Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Metropole and Fighting Traffic

Photograph taken from the Flickr stream of Martin Tomitsch and used under a Creative Commons licence.

A man boards a plane on his way to a conference and falls asleep. When he awakes, he finds himself not at his intended destination but in a vast, unidentifiable city filled with unimaginable numbers of people. The traveller is an accomplished linguist, but he can't begin to make sense of the jabbering language spoken by the city's inhabitants. He can't even place it in a group of languages, or identify the script. Everywhere he is jostled by crowds and ignored or berated by taxi drivers or hotel staff.

This is the premise of Ferenc Karinthy's remarkable book Metropole, a classic in Hungary for 40 years and now translated into English by George Szirtes. "Nightmarish" is overused as a descriptive term in literature but Metropole has precisely the texture of a nightmare - it is stifling, desperate, lonely. The city presents Budai, the narrator, with a monolith of incomprehension and indifference. And, like a nightmare, the aftertaste of Metropole stays with you long after reading it - I have found myself thinking of it again and again, when fighting crowds on the Tube or trying to get down Oxford Street or attempting to make myself understood in a coffee shop.

Much of Metropole concerns itself with language, and Budai's agonising attempt to comprehend the scribbled, yapping mess written and spoken around him. The city would be hell for anyone, but it must be hell squared for a linguist. Budai must find a "way in" to the language, some corner of it that can be empirically understood by him without doubt, a loose thread to grab onto and pull. This inquiry is as much a decoding of the city as it is a decoding of the language. Budai identifies taxi cabs, metro stations, religious buildings and abattoirs; and he does this through architecture and design. All the time he is looking for a railway station which might be able to transport him to an airport, a frontier, a seaport, any place other than this city - spying station-like buildings he finds instead law courts and covered markets. The physical language of European cities is revealed to be simultaneously eloquent and limited.

Physical symbols - steps with yellow handrails leading underground mean a subway, a certain look of car is a taxi - are one lexicon within a city; social codes are another. Before Budai can achieve anything he has to discern social protocols such as when to queue and where to queue. He watches what other people are doing and does the same. Cities are all built on the side of a steep learning curve - they turn people into new people. New York is an exceptional example of this, a machine that takes immigrants and turns them into Americans. (Jonathan Raban's book Soft City is the unsurpassed description of these learning processes and the interaction between cities and our identity as individuals.) The city Budai is trapped in is rarely less than hostile, but without adaptation to its social codes it could be lethal.

To take an obvious example - when and where do you cross the street? An apparently simple question is in fact encrusted with acculturated with complex cultural considerations, a topic explored in detail in a very different book to Karinthy's, Fighting Traffic by Peter D Norton. Norton examines in scrupulous detail (the book is an expanded PHD thesis) the upheaval wrought by the automobile when it arrived on the streets of the American city.

"Cities treated the arrival of the automobile as they might any other emergency," Norton writes. Rather than being a seamless technological succession from one form of (horse-drawn) wheeled transport to another, the automobile blundered into a sophisticated street-level ecology. The death toll that resulted was a bona fide emergency for cities, and the way they reacted is fascinating. We know what happens in the end, of course: the automobile not only triumphs, but routs the pedestrian and the streetcar both in theory and in practise. They are not only practically driven out of a roadway that used to be shared, but their right to that space (which previously went without saying) was withdrawn. As late as 1926, there was nothing in law preventing pedestrians in Chicago from using any part of the street to do anything they wished, such as hold a conversation; the most restrictive interpretation of pedestrians' right was that cars had an equal right to the street. Try doing that today.

How did this come about? Norton examines the story from the perspective of the three main groups involved: anti-car groups, who at first had the whip hand in the debate; the police, who affected to be neutral but whose motives were in fact more complicated; and motorist groups. Part of the story unfolds at the level of public policy, as cities drafted legislation to counter the emergency and end the bloodshed, influenced by the various lobbies on either side of the debate. Given that the crisis was handled locally by scores of municipalities, there's considerable variation in response and the story twinkles with thousands of interesting facets and suggestions of how the aggregate course of history could have gone differently. A few lessons stick in the memory, though. First is that the hugely emotional, absolutist language that was used around health and safety - "surely XYZ is better than the death of a child!" - led to poor decision-making and poor outcomes for everyone. Secondly is that the police, far from being honest brokers, acted according to what was best for the police, rather than what was best for the city or it inhabitants. Segregated roadways were easier and cheaper to police than shared roadways, so the police pushed for segregation.

Still more interesting than the public policy side of the issue, and in the end more decisive, was its psychological side. New techniques for living in cities had to be explained to the public, with the different pressure groups all advertising their own interpretation of how public space should be used, dressed up in fine language about "justice", "freedom" and so on. "Success would require the best salesmanship techniques of 20th-century marketing," writes Norton. The future of public space was decided in memespace - by a battle of messages and ideas.

At first, the anti-car safety campaigners called the shots. Drivers were maniacs, "speed demons", privileged toy-owners killing children, intruders in the city. The onus was surely entirely on them to alter their behaviour to reduce the number of road fatalities. How did this message fail in the end?

Firstly, motoring groups gathered themselves under the banner of "freedom" - a potent idea anywhere, but especially in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. Their conception of freedom was connected to the greater independence and mobility offered by the car, and we still see motoring groups clinging to that idea today when those returns have diminished considerably. Also, it was essential that motorists assert their own freedom over that of the pedestrian - if they could secure a concession of equal right to the roadway, then their motorised might and speed would secure the rest.

Secondly, they adopted the language of the safety campaigners - and even started to put on their own versions of the grisly tombstone-erecting ceremonies the safety campaigners used to attack the automobile, but with the message twisted to argue for segregation and pedestrian responsibility.

Thirdly, they invented something that transformed the language around the issue. They invented the jaywalker. Walking in the street at points other than crossings, was entirely normal behaviour, and rebranding this behaviour to turn it into a faux pas (or even a crime) was a masterstroke. A "jay" was a rube, a country bumpkin, someone who did not know the sophisticated social codes of the city. Car-owners, by contrast, were better-off, better educated and - here is the killer idea - better at using the city efficiently, sophisticates speeding from one point to another while jays stumbled around in the middle of the road. Standing in the street was transformed from the God-given right of the American urbanite (this was precisely the language used to defend it) into something only a hick would do.

Thus, through branding and advertising rather than legislation, motoring groups managed to make safety the pedestrian's responsibility rather than theirs, and presented themselves as the rightful users of the roadway. They took over the safety campaigns with this message and established in social convention what would later be reinforced by law.

Which explains how they secured the advantage - but not entirely how they turned that advantage into unquestioned supremacy. That was largely the fault of well-meaning safety campaigners. The road safety debate made much of the death of children, innocents, in contrast to the worldly and by implication corrupt motorists who knew more of life. But as the scales tilted to safety being the pedestrian's responsibility as well as the motorist's, the first efforts were made to educate children into the dangers of the road. Children use the street, but they do not drive. So they are exposed to years of messages about their, the pedestrian's, responisbility for safety before they learn to drive and hear anything about the motorist's responsibility. This imbalance has become a form of generational brainwashing - conditioning, anyway - that has turned the car's ownership of the street from a purely contingent social arrangement to a hegemonic natural right. Fighting Traffic is an indispensable work of scholarship, and transforms the reader's view of the city and its uses.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Theme Necropolis

This article originally appeared in Edge 221 (December 2010).

The sound of digging pervades Dungeon Keeper 2. Bullfrog's 1999 real-time strategy game involves the construction and operation of a dungeon and labyrinth in a gloomy underground world. There are always chambers to be excavated, minerals to be mined and exploratory tunnels to be dug in order to expand your area of play. The imps, tiny magical creatures that comprise your basic workforce, are continually scraping and picking away at the ground somewhere at your bidding. It's a pleasantly double-edged sound – industrious, but also subversive. You're eating away at the world around you, undermining, corroding, tunnelling like a colony of termites. And if your imps run out of orders and stop working – you'll see them sit against the wall and light up cigarettes – you might still hear digging. That would be the sound of one of your rival keepers chipping away at the rock in your direction, heading inexorably towards you.

Building and undermining at the same time – that's the centre of the appeal of Dungeon Keeper 2 (DK2). The player must design and construct a detailed and multi-functional underground world to perform a number of tasks, but also revel in destruction, murder, torture and slavery. Indeed, those are the tasks. This is a dungeon, after all. In other hands, DK2 could have been a recipe for dreary sadism. But Bullfrog put together a world that was all about beautiful, rich, detailed, absorbing, funny sadism.

A typical game begins with a single chamber: the Dungeon Heart. This, the core of your realm, is where your treasure is stored and is also the source of your health. If the gigantic pulsing muscle (you heard me) at the centre of this room is subjected to a sustained attack by your enemies, it will die, and if it dies, you die. So the dungeon must be built up around it: rings of defences, and facilities that will attract and sustain an army of happy, belligerent monsters. These start with a lair, which gives them somewhere to sleep, a hatchery, which provides chickens for them to eat, and a training room for them to hone their combat skills. Specialist structures like libraries, workshops and torture chambers attract specific kinds of monsters, although most of the creatures in DK2 are familiar Sword & Sorcery types. Later, swankier rooms include glamorous casinos and not-so-glamorous combat pits, which either make creatures happier by giving them R&R or make them better killers by sending them to A&E. Some of them also seem to enjoy recreation in the torture chamber, but we're not here to judge. And there's the digging – always with the digging. Chambers and tunnels must be excavated and gold must be found and mined. Pick, scrape, shovel, etcetera.

Laying out rooms and corridors, assigning functions to them, attracting employees and specialists … At this point, a particular strain may be identified in DK2's twisted DNA: it is obviously a descendant of Bullfrog's Theme Hospital, which was developed in parallel with the original Dungeon Keeper and released just months before it in 1997. So where are the patients? In Theme Hospital, the aim was to keep the members of the public who strayed into your world alive, and they mostly only died by accident. Mostly. In DK2, the roaming members of the public are tedious, bellowing heroes, representatives of the so-called forces of good, and if they find their way into your realm they need to be subjected to a deadly form of triage. Your troll-filled workshops can build traps, from simple passive defences like doors to the all-time classic: a rolling Indiana Jones-style boulder that can crush everything in its path. In between are all kinds of dangling skeletons and poison gas vents. Many happy hours can be spent ringing your lair with fiendish killing-chambers, hidden triggers and secret passages. Softened up by the traps, surviving heroes can be set upon by your creatures and beaten to within an inch of their life. Enemies are mostly just stunned if they lose a fight – while thus poleaxed, they can be dragged to a prison. There, they will either starve and rise as a skeleton to join your armies, or they can be dropped in a torture chamber, where they'll be tormented by whip-wielding dominatrices called Mistresses (a saucy element the game revels in) and become allies. Your own creatures can, when stunned, be dragged back to the lair to recover. If the imps are too late and the creature dies, they can be dragged to a graveyard and buried, later to rise as a vampire. It's Theme Necropolis.

The original Peter Molyneux-designed Dungeon Keeper had a similarly detailed internal ecology and other charms, but doesn't often come out of its box nowadays, while DK2 continues to be a treat. It's rare that a sequel can lose a talent like Molyneux and still exceed its ancestor, but Bullfrog's Colin Robinson managed it. DK2 is a vast graphical advance on the original, substituting fully 3D creatures for sprites and introducing a depth and richness to the interiors that is truly atmospheric. The player interacts with this gorgeous environment via a disembodied hand – a feature carried over from the original, which Molyneux was to re-use in Black & White (2001). The hand allows a much deeper tactile involvement in the game environment than a simple cursor. Not only can creatures and gold be picked up, encouraging slaps can be dispensed – including animals you first think are just decorative, like the chickens in the hatchery and the rats in the prison. DK2 is also far funnier than the original, with a jokey narration by Richard Ridings (see box) and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of in-game jokes and Easter eggs. Humour was a strand of Dungeon Keeper – it's at the malevolent heart of DK2. That might be its real advantage over the original game. Molyneux's original game was part of his career-long interest in bending and manipulating morality within games, from Populous (1989) to Fable (2005). 2001's Black & White, which made choosing between good and evil the central dilemma of an RTS game, could be considered the lost sequel to DK2. But what makes DK2 really refreshing is that it's less self-conscious about its immorality than its predecessor – it's just raucous good fun.

So what's the point? There must be more to life than lounging around in a luxurious underground fortress-casino surrounded by servants, treasure and leather-clad lovelies. Well, maybe. In the simple skirmish and multiplayer games, there are other keepers advancing towards you, and they must be defeated. But in the campaign game, it's the forces of humanity, moral rectitude, motherhood and apple pie that are trying to put a stop to your subterranean shenanigans. Those roving bands of heroes must be defended against while you bide your time and build forces strong enough to pursue them to their source and kill their lord so the Horned Demon can show up and claim that level's "portal gem". The keeper advances from land to land, undermining and doing battle with the resident heroes and collecting these gems. As each land is corrupted from beneath, it turns brown and withered on the campaign map - your progress is an advancing stain. All of this serves the ultimate aim of a final confrontation, in which the keeper burst forth onto the surface of an unsuspecting world ...

... Which never happens. Strangely, much of DK2 is just a set-up for a sequel, Dungeon Keeper 3, trailed within the game but cancelled early in 2000. Unless the franchise unexpectedly rises from its tomb, the keeper is condemned to toil within the bowels of the earth forever. It could be something from Milton or Dante. All that digging and undermining, only to find that you've just been getting deeper and deeper into the pit; perhaps a fitting fate for an evil overlord.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Playing in the Ruins

Bronx Floors, Gordon Matta-Clark

My New Statesman piece about Pioneers of the Downtown Scene at the Barbican, mentioned below, is now online. "The sense of decay and collapse pervades this show," I say. That's a good thing.