The shaping of space is inherently political. When we modify our surroundings, we turn spaces like rooms, buildings, and cities into sites of social negotiation by imbuing them with a sense of place.
People turn spaces into places by investing them with meaning through various processes of modification, transformation, and change. Referred to as placemaking, the shaping of space involves a transfer of ideas and values into the world around us. Places in other words carry implicit arguments about political issues like race, class, and gender. They contain the views of the people who produce them.
While it serves to make us more critical observers of real-world spaces, understanding the process of placemaking is also useful as a tool for designing deep video game levels. The best way to explain something is often by example, so let’s dive into a game which does politics particularly well: Dishonored 2.
In creating Karnaca, the development studio responsible for Dishonored 2, Arkane, put together an elaborate critique of class-based societies. Things like wealth, status, entitlement, and corruption were made manifest in a way that seemingly transcends level design. Arkane succeeded in making Karnaca feel as if it were a living, breathing city. How did the studio pull this off?
Arkane marked a clear division between the game’s rich and poor. Karnaca’s upper crust was made to inhabit a very different world than its lower classes. Power and prestige are on display in Upper Aventa and Upper Cyria. Humbleness and humility by contrast emanate from the Campo Seta Dockyards. Arkane established this by introducing a whole set of different oppositions into the level design, but we’ll just focus on four: up/ down, organic/ synthetic, empty/ crowded, and clean/ dirty. These tend to be coincident and mutually reinforcing, so every part of the city displays a strongly defined character.
Nestled in a deep valley between towering peaks, verticality is Karnaca’s most apparent physical feature.
Verticality structures Karnaca's physical and human geography
While verticality structures Karnaca’s physical geography, it also structures the city’s human geography. Gawking at the commoners below, the wealthy wine and dine far above sea level in districts like Upper Aventa and Upper Cyria. The poor hole themselves up in low-lying areas like the Campo Seta Dockyards. Visually dominating the surrounding cityscape, the Clockwork Mansion is a case in point. Kirin Jindosh looms large over Karnaca in this privileged position atop a stone spire in Upper Aventa. Gliding over the gap from the main district, you even teeter into his residence on an elevated tram line.
The Clockwork Mansion looms large over Karnaca
Related to verticality is the divide between organic and synthetic. Similar to so many things in Serkonos, nature’s grasp on Karnaca seems to weaken with distance from sea level.
The Campo Seta Dockyards are bursting with life. Mostly animal. The unbroken stream of whale guts running down its main thoroughfare even turns the place into a bona fide blood bath. There’s plenty of vegetation in the Campo Seta Dockyards, though. The district is cracking at the seams with scruffy trees, unkempt shrubs, wild grass, and every other kind of overgrowth. The building materials used in the area mostly reflect this bent for the biological: wood, stone, plaster, and a few stucco fittings for some badly-needed flair.
Karnaca’s elite seemingly build to last. The use of glass and metal for construction is noticeably more common in districts like Upper Aventa and Upper Cyria than elsewhere in the city. But that’s only half the story. In contrast to the Campo Seta Dockyards, the forces of nature have clearly been curtailed through art and artifice in both of these districts. The trees are trimmed, the shrubs are shorn, and the grass is nicely mowed. The wealthy apparently prefer to keep nature on the defensive.
The wealthy use a lot more stone, metal, and glass than the poor
Was cleanliness ever truly next to godliness? Well, it certainly isn’t in Serkonos. The wealthy are pretty corrupt in Karnaca, but they definitely have some nice digs. Take the time to sneak around some of the richer districts and you’ll find very little grime. (But lots of grimy people).
Few places in Karnaca exude privilege quite like Upper Cyria. With its perfectly clean and polished streets, the district’s remarkable spotlessness plays a big role in this. The resulting impression is even a bit overwhelming. Everything is trim and tidy enough to make you wonder what the wealthy do with all their trash. Perhaps they blow it downslope? This would scarcely be surprising given their other predations on the poor. In any case, there’s hardly a pile of trash in sight.
The Campo Seta Dockyards may offer gorgeous views onto Karnaca Bay, but they still fail to attract any refined residents. (Emily Kaldwin doesn’t count). Maybe it’s all the muck and mud? With its broken windows and peeling paint, the signs of decay and disrepair don’t take very long to come across. The district is quite literally crammed with clutter. Graffiti adorn the walls. Filled with piles of random junk and overturned furniture, even the inhabited parts look strangely abandoned.
The poor parts of town are pretty dingy
The wealthy seem to get more personal space in Karnaca, too.
Creep around Upper Cyria for long enough and you’ll pick up on something strange: there’s nobody around. The guards are plentiful, but where’s everybody else? In a town where even mimes attract attention, you’d expect a small crowd of loafers, loungers, and lingerers to be out and about. They’d probably find the sweeper in Malveros Victory Plaza to be quite the stir. Maybe somebody locked them up inside the Spectator Cub? Whatever the case may be, Karnaca’s wealthy clearly have a couple hundred square feet more per capita than its poor.
The most impoverished parts of Karnaca stand in total opposition to Upper Cyria. Flush with the sights and sounds of city life, the streets are comparably teeming with activity. Take a stroll down by the waterfront and you’ll stumble upon all kinds of (extra)ordinary people — sailors and singers of course, but merchants and mendicants, too. Everyone who was presumably priced out of places like Upper Aventa and Upper Cyria.
Places like the Campo Seta Dockyards are comparably crowded
What makes the city seem so lifelike? The answer is that Karnaca possesses a highly pervasive sense of place. This was created by establishing a series of oppositions in the level design. We only focused on four of these, but others definitely exist apart from up/ down, organic/ synthetic, empty/ crowded, and clean/ dirty.
These oppositions are what gives the city its profound sense of place. How exactly does this work? Building oppositions like up/ down, organic/ synthetic, empty/ crowded, and clean/ dirty into a video game’s level design establishes that social differences exist in its world. In the case of Dishonored 2, the social differences in question revolve mainly around the concept of class. Arkane marked a clear distinction between the game’s rich and poor. The same approach could be used to explore plenty of other political issues, though. The important thing is just that ingroups and outgroups of any kind are identifiable in the level design. This takes the form of oppositions like the ones which we looked at in Dishonored 2. Spaces can’t really be places without them.