This is part of a series of posts exploring video games as spaces players inhabit. If you’re wondering what this is all about, I tried to explain myself here.
“If we compare the generic city with the old city,” Lieven de Cauter writes, “one thing stands out: whereas the metropolis was the scene in which the masses appeared, the generic city is the place in which the masses leave the stage.”
Consider these screenshots from the tutorial mission in Gangs of London (PSP – 2006). Set in the terminal and cargo areas of an airport, the mission guides players through a set of lobbies, corridors, warehouses, and city streets, teaching them the basics of gameplay along the way. In the first portion of the mission, the player is ushered through the terminal’s check-in area. Designed to support a large volume of people carrying luggage, in Gangs of London the space is eerily still and devoid of visitors.
Expending limited system resources on NPCs in this scene didn’t make sense, but the empty spaces and peopled spaces in the airport and cargo areas reveal several insights on the role of public architecture, the place of workers, and crime in the game’s London cityscape. These insights offer tantalizing clues about how the game’s designers and players viewed public spaces and the city in the early 2000s.
People in Gangs of London’s airport are secondary to the existence of the space itself. The airport here is not a space designed to serve travelers, but an ideal setting, a stage upon which individuals perform scripted acts and gain, in return, a sort of empowerment that will enable them to proceed to other spaces later in the story. This is similar to the role these spaces play in Rem Koolhaas’s vision of the “generic city,” a city which is (according to Lieven de Cauter summary of Koolhaas) “without characteristics, the city as a blank product – like an airport, everywhere the same: a city without a centre, without identity and without history.” The airport in Gangs of London is an ideal setting for the realization of the capitalist subject: a place unhaunted by the specters of the past, a blank slate upon which the subject may project their own fantasies.
It is helpful for this space sterilized for the workings of capital that there are only a handful of workers inhabiting the labyrinthine passages and warehouses through which the airport’s fictional cargo passes. This cargo provides the backdrop of the player’s actualization. Passing through an empty hallway and locker room “backstage,” behind the terminal area, the player progresses into a storeroom manned by an armed guard. Encouraged to sneak up behind the oblivious guard, the player is instructed that they may either kill the wage worker or take him hostage. It doesn’t make sense to take the guard hostage, so the actor on the screen snaps his neck. The body conveniently disappears. In the next room, the player gains two accomplices, who mercilessly beat two wage-earning guards with baseball bats. In this space, workers and their demands are mere obstacles on the path to actualization.
After dispatching the working class, the player encounters the state. When a handcuffed gang member informs the crew that the police are aware of the mission’s objective–to steal an armored truck and finance the gang’s takeover of London–the player is encouraged to work together with the crew and eliminate the police. Two cruisers and a paddywagon full of officers arrive shortly thereafter. Easily dispatched, the bodies of these salaried state employees, and the burning hulks of the public vehicles in which they arrived, disappear in short order. The state is powerless and ineffectual, unable even to exercise its monopoly of violence–the only legitimate power left to it in the generic city.
The post-9/11 generic city in Gangs of London is the anti-Rock Candy Mountain. Criminal activity is the only sign of life. The masses have fled public space, the workers are objects, the state is ineffective. There are no planes at the airport, and the armored cars are un-armored. At least the destroyed bodies and objects disappear, helpfully, when they stop being useful.