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Lecture Library

Imaginary Reality: Existing Location Representations in Video Games
by Survey of Interactive Media

We recognize them. We explore them the way we do in real cities. We know where exactly they are at. Or, do we?

By Haining Sun

We recognize them. We explore them the way we do in real cities. We know where exactly they are at. Or, do we? While re-reading Julian Bleecker’s “Getting the Reality You Deserve”, my mind drifted from the arguments on urban representation/virtual reality the author made so clearly and convincingly in the essay to one particularly nagging question that I’ve had since I first read it: it may or may not be directly relevant to the whole picture of virtual reality (if not purely over-reaction of the word “representation” at all) , but why do video games nowadays seem to have different ways of mapping cities/geography sites that do exist in the real world?

First, of course there are games that would plainly tell you where you are at, an example would be “Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days” (trailer, video clip 1). But one peculiar thing about this game is trying to make the city Shanghai and not Shanghai simultaneously—of course there are strikingly real presentations of the street views and certain landmarks of Shanghai, but on the other hand, it might not seem so obvious for English speaking players who have never been to the city, but for me, those ridiculous (and made deliberately so) street/shop names and the locations that either don’t exist in the real city at all or have been clearly modified are blatant signs to discern the representation in the game from the real city. It is clearly the game developers’ attempt to give the narrative of the game more credibility by putting it in an existing location as films do, but at the same time purposely obscure the details of the location, to keep the representation within the boundaries of a fictional world created outside of reality.

Secondly, there are games which tell you you’re in somewhere, but you’ll always feel that you’re in somewhere else that you’ve been to before. The best example of this category would undoubtedly be “Grand Theft Auto” series (trailer, GTA IV, video clip 2). From “Vice City” (released 2002, based on Miami, Florida), “San Andreas” (released 2004, based on Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas), to “Liberty City” (first released 2005 as “Liberty City Stories”, but appeared in GTA IV in 2008 again with much better renditions, based on New York City), players would never feel lost on the streets. No matter what the reason is for the game developers to make this decision, the border line between virtual reality and reality has been blurred: on the one hand, this is a world of pure imagination, on the other hand, the real world references to the imaginary world is so distinct that there is absolutely no way to avoid comparison, or even to separate them as non-related.

The last one is perhaps even more common: the games that won’t tell you where you are, but at a place that you almost would always know. More than half of the first person shooting games would more or less pull this trick, the example I use here would be “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare” (trailer, video clip 3). The second mission of the game, in which the player as a soldier was dispatched to an unnamed Middle East country, which by the war-wrought situations that were almost 24-hour on TV and the fierce guerilla combats from local armed forces/militia, could easily be identified as a combination of Afghanistan and Iraq. Compared to the second way of representation, this third solution seems to be the easy way out: it in no way denies its liaison with the real world (though country is unnamed, “Middle East” would serve as a direct indication of its source of references), simultaneously it is pronouncing the independence and fictionality of the imaginary world created by game developers, the linkage between the real location and the fictional location is traceable, even visible, but the actual connection has been made or accentuated. This gives the game a “hovering” effect, unlike the two models of representation previously mentioned, which are closing the gap between virtual reality and reality at different levels, the third model has clearly helped games to extricate themselves from this discussion.

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days Trailer by Lo-Interactive (2010) Trailer of the game Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days
Grand Theft Auto IV Trailer by Rockstar Games (2008) The trailer of the game Grand Theft Auto 4
Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare Mission 3 by Infinity Ward (2009) The play video of Call of Duty Modern Warfare