features a near future, in which the inhabitants of San Francisco are connected to a generalized surveillance system: the ctOS 2.0. The second takes place in a fictitious city - Glass City - where all the citizens are permanently located by a bracelet that they cannot remove under penalty of triggering an alarm and being pursued by the authorities.

These  dystopian smart cities are  largely inspired by the latest advances in the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and big data. They project a future in which these tools are out of control and contribute to the violation of individual freedoms. Thus, in  Watch Dogs 2 , the player embodies Marcus, wrongly convicted by justice following an intrusion into his personal data.

Long convinced of the virtues of technological solutionism, the big private players in the smart city (Cisco, IBM, etc.) now seem to be turning their backs on “turnkey” solutions that are supposed to make our cities smarter. It will be interesting to see how game designers adapt to this new situation and interpret this abandonment of a “technologized” and easily operable city.

An enemy: the all-powerful multinational

The urban dystopias staged in recent video games perpetuate the heritage of cyberpunk culture by making the multinational the "big bad" par excellence. An ideal enemy, revealing the collective anxieties caused by the excesses of capitalism. More often than not, this multinational, with a legitimate business at the start, has ended up establishing itself as a new urban architect , modifying more or less as it pleases the appearance of the city and its uses. She dictates her vision of society to powerless governments and citizens. Watch Dogs 2's San Francisco   or Mirror's Edge Glass City  are respectively controlled with an iron fist by "Blume Corporation" and "Le Conglomérat", two companies which maintain a security order.

This is also the case in  Remember Me , where the Memorize company shattered the very notion of privacy by marketing the memories of citizens. This trade obviously benefits the better-off, who can resell the pleasant moments experienced in their past. The poorest, those who have nothing to sell, become junkies addicted to the memories of others, which disfigures and dehumanizes them. We can see in this last example a rather chilling parallel with the time spent by many users on Instagram or Snapchat. Because what do we do on these networks, if not nourish ourselves with moments of the life of individuals who, in return, do not nourish ourselves with our own?

The fantasy: individual resistance 

 The three games offer players to join movements engaged in resistance against these totalitarian systems: “DedSec” in  Watch Dogs 2 , the “Runners” in  Mirror's Edge Catalyst , or even the “Errorists” in  Remember Me . So many self-managed collectives that lead punch actions against the urban regimes in place, to loosen the grip of the latter on individual freedoms, or even proceed to their total destruction.

In  Mirror's Edge Catalyst , resistance is translated, rather caricaturedly, in the appearance of the characters: the obedient citizens of Glass City are presented as a homogeneous and obedient mass, dressed in the same gray uniform. Individuals aware of the state drift stand out from this mass by their eccentric clothes and revolutionary rhetoric, a more than obvious reference to punk and hippie cultures.

Nothing very surprising here: the figure of the lone hero at war against a tyrannical regime is a great classic of fiction. Looking at these justice-loving resistance fighters, one can't help but think of the anti-heroes embodied in the Grand Theft Auto franchise  . "Liberty City" and "Vice City", the two cities staged in this game, may well be very close to very real metropolises (Miami and Los Angeles, not to mention them), they are nonetheless dystopian. : concentrates of the worst of what the urban has to offer, cities where a criminal career finally appears to be the only way or almost to survive.

The city as a maquis

Like judokas using the strength of their opponents, our heroes turn the omnipotence of the urban machinery they fight to their advantage. In  Watch Dogs 2 , Marcus is a hacker. Slaved by an algorithm, it exploits its flaws. In  Mirror's Edge , Faith escapes the police by practicing parkour. She takes advantage of the street furniture that stands before her and turns it into an obstacle for her pursuers.

This ability to escape the paths imposed on them by the ctOS network or by the city's architecture is saving. In the background, these stories encourage the individual to find alternatives to what the city offers. By clearing a parallel path, we escape oppression a little. Marcus can override the traffic lights to dodge a chase, or use surveillance cameras to infiltrate areas they were supposed to be monitoring. Faith uses the grid or the ditch which should have limited her movements to hinder those of her opponents.

They are indeed methods of urban guerrilla warfare , used this time not against an invader but against the very power that designed the city. Like a sort of deaf riot, the devastating effects of which we can imagine if it took place in a very real context.

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