Of all the many reasons I enjoy studying the space of videogames, the translation of real physical spaces into game levels, environments, and worlds perhaps fascinates me the most. The choices made during the construction of these spaces reveals much about our assumptions and understanding of the world we live in. Whether imbued with romanticized notions or reduced to their most functional properties, we codify our world into mechanics, geometry, textures, and tasks.
One type of space from our world that interests me is transportation space. I’ve recently finished reading Alastair Gordon’s telling of the history of the airport in Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Revolutionary Structure. Expect some airport related writing soon. I am also currently reading Marc Augé’s In the Metro (translated from French by Tom Conley). I wrote about the Washington, D.C. Metro last year in relation to Fallout 3, and included observations on the New York City subway in my thesis on “Representations of the City in Videogames.”
At the time I had not read Augé, so these topics are worth revisiting in light of this new critical lens. I want to specifically return to my discussion of Fallout 3, in which I highlight the multitude of uses for the Metro. It serves a similar role to the typical videogame dungeon—a hostile space full of monsters that you enter to find items, loot, and gain battle experience. Dungeons expand the space of the game by creating non– world-map or overworld environments. In a 3D game like Fallout 3, however, there still needs to be a x- and y- plane mapping of the dungeon to the world above because the player uses it to traverse distances. It is impossible travel overland to all points in the Wasteland because obstacles block the way. The Metro, then, guides the player’s movement from one place to the next.
This subverts our expectations of the subway. When I ride the subway, Metro, MARTA train, tube, of whatever you want to call it, I have an expectation that I will follow a designated path which can only get from point A to point D by passing through B and C. On the more complicated rail systems, the subway gives options for transferring trains, but even though I may construct multiple paths to the same destination, I have no way of traveling on anything but the rail.
This means that any pedestrian movement inside the tunnels of the subway produces surprising results. A map of the DC Metro would be of no help to a Fallout 3 player, because the designated routes of the tracks have been destroyed and altered. Traveling on foot down a new tunnel in the Metro, I have no idea where I might end up. Fallout 3 uses this to complicate overworld travel, while providing more space for the player to explore and more enemies for the player to encounter.
But I want to add something from Marc Augé I find particularly relevant. The setting of Fallout 3 is post-apocalyptic Washington, DC—an uninhabitable world poisoned by radiation and overrun by monsters. Many humans have taken refuge in underground bunkers called Vaults, while others live on the surface in camps formed in the ruins of old buildings. The closer into the center of the city, the more identifiable the referents. This is no doubt because it is easier to recreate monuments and landmarks than the characterless suburbs of Maryland and Virginia (in which I lived for 21 years). Representing these areas, then, becomes as easy as naming them.
As Augé notes, subway stations are named in a handful of different ways. A name might refer to a street or intersection, a neighborhood, a landmark, or even a person. These tell the riders a story. A subway station named for a landmark tells us something about the destination of those who disembark at that point. A station named for only a street or intersection seems to indicate there are no points of interest above. When named for a person, the station not only asks questions about that person’s importance to the metropolitan area, but also why that station in particular was commemorated.
The Metro stations in Fallout 3 commemorate something else. They’re the memorials of an infrastructure, a way of moving, and a way of organizing a world that no longer exists. Many stations retained their pre-war names of actual Metro stops: Falls Church, Dupont Circle, Farragut, L’Enfant Plaza, etc. These are the names of places that once had meaning, though now are little more than geographic referents. Some stations, to help the player better navigate the world, are named for landmarks both important to our world and the game’s world: The Mall, The White House, Our Lady of Hope Hospital.
Because they are not the only usable points of transportation, it is not only the actual stations that get names in the Fallout 3 wasteland. Some Metro tunnels dump out into sewer systems or service corridors. These places only became used after the war. Irradiated Metro, Flooded Metro, Collapsed Car Tunnel, and the Tepid Sewer are equally as important as their officially sanctioned counterparts.
In Augé’s Metro, the structure of the subway is an abstraction of the world above. The Louvre station in France is decorated like a little museum, names commemorate the people and places that live above the ground, and the people waiting on the platform form population microcosms.
Yet, in Fallout 3 the Metro is an abstraction of a world that doesn’t exists. Actually, two worlds that don’t exist. On the one hand there is the simulacrum of the Washington, DC that exists in our world. With a handful of exceptions, naming serves as little more than a nod to real places to give Fallout 3 a sense of place. On the other hand, the real world of D.C. is parallel to the pre-war world of Fallout 3′s D.C. Neither exist in any way the game can interact with beyond the representation of something that once was and is no longer. They exist only as memorials to how we organize and move through our world.