Oct 6, 2016

Game Cities: Five Equally Essential Books

Feeling that five books can never be enough --let alone cover the bare essentials of applied imaginary urbanism-- here is a list of another five books that will hopefully help you further understand cities, and design or tweak the ones about to appear in your game. It is, mind you, a proven list of books that has already assisted me in tackling the game worlds of a variety of projects. So...

Let's start with a classic; none other than Italo Calvino's literary masterpiece Invisible Cities. Though far from a technical handbook, this rather famous work is the darling of each and every urbanist, planner, and/or city geographer I have ever met. It follows Marco Polo as he explores dozens of fantastical, whimsical, and wildly imaginative cities, and describes them to the ageing Kublai Khan. Each city is fundamentally different to the other ones, and over the two or so pages that are dedicated to it, explores a different idea. One city might look like a ship from the desert and a camel from the sea, whereas another one might be hanging over the abyss, or be sitting atop a huge necropolis mirroring it and encompassing its past. Each of said cities could obviously help inspire an entire game world by itself, or even allow us glimpses at the reality of the human condition or, at the very least, its built expressions.  

A Burglar's Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh wasn't what I expected it to be, and though it really does help with providing a vastly different approach to viewing the urban environment --as a burglar and thus as someone not constrained by doors and the accepted use of urban space-- it isn't as thorough and methodical in its approach as I would have liked it to be. Still, the Burglar's Guide is a fine source of inspiration, and, unexpectedly, a very handy tool when it comes to actually approaching level design on the city level. The fact that it made me think of other alternate approaches to the use of urban space --say by a beggar, a dissident, or a prostitute, to name a few-- can only be considered a good thing. 

If you are working on a dystopic setting though, what you simply need to read is Evil Paradises (edited by Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk). It is a provocative, varied, and thought-provoking collection of texts, focusing on the horrible utopias pure capitalism has created for itself in cities, deserts, and even the oceans. A multi-faceted examination of how the (impressively innovative) utopia of the rich is bound to become the dystopia of the poor, the book covers places from Dubai and Orange County, to Kabul and Beijing. It features the words of urbanists, geographers, architects, planners, historians, and even China Miéville.

The Spotter's Guide To Urban Engineering was suggested to me by former PC Gamer US editor Logan Decker, and, despite trusting the man's taste and knowledge, I frankly didn't quite know what to expect. Happily, I ran into an excellent book covering everything regarding the foundations of the modern city. Everything I was taught when studying to become an engineer has been condensed, illustrated, and brilliantly presented in a way that will make sense to all sorts of creative and not-so-creative people. Infrastructure, materials, technology, roads, nuclear plants, communication networks, sewage systems, and all sorts of other mostly ignored crucial bits of the urban tissue get presented in a useful, and, most importantly, implementable way. 

Cities of the World - A History In Maps by Peter Whitehead does exactly what it says on the cover. It crams centuries of global urban history into its couple hundred lush 9"x12.2" pages, and shows it off with short texts and some wonderful cartography. Major cities across all continents are showcased, and unique insights into their history as well as the whole of the history of cities are provided. As for the 16th century map of Venice by Ignazio Danti you'll find in this book, well, it's a masterpiece. 

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Aug 31, 2016

(Bits) Of Ancient Cities and The Dreaded Nékromegà

So. Here's what I've been working on both lately and mainly in case anyone was wondering and for everyone who doesn't really care for introductions: Nékromegà, Moribund, and an interactive, stylized version of ancient Athens for Culturplay. Now, as these things are taking up tons of time --all of the time actually- I will not be elaborating on any of them just now, but I will be fervently hoping that you try and check them out. Also, do please keep in mind that one of the lot will be a truly ambitious freeware thing and sport three (whole and wholly) imaginary cities.

Jul 5, 2016

Eye^Game^Candy: Wonderland

Being one of the most ambitious text adventures ever created, and making a brave attempt at thoroughly modernizing interactive fiction interfaces, Wonderland by Magnetic Scrolls is one of those few games that should be considered important. It also happens to be one I really do love. Somewhere between the fact that I never managed to finish it, the childhood memories of opening its big box with all those 5.25" floppies, the amazing little visual vignettes, and those incredibly appropriate and very whimsical puzzles I absolutely struggled with, I may have created a mental image of Wonderland that might just be too good to be true. I know. And even though I don't want to spoil the memories, I know I'll eventually have to revisit it.

You can play the game online here (albeit not in its full glory; you'll be needing DOSBox for that), and find out more about it on Mobygames and the Magnetic Scrolls Memorial

Jun 23, 2016

Game Cities: Implying Size and Complexity

Let's imagine for a moment that you have created a unique, believable, sprawling, and impressively detailed metropolis. You have it mapped out, thoroughly described, and have its architectural styles all sorted out. It's a unique, beautiful, and complex place, and you are rightfully proud of it. Only problem is that realizing all of it on screen would probably cost you a few million dollars/euros/pounds/what-have-yous.

Assuming you are neither Blizzard nor Rockstar, you'll thus have to try and keep things as simple and cheap as possible -- your ability to create assets will always be limited. Chances are you will have to abstract and generalize your world, decide to move to 2D, avoid creating an open-world, or to even allow exploration and gameplay in only a handful of locations. As you will not be able to show the full size and complexity of your work, your city, you will simply have to imply it.

Now, take a look at the picture above if you will. Notice how few buildings are actually shown, and ask yourself whether this could be a village scene. Or even a picture taken in a small town.

It could not. Of course, it could not. You know, possibly without exactly knowing why, that this is a picture depicting a part of a big city neighborhood; most probably of a 20th century metropolis. You might only be able to see a tiny part of said city, but this sort of density, and this kind of spatial organization couldn't be found anywhere outside a big urban centre. A town or village would neither be able to support it, nor would they need it.

What's more, said picture provides the viewer with even more information. Information that goes beyond the type of urban agglomeration we are looking at, and lets us feel the living texture of the particular place. A thousand little stories, some of them possible only in this particular city, have left their mark on the hanging clothes, those buildings, the women, and even the wires we see, while the organization of everyday life itself and the class-based nature of those tenements is instantly obvious.

Small urban scenes and carefully selected areas, you see, can work brilliantly in implying size, complexity, urban function and texture, and in letting us conjure images of everyday life. In showcasing our elaborate creation in an easy to summarize way. Provided of course, there is a sensible backstory of our city, and an imaginary or real geography to draw upon. It's incredible how the existence of a city plan, regardless of whether it's ever used in its entirety, can help lend even the tiniest of places character and, once again, imply size.

Here is a screenshot from the wonderful Blackwell series:

It is, admittedly, based on a very real place, but only a well thought out and decently mapped imaginary (or, indeed, real) city, would make it easy to calculate what the view from a particular position would look like, and to decide upon the street furniture. Besides, not every place sports ghostly jazz musicians, and only a metropolis of certain wealth would be able to both afford and need such a bridge.

Infrastructure, bridges and roads in particular, but not exclusively so, are another means of instantly conjuring images of massive urban formations. You don't see many places with the road and mass transport networks of big cities, and it would be sensible to assume that a huge, multi-tiered bridge close to the home of an important NPC, would imply said NPC is an urban dweller.

Admittedly, as cities are incredibly complex and dynamic entities, and as bigger cities are even more so, tricking players into believing that a handful of locations or a vastly abstracted open world setting are functioning, living cities, can be done in a myriad of other ways too. Ways that can and should be combined with each other, without obviously ignoring rather crucial matters such as the ones already mentioned.

We can have players travelling through space (but only looking at it via the highly controlled and easy to manipulate view of a car window) long enough to make them feel the sheer enormity of things, we can present them with architectural creations designed to daily service tens of thousands, we can model and properly arrange a few buildings in relation to each other, and obviously we can provide them with maps. Actual in-game maps.

Possibly like the one from the original Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father, which, combined with the excellent and highly atmospheric locations, gave adventurers the illusion of exploring a huge chunk of New Orleans:

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Jun 17, 2016

Out of the blue and Into The Basilica

Sometimes my brain works in mysterious ways. Some other times the poor thing gets hopefully confused, and on even rarer occasions it decides people should have free access to the Into The Basilica: Revisited PDF. Why? Well, because I think it's a nice little booklet I had fun putting together, and because it's a document oozing misguided pre-launch optimism. Oh, and it's not been available anywhere else since that one time it appeared as a Bundle In A Box bonus.

Also, the pictures in it are interesting, as are the words. Apparently and for some incredibly odd reason I still have fond memories of the making of Droidscape: Basilica too...

Jun 1, 2016

Adventures In Urban Imagineering

With the first (and hopefully not last) part of my cooperation with Frogwares on the Sinking City's city just completed, I felt I really should let you know what the plan is, oh reader dearest. Besides the odd patreon supported piece for IndieGames.com, and those Warp Door or Retro Treasures posts, that is.

Well, excitingly, I've started working on another big project involving cities and games with a fantastic new studio. It's back to urban imagineering full-time, and I couldn't be happier!

I cannot say much more about this new project just yet, but I'm loving the fact that I got involved in it early in pre-production, and that the team is determined to create both an excellent game and a unique urban environment. Some incredibly intriguing concepts have been going around lately, though I do imagine there's a lot of work to be done before things can be made public.

What I can talk about though is Nékromegà. An adventure-RPG hybrid sporting voxels, that is already looking unlike anything I've ever seen, and will attempt to do very weird stuff with its storytelling, while simultaneously tackling matters of colonialism and undeath. My role in it is, not entirely surprisingly, being an urban consultant. Mostly.

Oh, and I'm very slowly designing a fantasy / medieval city for my own entertainment, which might or might not evolve into an exploration focused game. It's too early to say, and, before I embark on another project of my own, I will have made sure that all the work on Earthling Priorities has been completed.

Off to work!