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Urban traversal as resistance in videogames

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Writer Alistair Baldwin reflects on how videogames can teach us how to question our real-world environments.

I was eight when I received my first console, an Xbox, in a bundle deal with what would be my very first videogame. This game would coincidentally be the first text to teach me the word gentrification something you’re never too young to learn.

What’s the best way for me to describe Jet Set Radio Future? In a futurist Tokyo where the corrupt CEO of a capitalist mega-corporation has bought his way to mayor, you play the newest member of the GG's a crew of rollerblading youths who graffiti over ads, billboards and the occasional riot tank to protect the (quite literal) soul of the city.

Narrated by DJ Professor K the smooth-talking beatsmith behind the titular pirate station Jet Set Radio your objectives become clear. Skate, tag, resist.

Sixteen years on from its release, JSRF has become something of a cult classic as well as a roadmap for subsequent games on how to craft a vibrant, stylish and narratively compelling police state.

From the captivating cel-shaded graphics, to the inimitably funky pirate radio soundtrack from composer Hideki Naganuma (with one joyous breakbeat track sampling and cutting together cries of “Viva La Revolución!”), JSRF’s ability to underline its themes through environmental storytelling is near perfect.

A picture of a corporate logo incorporated into advertisements

If you’re especially attuned to the ads plastered across the city’s skyscrapers and buses, you’ll see that the hexagonal logo for the Rokkaku Group (top left) the mega-corporation whose leader Gouji Rokkaku has taken over as mayor appears subtly and unsubtly across a number of in-game billboards.

Obvious enough to notice, covert enough to read as subliminal tactic, the inescapable presence of the Rokkaku monopoly creates a sense of always being watched, sold to and controlled. It also reiterates your new mayor’s true intentions. A businessman at heart, Rokkaku’s mayoral decisions are decidedly driven by the bottom line.

Is it any wonder, then, that one of the key ways to complete levels is to graffiti over these ads; to literally affect the colour and texture of the world around you, through art, as a way to reclaim space.

Space who controls it, who is allowed to exist within it and how one moves through it was a clear preoccupation for Smilebit, the in-house division of Sega that developed JSRF.

Cities, with their blocks, grid systems and designated paths of travel, both necessitate and facilitate a base level of law and order. Not inherently fascist, of course, but the confines of urban space make it much easier to control the flow of your population should you ever want to get a bit fascist.

Like a rat in a maze, there’s the illusion of motility and freedom, certainly but only within the carefully set parameters of a higher power with vested interest in you playing to their rules.

In JSRF, the narrative of you acting as a force of resistance under fascist rule is highlighted not simply through the design of the city, but how you interact with it. Namely, the ways in which you can traverse the environment.

Liberated by your ‘blades, anything in JSRF becomes a potentially grind-able surface. Handrails and electrical cables become highflying shortcuts, satellite dishes become halfpipes. In many ways, games like JSRF that repurpose the “intended” function of urban structures for characters’ non-conventional movement draw on the philosophy of parkour.

In an article for Parkour North America titled Two Theories on Parkour Philosophy, Andy ‘Animus’ Tran describes parkour as “a cultural movement to break the monotony of the urban lifestyle”, wherein “both skateboarding and parkour started as a means of urban reclamation…we re-imagine the concrete and architecture as we see fit, and are no longer bound by the rules of ‘stairs’ and ‘barriers’ and ‘fences’.”

It’s not deference to the city it’s defiance. In this sense, it is by its very virtue, a movement of resistance.

A mixture of parkour, skating and grinding makes up the urban traversal mechanics for Insomniac Games’ Sunset Overdrive (2014).

At face value the game begins as a conventional zombie apocalypse that the player must evade, but it’s soon revealed that FizzCo the company responsible for the zombie outbreak due to their untested soda has quarantined the entirety of Sunset City to hide the disaster from the rest of the world.

This particular apocalypse is confined to this particular city, corporate money and government coverup intent on keeping it that way.

Your ability to survive and escape your new urban prison entirely depends on how well you can traverse it, how well you can re-conceive the function of telephone wires, guardrails, overpasses. In this way the traversal mechanics serve the greater arc of resistance.

In this year’s acclaimed Spider-Man for PS4, also from Insomniac Games, New York City itself sees the grip of fascist control eke its way into public life.

After repeated attacks from the criminal gang The Demons, Mayor Norman Osborn hires private security force Sable International to supplant the police who use enough blockades and excessive force to make New York City cops seem good by contrast (that’s a lot).

As Spider-Man, you are not impacted by Sable’s blockades, as the web-slinging mechanic effectively turns the entirety of the city into your own highflying playground. In many ways, the vicarious thrill of how easily he can move through urban space has always been part of Spider-Man’s resonance as a vigilante hero.

If the literal mechanics of your movement through a fascist cityscape are anarchic, are you not yourself inherently cast as anarchic? An enemy of the state, a vigilante?

Yet throughout the game you also play as the non-superpower’d Mary Jane and Miles Morales, whose urban traversal is limited to plain-and-simple walking.

A young man standing in front of security agents in white armour who are demanding his papers for inspection

Security patrols, barriers, drones and cameras all severely limit the movements of these characters on foot to the point of being extremely frustrating in contrast to the fluid ease of playing as Spider-Man.

Yet in many ways this frustration only serves to illustrate how important the liberties Spider-Man is fighting for are. The stakes for mere bipeds become more real, more lived in, as you protect them from above.

Cities are always a reflection of the governments and corporations that create and maintain them. Hostile, if built with hostility in mind; functional, if built with function in mind. Liberating, even, if built with liberty in mind.

Games that capture the tensions between cities and citizens not only ground themselves in truth, they can also teach those of us playing them to shift our gaze out to our own city skylines and question the ways in which we are being controlled as well as the ways we can be in control.

Alistair Baldwin is a writer & comedian based in Naarm / Melbourne. He has written for The Weekly with Charlie Pickering and the upcoming second season of Get Krack!n. He is also a recipient of a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship for this year, and has had commentary, criticism & satire published by SBS, ACMI Ideas, un Magazine, Archer and more. Follow him on Twitter.