The Endless Light and Hunger of Cities in Games
A study on urban spaces in our virtual worlds.
Header illustration by Erica Lahaie.
The class war has quietened. The evil council has been overthrown. And the hungriest girl in the world has finally had her fill. What a perfect time for a huge, living metropolis to burst onto the scene, intent on murdering everyone you know.
This is what happens about halfway through Gravity Rush 2. The "Lost City" of Neu Hiraelon shows up uninvited just when things were looking up. It's a gigantic enemy with a body made entirely of city material: skyscrapers, office blocks, restaurants, residential edifices. But it's not enough. It must consume the floating city islands of Jirga Para Lhao for it must grow, grow, grow!
Absurd? Yes, but Gravity Rush 2's metropolitan abomination isn't without merit. You could say it's the final form of our current urban nightmare. Consider this: The city has always been a creature. It grows ceaselessly at the edges, hardening turf into concrete industries, forever feeding its enormous polluted body. Given time, spikes of steel and glass push upwards from its back as if the raised hackles of an animal under threat. The city hisses and spits.
Charles Dickens knew this. His description of Coketown in Hard Times mentions "interminable serpents of smoke" rising from the chimneyscape. To him, the British cities of the Industrial Revolution were a smoggy nest of narrow back alleys, where noisy factories and cramped terraced housing joined to form as singular gruesome locales. Yet he was writing from a time when the term "megacity" was hardly known. He didn't even make it to the 20th century, which started out with 10 percent of humanity living in cities, and ended up at 47 percent.
In 2006, the United Nations announced that, for the first time in recorded history, urban populations would outnumber rural dwellers. We are increasingly an urban species. Latest estimates predict that 75 percent of the global population will live in cities by 2050. There are already programs in place to deal with the future strains on infrastructure this will bring. Viewed from above, Earth must look like it's infected by an unstoppable asphalt bacteria, its individual spores slowly merging with one another.
As cities have swelled in size, covering more territory, attracting populations into the many millions, we've had to invent new terms to describe them. "Megalopolis" arrived in the early 20th century. It was coined to refer to the fusion of towns and cities into a singular, gigantic urban sprawl, such as the Boston-Washington Corridor where, as of 2010, 17 percent of the US population was stuffed into less than two percent of the nation's land. We're at the point now that the next big concept is a city without boundaries. We're faced with the prospect of "the endless city," as the 2007 book of the same name deems it.
The scope of this concept isn't confined to the urban form, acknowledging that cities are poised for unlimited growth, and may eventually merge across the globe. It's more urgent than that: the "endless city "calls for an awareness of the problems of cities becoming so big that they are ungovernable. We need to learn how to deal with resource supply, overpopulation, disease, ethnic conflict, and many more rising issues. "More often that not, traditional models of urban growth and theories of city form fail to explain the dynamics now evident in both the networked global city, which thrives as a new economic centrality in the world system, and in the megacity, which faces severe pressures generated by its own relentless growth," write Ricky Burdett and Philipp Rode in The Endless City.
Experts, researchers, and academics have begun to discover the problems of humanity's "Urban Age" and how to deal with them, but it's the start of a long road. In the meantime, the concept has spread beyond these small groups and entered populist channels: see the impossible maze cities dreamt up in the movie Inception, the curving and folding urban canvases of Aydın Büyüktaş, and the proposed London skyscraper called "Endless City" due to its propensity for unlimited verticality—a city you'd never have to leave.
Sci-fi media has, of course, been orbiting the idea of the endless city for decades. In 1927, Fritz Lang and his team constructed the enduring image of an inescapable system of factories and metal traffic in Metropolis. But it was graphic novels that proved the idea especially fertile, as artists and writers reacted to the 20th century's onset of nuclear technologies and the growing urban menace.
The incredible, bustling verticality of the city in the 1975 comic The Long Tomorrow served as the blueprint for the cyberpunk metropolis (inspiring the "look" of the cities in Neuromancer and Blade Runner). It brought sci-fi crashing back down to Earth after the '50s and '60s pristine dreams of space travel, and infected the creative waters for years with its post-industrial dystopia, where mega-corporations and androids corrupted humanity.
A couple years after, the post-apocalyptic conurbation that is Mega-City One in 2000AD's Judge Dredd stories was drawn up. It imagined what the Boston-Washington Corridor may look like in 2099: densely populated, infested with crime, and unsustainable at every level. These fictional sprawls and the many others they inspired not only imagine the impressive form that such a huge unnatural dwelling would take, but also broach the important issues that come with it, especially the rich-poor divide, pollution, and overcrowding. They're warnings meant to prepare us for our grimmest future.
Now, as the hungry metropolis of Gravity Rush 2 indicates, the time has come for the "endless city" to really take hold in videogames. Sure, SimCity has worked its urban layouts towards infinity since 1989, but map sizes were always limited. Kudos can also be given to the Final Fantasy series for its depiction of Midgar, which stands as the series' enormous urban icon for crony capitalism, the decline of environmental health, and displaced peoples. But out of these older games, the enclosed city of Sigil in Planescape Torment is probably the closest to the realization of an endless city. Its torus (or donut) shape means you could theoretically walk around inside it forever and never find a border. Sigil is also known as the "City of Doors" as it allows passage to different dimensions, adding to its sense of endlessness.
But these are all flat images of the city. Pre-rendered backgrounds may provide competent illusions but are easily dismantled—you cannot step into them. In recent years, the limitations of technology that prevented the generation of proper endless cities in games have keeled. This is proven directly by the "Endless City" mod made for Minecraft in 2013, and the more impressive "Endless City Demo" that NVIDIA released prior to that in 2011, which is said to "generate an unending city in almost unlimited detail." These technological achievements have proven fertile, as a number of videogames have recently set out to do what couldn't be done before: letting us directly interact and experiment with the different imagined systems and geographies of our urban future.
Le Chant du Cygne, a French game studio, is in the process of making a simulated realization of a cylindrical world called Havre. The team took the idea of an inhabited cylindrical world from Arthur C. Clarke's book Rendezvous with Rama, but also considered other shapes, including the torus world of Planescape Torment, with the intent of answering "what would gravity or the magnetic field be like in such conditions."
To pull off the feat of having a cylindrical world that is coherent and that can be interacted with, the studio has had to question every aspect of reality, as its shape is the opposite of what we're used to. "When inside the cylinder it is possible to see everything that it contains. Nothing is hidden. A sphere, on the contrary, hides pretty much everything," says game designer Simon Chauvin. The endlessness of Havre's world is found in its city being pitched on the inside of the cylinder which, as Chauvin notes, "challenges basic notions of orientation and circadian rhythm."
The project has caused the studio to engage with a high-end reimagining of the laws of nature. First they had to question how physics and architecture work in a cylindrical world, starting with how specific phenomenon like sunlight, gravity, weather, and atmosphere were experienced. "Gravity pushes things towards the inner surfaces. The shapes of things tend to be thinner at the top and larger at the base," Chauvin tells me. "Going straight means, in fact, going along a curved line. And depending on your position in the cylinder an object can appear completely different." As every part of this curved city is visible from any other, a roof is also observed simultaneously as a floor, buildings can appear to be upside down or lying horizontally.
With the basic science down, Le Chant du Cygne let this guide how the inhabitants of this cylindrical world think, what mythologies they come up with, how they socialize, and so on. But, for now, this is still a work in progress, and these aspects are being kept under wraps. "Without revealing too much of the game too early, we can say that Havre's world is in fact a haven ( havre is the French word for haven) and was designed for humans," Chauvin says. "Accordingly, every aspect of the human identity is recognizable in the way the world is built. It is unclear at the moment whether it will be possible to distinguish further details of the human identity."
Chicago-based artist William Chyr isn't entertaining the tough social questions that an endless world inspires. His upcoming first-person puzzle game Manifold Garden moves into more abstract realms, which Chyr recognizes might be "about extrapolating the urbanization process itself." Chyr mentions that the floating structures in Manifold Garden have been inspired by the dense living spaces of present-day Hong Kong and Tokyo, and to an extent, continues the design logic of these cities. "In real life, the skyscrapers do end at some point, but in the game, they continue on forever," Chyr says.
The game's sense of being lost amid the urban fabric is taken further by how you interact with Manifold Garden's world. You're able to switch gravity at will, so that floors become walls, and vice versa—an idea inspired by the M.C. Escher drawing "Relativity." This mechanic means that there's no true or "objective" up and down in the game, as none of the gravities are favored. Once you step outside of an enclosed interior space, you are faced with the game's recursive universe, where the same architectural instances are repeated to infinity in every direction. What this means in practice is that when you fall off one of Manifold Garden's structures you end up above it. "Directional words cease to have the same meaning that we are used to," Chyr says. "You are simultaneously above and below yourself at all times."
As complex an idea as being above and below yourself might be, it's not unfamiliar to us. Satellites and digital mapping have granted many of us access to a new perspective of the city. Simply open Google Maps on your phone and you can experience the peculiar sensation of looking down upon yourself.
While great for navigation, this experience of a place is detached and makes each location conform to the same visual identity through its interface—as Edwin Heathcote puts it, it is "inevitably lacking in the texture of the actual place." It's one of the factors that contributes to our shared experience of cities as endless backgrounds, as opposed to unique living spaces full of individual people and stories.
Globalization helps this along as it means we can travel easily between cities across the world, blending one into another on our urban safaris. What adds exponentially to this experience is that many cities are actually becoming homogenous on the physical level, morphing into each other as "world cities" and "global city regions," all sharing the same architectural template due to the demands of rapid growth. It's why Hollywood can get away with passing off places like Vancouver as other big cities.
In fact, Hollywood's recent surge of interest in superhero films is a significant component in this shared phenomenon. These are films that shoot the city from above, that move rapidly from one to the next as the superhero rushes to save victims and quell villains around the world. The city is merely the superhero's stage, an endless backdrop for them to perform their mighty feats, buildings and roads spinning behind them without any identifiable features.
It's why the waypoint marker is so crucial to games like Batman: Arkham City, Infamous, Gravity Rush, and The Amazing Spider-Man, which emulate the superhero's experience of the city, knowing that you couldn't possibly navigate those indistinguishable rooftops by yourself. The prevailing notion is that cities are anything but human habitats. They are organisms or backdrops, or as the rise of parkour would have us think, they are also playgrounds and racetracks: the valleys between buildings to be sped through, the rooftops as platforms to be hopped across. Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that even Mario is getting in on it this year.
While these aerial views of the city alienate the citizens below, it does not erase them. Not every conception of the endless city is able to neglect the population so easily. Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is wholly concerned with the effects of the endless city on its denizens, specifically the marginalized working class. It simulates the daily struggle of a street cleaner at an alien spaceport that loops around on itself. It has a disorienting effect as you first walk through the colorful maze of bazaars, trying to discover its borders, to eventually return to your starting point without having made a single turn.
Through this cyclical topography, the game reinforces what it simulates: the undying dream of the street cleaner to escape the city, and their inability to do so. You're strung along by the secrets of the sewer dungeons to believe that Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor has an underlying RPG format, a larger world to explore, with weapons and armor even being sold in shops. But these items of adventure are always too expensive to buy, and with the street cleaner's pitiful income, made by collecting and selling trash, you have to focus on acquiring the basics to survive.
After several hours of play it may come to pass that you have forgotten about the sewer dungeons altogether. As is advertised, this is an "anti-adventure" about being trapped in a system that doesn't serve you. It teaches us that the hope of the urbanized poor is soon dashed by the cruelty of the endless city.
The experience of Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor has some parallels to the 2009 sci-fi film District 9. In it, a desperate alien species descends on Johannesburg to find refuge from their dying planet. The humans welcome them at first, but soon learn to despise them, separating them into a large, filthy slum zone—an obvious allusion to South Africa's history of apartheid.
A similar stratification is applied to the three-tier city of Gravity Rush 2, where the poorest citizens are ostracized at the very bottom of the skyspace, living in a shanty town amid the smoggiest air. In all these examples, we see the welfare of the poorest citizens neglected, they either collect trash or live among it, while the rich and powerful benefit from their labor. The similarities aren't coincidental: the creators of each game were inspired by the destitute slums and suburbs in today's world. As in District 9, when the protagonist's body transforms into the reviled alien tissue, we are learning that the shunned peoples aren't a foreign entity at all, but one that is increasingly the world's majority population—they are what we are becoming.
It's predicted that by 2020 there will be around 1.4 billion people living in slums. Millions of people in the past 30 years have had to migrate from rural areas for better access to jobs, healthcare, and education. In some cases, people have seen their homes simply absorbed into the impoverished suburbs of cities like Mumbai, Shanghai, San Francisco, and Lagos. These hypercities are underdeveloped and overcrowded, contributing to what Mike Davis termed a "planet of slums" in his 2006 book of the same name.
These cities crawl out from their center as if spreading like an infection, bringing more homes and people into their urban decay; poverty isn't solved by the city, it simply becomes urbanized. The problem is that the urban booms caused by technocapitalism and the growing service sectors of the world cannot be managed or controlled, especially in developing countries, whose economically strained cities are the main contributor to increasing global urbanization these days.
The population of these city slums are unknown; in Dharavi, one of the biggest, it's estimated that about a million people live there, which is between 275,000 and 300,000 people per km2 (for comparison, one of the most populated areas in the US is Guttenburg, NJ—part of the New York City metro area—at around 22,000 per km2). City planning can't possibly keep up with such rapid population increase and so living conditions go largely unchecked. What arises are mongrel cities that keep on growing and where "living on the edge" becomes an unfortunate slogan.
There are other, less alarming social concerns that the endless city evokes. When so many people are crammed into a space then issues of identity naturally occur. How do you distinguish yourself as an individual? This is implicitly the matter at the heart of Hidden Folks which, much like the Where's Waldo? drawings, asks the player to pick out certain characters and objects among its overcrowded canvases.
It's played in a lighthearted manner but there's no mistake that this is a game about the struggle to stand out in an increasingly populated world. Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor hits a similar note with its gender-switching requirements. Every couple of days the street cleaner must pay a machine to change their gender lest they suffer an increased sense of disorientation while wandering the city. It's a reflection of how city life blurs not only gender but also race, sexuality, and language: all is fluid and interchangeable in these multicultural hives. The two architecture students making the upcoming platform-adventure game HomeMake are taking this line of thought further. Its story revolves around the struggle to find the self while living in an ever-changing cityscape mapped onto the inside of a sphere.
For Cory Seeger and Matthew Conway, the endless urban planetoid of HomeMake is an expression of desire. They grew up in "homogenous and confined" suburbs and found games like Pokémon and The Legend of Zelda granted them the freedom to explore environments in a way their physical ones didn't allow. But these games always had barriers; HomeMake doesn't. Speaking on the methods of procedural generation, the pair say: "Hardware makes it easy to repeat and propagate code infinitely, but what is the point beyond the desire for an infinite playground if the method of repetition is visible and understood? A city can be generated infinitely on a square grid with towers propagated according to pre-defined parameters, but we view this as a faux endlessness."
For HomeMake, then, Seeger and Conway are interested in generating an endlessness "that is always evolving as players react to it." The finite space of the inverted sphere encourages this as buildings must shift and streets must morph in real-time so that they don't repeat upon being revisited. Seeger and Conway are taking this temporal experience of urban space further, too, as they hope to update the game over many years, using it as a platform to explore different urban ideas as they develop as architects and game makers.
Their current ideas are based on their own experience of polycentric cities, specifically Tokyo and Los Angeles, which lack a central urban hub and instead have a "continuous sprawl that creates a nebulous of centers, all more or less equal in importance but uniquely distinct from one another." What they find is that polycentricity allows for people to have unique experiences in the same urban context. "We wanted to bring this quality into HomeMake through the player's ability to swap into different controllable characters, each of which view, navigate and understand the city in different ways," says Seeger and Conway.
The example the pair gave early in development is being able to switch between a humanoid robot and a fox. "This way, as new characters are introduced, the city gains another layer of complexity that was previously unnoticed," says Conway and Seeger. "In this sense, the city is always being rediscovered as the game progresses." The interchangeable identities and urban forms stack up to contribute the endlessness embodied by HomeMake's inverted planet, allowing for the exploration of architectural and urban ambitions outside the constraints of economics and construction.
All of these games ask questions about the "endless city," and offer a space to explore them in, but don't yet have answers. But in reality we are further ahead, with some proposed answers to solve the architectural challenges and human costs of the urbanite future collated around the term "smart cities." What exactly this means varies from person to person, but the general concept is that, as the city becomes unmanageable by human hands alone, we're to make use of technology to give the city a life of its own.
In short, the city will soon become fully autonomous. According to an IBM report, quoted in the essay "The 'actually existing smart city'", the smart city will be able to "monitor, measure and manage" urban life by "leveraging information to make better decisions … anticipating and resolving problems proactively… [and] coordinating resources to operate more efficiently."
The Watch_Dog games, and practically the entirety of cyberpunk, like to picture humans making use of such a city to fight against authority figures. With electronic devices, the underground movements hack into the core of the city and turn the very systems used to pin them down against their oppressors. But there's another vision of this future that is far less generous to humankind. After all, the "smart city" is just another way of phrasing "living city," which has connotations of the city as its own beast.
This is very much the case with the post-human megastructure depicted in Tsutomu Nihei's manga Blame!. It's an indestructible city built by machines—a megapolis that isn't built for humans, as we suppose our smart cities would be, and with a layout that is entirely incoherent to us. It's also immense in size, stretching out in every direction, said to even incorporate the moon into its structure, all of it tangled up in exposed pipes and wirework.
Of the few videogames inspired by the architecture of Blame!, it is NaissanceE that currently sits on the throne as the most impressive translation. The creator, who goes by the name Limasse Five, uses their own version of Blame!'s imposing subspaces to create the sense of being "a small fragile thing not able to understand the world around you." It is, crucially, a world seemingly constructed by and inhabited by machines—some scuttle away in fear, bigger ones crawl slug-like down walls or give chase in climactic moments.
These machined spaces are cyclopean, seeming to stretch on forever, multiplying in complexity and, most importantly, appear to be alive. Again, there aren't answers to our future issues here, but the game can be seen as an omen. There are times when the environment seems to be playing tricks on you, sending you "down the rabbit hole" (as one chapter is called) through heady repetition; looping staircases, corridors, and ventspaces. All of this broadcasts the idea that the cityspaces have an intelligence that goes beyond our human understanding of architecture. It's a vision of a city not built by or for us, but one that is at odds with our presence; a new and frightening urban species.
Ricky Burdett and Philipp Rode wrote in The Endless City that to tackle the incoming mega-city crises we require proper intellectual inquiry through analysis, experience, and debate.
"The future well being of our cities lies in a more profound understanding of the links between the built environment … and the social, economic and political processes that give rise to them," they wrote. Videogames, and the endless urban worlds they generate and let us interact with, help towards that rhetoric, using the medium's popularity to reach thousands if not millions. Their power is, as Burdett and Rode put it, in "translating a conventionally constrained two-dimensional discourse into a three-dimensional dialogue."
While everything about NaissanceE suggests an awareness of "smart cities" and the urban wilderness they're driving us towards, Limasse Five doesn't see it that way. For them, introducing an endlessness to the game simply allowed for the exploration of "interesting space and visual designs." But they don't mean to close the game to interpretation, and did in fact make a concession: "You could interpret it as a metaphor to show that, even without humans, the world, the machines and entities there still continue to live," they say. "It's a living thing curious about you."
And so we return to the image of the city as a hungry beast, gobbling every space and population it can for its own expansion
It's also clear when speaking to Limasse Five that they have ideas on big cities and urbanization that have informed the underlying themes of NaissanceE. "I think the savage urbanization is first of all a choice and not an ineluctable consequence of human expansion," Limasse Five says. "Our society is a blind hungered creature eating everything it can, even itself. We take everything we can and we don't care about the consequences. Our cities are reflecting this behavior, expanding endlessly and devouring nature."
And so we return to the image of the city as a hungry beast, gobbling every space and population it can for its own expansion. Yes, it is a monstrous fantasy, a metaphor blown out of proportion, but it's also the appropriate harbinger for the urban age we have willingly entered.