Making Chicago the setting of the new video game Watch Dogs includes changing the city to improve the gaming experience:
He described the basic creation of Chicago this way: “Essentially we started with a top view of Chicago, the actual Chicago map, which we put in our game editor, and from there we carved into it. It’s a big, empty space at first. So we start laying out roads by going with the real road and adjusting from there, making sure, for instance, that Wacker follows the river correctly, but adjusting a bit too. You also make sure roads connect properly, but we didn’t go with the Chicago grid because it was so straight, too many right angles. It’s better for the game play if you can’t see far ahead of yourself. So we curve things. Once the roads are laid down and the city reduced, you went street by street putting in neighborhoods, landmarks …”
Like many an open-world video game city, building the open-world Chicago of “Watch Dogs” became a dance between game play, accuracy and urban planning. In general, what Arriola described is the same process that created cities in “Saints Row” and “Grand Theft Auto”: Four-lane roads became six lanes to encourage driving (nobody likes digital gridlock, either), buildings were pressed together to encourage rooftop-to-rooftop leaping and only the most visually unique neighborhoods survived (albeit incongruously, mashed up against other neighborhoods).
“An open-world city in a good video game is a riff on a city, not a city,” said Brian Schrank, co-chairman of the game development program at DePaul University. “It’s a little exploitative, a little like a remix of familiar elements. You are seeing a suggestion of unending choices, but in reality a game developer is being subtle and laying out the breadcrumbs that pull you through their city.”
Hence, the isle of Chicago.
The Chicago River needed widening, and the Northwest Side needed geographic diversity, so, in the game, the north edge of the Gold Coast becomes actual coastline, the farthest northern point in this Chicago. A player can pilot a boat from the lake and around the downtown area without hitting a dead end.
See this earlier post about using Chicago in the new game.
This isn’t just the issue of creating a copy of the city of Chicago. That in itself could be interesting and/or jarring, seeing a faithful reproduction on the screen but being able to do things the average resident or visitor could not. But, this goes a step further to “improve” the city for the gamer. One way to think about it is that the city is not compelling enough as it is but needs to be tweaked to allow for features that gamers expect like easy yet unclear driving and using a boat. The isle of Chicago? A grid system of street that now curves? Urban sociologists and other urbanists are often drawn to big cities because of their dynamism – from social interactions to culture to architecture, to economic and political activity – that is plenty interesting without tweaks.
The gamification of the world continues, with the big city as yet another victim…