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GDC 2002: Manhattan as Muse: New York City as a Conceptual Tool
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GDC 2002: Manhattan as Muse: New York City as a Conceptual Tool

April 17, 2002 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

The purpose of this article is to consider how conceptual architectural skills can be used to generate game environments. Levels are often sited in a variety of geographic locations, which provide a context and background for game play. In his book Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas suggests that Manhattan is part of a project "to exist in a world totally fabricated by man, i.e. to live inside fantasy." This makes Manhattan a particularly appropriate study for games and level design.

Games need to have a strong narrative to make sense, but they also need to have a strong and structured environment to reinforce that. Whether real locations or abstract patterns, formal constraints and ordering devices for levels can be drawn from different sources. Primarily, it is a matter of looking at our immediate surroundings and thinking about how to reinterpret them for games. In this instance we are going to look at Manhattan, both as a reflection on some of the roles it has taken in books, games and movies, and also simply on the city itself.

It is possible to sample a location's organization, and re-use it at a different scale in another context. Games like Deus Ex and Max Payne do an excellent job of conveying the character and atmosphere of New York, but we are going to look at New York in terms of attributes that can be abstracted and applied elsewhere.

In the context of these references, Manhattan is used as a tool to create pre-production schematics of levels. Schematics are the first step of a design proposal, much like pre-production. Ideas are blocked out in rough form; everything is kept open and flexible, before approval is given to proceed. Many ideas exist at the schematic stage that do not make it beyond that point, but they can be used later in other situations.

We will look at Manhattan, describe isolated event locations and consider how their typical use might be inverted or disrupted. Then we will review the city grid, two other networks, their breakpoints and connections and how these could be used as organizing frameworks for game events.

The Big City

New York serves as the location for many movies and television shows. A search on the Internet Movie Database for New York, New York yields 2554 results. A search for Manhattan, New York yields 250 results. Frequently, however, it is only as the backdrop to character interactions. "Seinfeld" and "Friends" were not even shot in Manhattan where they supposedly take place. Woody Allen movies like Manhattan are similar in this respect. A series of events and exchanges happen between characters, but there is no real interaction with the city. It suffices to say New York equals "Big City" and the scene is set.

It suffices to say New York equals "Big City".

In action movies, where we draw most of our examples from, the protagonists are directly involved with traversing or transforming the city in some way. I think everyone remembers the breathtaking car chase under the El in The French Connection. These elements could serve as components for game play and the transit system itself interpreted as a structure for a level.

Cultural icons are images or symbols that people immediately recognize and understand their significance; the American flag, the Statue of Liberty, Coca-Cola. Icons are elements that are introduced into stories for narrative effect-plug them in and you generate values. New York contains many cultural icons; so many aspects of the place are symbols and as such function as ready icons for narrative incorporation.

However, rather than create narratives, the intention is to provide a framework of events around which we can build our own experiences; like talking a walk on a Sunday afternoon. Some people like to manipulate the events and create stories that you participate in-the concern here is just the event potential.

In the same way pieces of film, music and text can be sampled, so can a building or element of architecture. Sampling means drawing out particular characteristics or a fragment of a subject and reintroducing it in another context. While the Surrealists articulated this formally a long time ago with their collages and visual puns, in the creative process, we unconsciously take pieces from here and there, reassembling them into new systems.

When we reinterpret something we take some its characteristics and introduce them in another context. It means looking at events in a new way. One could say there is nothing new under the sun, that it is simply a matter of new and alternate interpretations. We can draw on these alternate interpretations and readings of spaces and sequences for our own purposes.

Events are encounters or "happenings." In the real world or an RPG, this might simply be meeting someone; in an action-adventure game, it might be fighting a boss. In all cases the possibility exists for the level space to support or encourage that activity. The key is that it can also initiate it. Game play is the character, quality and intensity of these events.

Events as such take place within singular spaces or across a number of spaces. With the advent of next generation systems, I think there is a shift to a greater detail and focus of level spaces. Levels are becoming more like movie-sets; highly detailed and subject to re-use.

Level design has nominally been consigned to corridor-type spaces, but examination and analysis of existing interiors allows for an understanding of the richness of scale and detail.

New York offers a great number of grand classical interiors, which will be considered as potential event containers. In the past level design has nominally been consigned to corridor-type spaces, but examination and analysis of existing interiors allows for an understanding of the richness of scale and detail that existed before malls became our civic interior space.

Without referring directly to the story, the different locations can be sampled for visual references and developed schematically. Images can also be sampled from photographs and historical data and quickly mocked up as game spaces. Perhaps in the end result, they are not used as a station, a library or a museum, but they are a quick way to test ideas about scale and organization in a new project.

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