The Doubled Meanings of Gaming's Great Towers

The menace and aspiration that a lifelong flatlander sees on gaming's far horizons.

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Apr 29 2017, 3:00pm

Above: Breath of the Wild screenshot courtesy Nintendo

Video games let us inhabit impossible places. Cities can float above the clouds or resist the impossible pressure of hundreds of billions of gallons of seawater, inhabited by creatures spun out of imagination and narrative convenience. What's the traffic like on the moon in 2205? We can see at least some people's vision of that, too.

But it's different when I see my own small-town upbringing reflected by Persona 4's Inaba or hear my high school years' heavy metal soundtrack played in the background of Brutal Legend. I can read these multidimensional pictograms and understand the guitar solo languages. I don't just feel the messages. I comprehend their content.

So you wouldn't think skyscrapers would hold so much meaning for me, invoking lofty, aspirational thoughts about strength and sovereignty. "Towers" aren't something I see much of in Fargo, North Dakota. That's where I grew up and live to this day. It's a city populated enough to justify a good-sized number of schools, malls, bars, homes, and businesses in a state wide and empty enough to justify building outwards instead of upwards

Any building over three stories tall is usually alien to me. And like anything that's alien, that makes them especially alluring. What does it feel like to work and live so high up every day? Is it exciting? Is it unsettling? Is it a mix of the two, like flying? Do the occupants ever get over that urge to jump out of windows that I feel every time I go to my local hospital? What kind of people or businesses need all that space?

The questions go unanswered in real life, but games have a lot to tell me about the weight and meaning of this particular piece of architecture. Games like Persona 5, for instance, which turns my curiosity into mechanical convenience with its twisted, semi-randomized dungeon: Mementos.
Despite all its diffuse activities, like hanging out with virtual friends and deciding when and where to grind through the game's turn-based combat, Persona 5 gives me a definite goal, both fictionally and mechanically. Its plot about corrupt, powerful people needing to be taken down spurs me towards the final boss just like my own ability to carve more easily through enemies over time tugs me forward with the gratifying sense of building power.

Persona 5 screenshot courtesy Atlus

Mementos boils that sensation down even further. The linear, multi-layered structure is a "dungeon" in the style of games like Diablo and World of Warcraft. Separated from the rest of Persona's contemporary setting, Mementos is a surreal vault full of enemies to beat, minor quests, to conclude, and, with its final floor, mysteries to solve. It encapsulates more than just Persona 5's linear structure. It epitomizes the ways most games work to make us feel powerful, curious, or doggedly determined—all in the guise of skipping through the numbered floors of a tower.

Convenience makes towers uniquely fit for video games in general, then—not just for some townie like me who's overawed by scale. And not just in Persona 5, but with Persona 3's similar but much larger Tartarus, the disorienting and imposing Memoria from Final Fantasy IX, last year's free-to-play Dark Souls-like, Let it Die, and World of Warcraft's fan favorite dungeon, Karazhan.

But even as the tower's structure gives it an inherent appeal—both visual and metaphorical—it's also a threat.

You probably know that having the high ground has been a tactical advantage for millennia. Dropping a rock on an enemy's head from above will literally have more impact than someone trying to throw one back up at the tower. Meanwhile, elevation puts us above whatever might obstruct our view of incoming enemies in the first place. Without a single moving part, towers turn fundamental forces like light and gravity themselves to human advantage.

Which is probably why these erections work just as well against us. Demon's Souls Tower of Latria level, for instance, took that simple, malleable might and forced me to struggle against it in 2009. In order to purge Latria's imposing master I had to give myself over to facing whatever squid-faced men, man-faced insects, and precarious cliffs its interlocking minarets threw in my path. The draw of exploring and "clearing" levels of the tower was devilishly twisted into a trap—one meant to draw me to my repeated doom again, and again, and again in typical Souls-like fashion. 

It's hard not to think of shadowy men and women (mostly men) coldly making decisions about my life and the lives of my friends...

Until, finally, Latria put me face-to-face with the most powerful antagonist in almost any game: another human player, one just as tempered by practice and defeat up to that point as I was. Even now, eight years and four pseudo-sequels later, it's hard to think of a more appropriate, daunting nexus for all the hardship preceding that final "boss." 

In that way, Latria isn't much different from Mementos or Tartarus. Its dangers are more immediately unpleasant but there's still the steady march of progress to feed on. Even turned inside out and against me, Latria still facilitates the power fantasy of, eventually, overcoming adversity. Even that's not always safe, however.

Way back in 2001 Nintendo completely inverted the symbol of players' power and persistence in the oft-overlooked The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages. That game's central villain, a sorceress named Veran, is shown periodically building up her imposing Black Tower between major plot beats. The game informed me that the tower's completion would also complete her evil scheme (something about turning people to stone, I think).

Demon's Souls screenshot courtesy Atlus

An 11-year-old me was terrified of that implied time limit. As I progressed towards victory by acquiring new items and powers, Veran's growing Black Tower showed she was doing the same. The villain wasn't just sitting idle, waiting for me to win, as games had always taught me was the case. 

More than that, after some skullduggery and magical possession, Veran winds up ruling the kingdom where the game takes place. Her clearly menacing construction is the result of forced labor. Her control over time (hence "Oracle of Ages") lets her create a permanent day, so work on the structure never has to cease. Her mystical and political abilities let Veran not only send monsters and marauders into my path, but the very infrastructure of the world itself. At the center of it all is the Black Tower, mimicking similar symbolism of power in real-world—from both the past and present.

In her narrative history A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman describes a similarly grandiose, yet very real fortress that once loomed over 14th century northern France. Half as wide as it was tall (90 and 180 feet, respectively) the hollow monolith was designed to be almost comically overlarge on the inside: "as if for use by a race of titans." Which was all the better to carry its commanding noble's shouted military commands from floor to floor without requiring couriers. It was a multipurpose tool to enhance two kinds of power nobility demanded at the time: martial and rhetorical. 

Tuchman further describes the castle's middle tower, or donjon, as "an emblem of medieval life as dominating as the cross." Which says a lot, since she also states that, to Europeans at the time, Christianity was so much more important than earthly life as to be completely unrelatable to anyone alive today.

That overbearing presence was likely comforting to some. For others, it was a very corporeal monument to the class divide that literally dominated Europe at the time. Tuchman adds that the noble and military caste sortied from many such towers to murder each others' peasants in games of revenge. Like most terrible villains from fiction, they didn't think much about human life. The difference being that they were real. Which may be exactly why the two imposing images—dreaded citadels from both games and history—now bleed together in my mind. 

Perhaps it's cynical but it's that sense of foreboding that comes to mind in the real world and colored what I associate with the sight of actual skyscrapers today. It's hard not to think of shadowy men and women (mostly men) coldly making decisions about my life and the lives of my friends: what my healthcare will look like, who I'm allowed to marry, or if I'll even have a reasonably healthy planet to live on for the next 11 years.

Veran's evil construction and the spiking nightmare of Latria jumble together in my head now, together with scenes from movies like Wall Street and Margin Call—where high-rises are home to more contemporary villains. Games contextualize for me firsthand what history taught me intellectually: that towers are simple, powerful tools to leverage against people literally and figuratively below you. What happens inside of them is inherently out of sight and reach. Age, experience, and simulated practice through games have taught me that can be unsettling as well as beguiling. 

Video games aren't limited in where they can take us—even when those places look pretty familiar. I can still appreciate and feel rewarded for taking in the breathtaking sight of a bird's eye view of Hyrule. I can sate my mind's hunger for exploration and my brain's hunger for neatly organized progress. I can also feel dread, unsteadiness, and vulnerability at the same imposing objects on the skyline. With so many potential meanings borne out of such a simple silhouette, it's no wonder games lean so heavily on the primal power of towers. After a lifetime in the flatlands, though, I hear a lot more than developers likely intend to say.