The allure of New York City for game designers is obvious. The Big Apple’s landscape is compact and full of render-friendly straight edges, yet also provides a complex obstacle course full of spectacle and familiar sights. That jagged manmade horizon looks great when plastered across a skybox, while Manhattan’s parks, wide avenues and elegant towers can even be used to dictate the pacing of a campaign and the placement of its set-pieces. New York offers star power to games that would otherwise struggle with personality; it provides a place to fight in, and perhaps more importantly, a place to fight for. Whether you’re up against rogue nations, vicious aliens, ancient beasts or good old Commies, who wouldn’t risk everything to protect the greatest city on Earth?
More often than not, the action takes place in Manhattan, and yet for every game that benefits from the district’s iconic architecture there are two or three that seem to run aground because of it. The appeal of this most famous of modern environments is obvious, but why is the reality so often fraught with challenges?
If there are game design problems with New York City, they tend to be the problems you get from working with superstars. It’s full of effortless glamour and sparkling charisma, but it can also be a bit of a diva. It brings with it demands – that its streets bustle convincingly with pedestrians and taxi cabs, and that its more famous landmarks all get at least a few moments in the limelight. Put simply, New York is a hard place to push around.
That’s a probable stumbling block for designers, since most of them are used to controlling the environment in minute detail. They build fantasy landscapes from scratch, after all, and then move the pieces about until they’re fit for purpose. In a place as famous as New York, you can’t do that. Sure, you can force those narrow streets apart a little, and the parks hold a natural world that can be a touch more pliable, but you can’t throw in more open spaces, or carve out many brand new features.
Manhattan’s landscape is constructed almost entirely without curves, for example. It’s a predictable, right-angled space where most movement is done in straight lines – and that’s going to affect the games that are set there. It’s no wonder, then, that so many design teams opt to trash the place a little, whether it’s Modern Warfare 3 calling in the might of the Russian army, or Crysis 2 relying on more elaborate extraterrestrial solutions. Even here, though, mileage varies, depending on the developers’ overall ambitions.
For Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games’ MW3, all that was required was a few piles of rubble to funnel players from A to B: in a linear game, a linear city poses few insurmountable problems. Look to Crytek, though, and it seems that Manhattan was too much for a studio used to working with the wilderness. The team dragged players from Battery Park up to Midtown in an attempt to find interesting locations for its open-ended ‘action bubbles’. In the end, the game’s best sequences played out on Franklin D Roosevelt Drive – hardly the most tantalising setting.
Crytek, in fact, was caught in a classic New York bind: if the team destroyed the city to the extent required to create roomy, explorative sandboxes, its identity would be compromised. If the studio left the place as it was, visibility shrank to about 100 yards, and a game that once revelled in the kind of empowerment that comes from lengthy draw distances and huge landscapes suddenly had you skulking around in foxholes and engaging in miserable trench warfare.
Even the big New York success stories have struggled more than was initially apparent. GTA IV’s Liberty City is gaming’s most lauded open world of recent years, and Rockstar needed its parallel to New York, since it’s the perfect place to explore the extremes and contradictions of the American Dream. The city, however, brought some contradictions of its own. The closer you get to realism, the closer you are to building a museum rather than a playground – a gorgeous but somewhat detached space.
The solution, for now at least, might be to look elsewhere. If recent games are any indicator, the city’s popularity may finally be working against it. Prototype 2, for example, might stand as the first open-world game set in New York to spend the majority of its time out in the boroughs – where it can shunt buildings about as it pleases, and the setting isn’t so oppressively overfamiliar.
Crysis 3, meanwhile, sees Crytek moving from protector to aggressor with a game that promises to render New York almost unrecognisable. It’s opting for massive geodesic domes, 20 years of narrative downtime, and a mysterious accelerated evolutionary cycle in order to turn the urban jungle into an urban rainforest, so that the city’s layout can no longer frustrate designers or cause ennui in players. New York has reached the point where it’s a known quantity, even for those who have never walked its streets in real life, and a known quantity – particularly one as awkward as this – is the kiss of death for an explorative videogame.
It might be good for contemporary Manhattan to get out of the spotlight for a while, anyway. After all, it needs time to recover from all that fictional destruction – and game developers could do with some space to work out what they really want from it in the first place.