Tuesday, September 27, 2016

'London and the History of Videogames' at the Museum of London, 26th September 2016

Encountering London in videogames is often winceworthy. Whether it by design or technological limitations, games often present a tourist's guide to London - taking in the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and Piccadilly Circus with a couple of badly voice-acted cockneys thrown in for good measure.

It's rare that a game manages to capture even a smidge of London reality; glass and aluminium dominating imperial Portland stone and the vestiges of medieval buildings; that distinctively London psychic mood of short-term impatience and long-term tolerance; the class, religious and racial divisions that carve up the neighhourhoods and the simple Darwinian scrabble for shelter, food and money that fuels the human engine of the city.

At last night's lecture, panelists Jack Gosling, Jordan Erica Webber and Tristan Donovan attempted to pin down what makes London tick in videogames, giving us a guided tour through the city's appearances in the medium, from the bedroom coders of the 80s to modern triple A blockbusters.

Promising beginnings.
Tristan Donovan kicks things off by dragging us back into gaming's primordial ooze with the 1978 text adventure Pirate Island. Our capital's first appearance in the digital medium is the inauspicious introductory sentence "I am in a flat in London". It goes on to explain that you can see a bottle of rum, some trainers and a sack of crackers (now that's a scene I can relate to). Similar text adventures followed, most notably social satire Hampstead, which skewered Thatcherism and set the stage for a continuing theme of gamified London-set class struggles.

Lara explores Aldwych Tube Station
Text gave way to single colour sprites, which gave way to 16-bit colours and parallax scrolling, which eventually ceded to texture mapped polygons. It's here designers and developer first had the irresistible urge to translate some glimmer of London reality into games. An interesting entry is Core Design's 1998 Tomb Raider III, in which the impeccably British adventurer returns home to explore blocky renderings of the British Museum, the (then relatively recently) abandoned Aldwych tube station and the rooftops around St Paul's Cathedral.

This lit the touchpaper for the still-ongoing trend to create realistic virtual Londons to fight, race and generally cause havoc in. A notable entry was Team Soho's 2002 release The Getaway, which is essentially Grand Theft Auto by way of Guy Ritchie. The game itself is a bit of a dog, but it's at least impressive for trying to accurately model central London from Hyde Park all the way up to Shoreditch High Street. Problem is, the PS2 couldn't render the hustle and bustle of the city, leaving the streets sterile and bereft of life - falling into a kind of urban uncanny valley.

I preferred Nanda Parbat.
Most modern games, outlined by Jack Gosling, opt to present a tightly choreographed smaller areas, sidelining scope in favour of attention to detail. A prime example is Naughty Dog's 2011 Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, in which Nathan Drake begins his adventure fighting skinheads in an East London boozer, before descending into an abandoned tube station/secret occult library. Though the game gives us a 'wow moment' with its neon vision of the City of London's skyline, Jordan Erica Webber explains just how much work into virtually recreating the stained urinals of some crappy pub. Though the player will probably be more occupied with the tracksuited thug punching them in the face, the level is crammed with location appropriate graffiti, grotty props and general dank. You can practically smell the stale piss..

Other London set games exploit its history. Countless Sherlock Holmes games have conjured up foggy gas-lit Victorian streets, and other titles offer a smattering of alternative Londons invaded by Nazis, aliens or sometimes alien Nazis. Most prominent is Ubisoft's 2015 globe and time-trotting Assassin's Creed series winding up in Victorian London. The game map encompasses vast swathes of the city, giving people a peek at London past. On top of that, we're allowed to frolic with luminaries like Dickens, Darwin and Queen Victoria - even undertaking missions alongside Karl Marx as a kind of ragged trousered exsanguinist.

It's weird to look at real-life buildings and think "I stabbed someone on top of that thing".
In a perverse twist, a believable virtual historical London is more achievable than contemporary virtual London. For one, we're all tourists in the past, the haze of time neatly sidestepping nitpickers whose immersion might be shattered by a phone box being on the wrong corner. For another, perhaps it is simply impossible to render a believable London in a videogame - and even if you could would the tangled street layout, crammed pavements and neverending traffic even make for a fun gaming space?

For my part, I find encountering London in games fascinating. It's one of the few ways you can explore the city through other people's eyes: finding myself curious as to what neighbourhoods they choose to render, what architecture caught their attention, what litters the streets or simply what dreams London sparks inside them. The duller ones manacle you to the top of a tour bus, but the best come within a whisker of capturing what it feels like to walk these grey streets. And who knows what the future may hold.

An excellent talk and a great introduction to what looks like a fascinating programme.

London and the History of Videogames is part of CITY | SPACE | VIDEOGAMES. More information here.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

0 Responses to “'London and the History of Videogames' at the Museum of London, 26th September 2016”

Post a Comment

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights