In a recent posting, Stephen Totilo lamented the absence of landmarks in games:
Thirty, forty years in, video games, I am sad to report, are without many famous landmarks and places. Nâ€™Gai, can you name a single famous video game building? Princess Peachâ€™s castle (and courtyard) from â€œSuper Mario 64,â€ maybe? Anything else? Yes I can recall locations in games. For example, I remember the giant vat containing a massive, submarine-sized floating mechanical shark in â€œBanjo Kazooie,â€ and I remember the green hill zone of â€œSonic: The Hedgehog.â€ But the truly great places â€” the postcard-worthy ones â€” include, for me, just the moon in â€œThe Legend of Zelda: Majoraâ€™s Mask,â€ the big sword bridge in â€œGod of War,â€ Sanctuary Fortress in â€œMetroid Prime 2: Echoes,â€ and, not much else. Almost every other spot â€” even the fun ones â€” from Draculaâ€™s Castle to Vice City feels generic, familiar, or plain unspectacular.
My first reaction to this statement was that I could only think of one truly stand-out location: the final level of Painkiller, which contains a unique vision of Hell: the entire history of warfare, played out from primitive rock-bashing to a modern nuclear war, frozen in time for the player to wander through.
|(Unfortunately, this is the only screenshot of that level that I could find given 45 minutes of searching, and it does not depict the epicness of the level, instead showing just one small part. Trying to find things on the Web is really sucky sometimes.)|
But after sleeping on the question for a few days, this occurred to me: if we judge landmarks by their visual impressions, we tend to ignore what games are about, a large part of which is interactivity, and the player’s understanding of the way things work within that game world. If locales are really going to be game landmarks, rather than fanciful imitations of real-world places that you could experience as well in non-game media, then the impression they leave needs to happen through gameplay; they need to be memorable because of the things they encourage to happen within them, not (just) because of the way they look.
With that new way of looking at things, right away I thought of two places that clearly fit the bill: de_dust from Counter-Strike, and 2fort from Team Fortress. Each of these maps has been remade several times through different iterations of these respective games; though the visual elements have changed, sometimes drastically, the core spirit of the levels remains consistent. Visiting 2fort in Team Fortress 2, running through the halls and up onto the battlements, I instantly recognize it as the same place where I spent so much time in the original Team Fortress.
|Screenshots of 2fort from Team Fortress, Team Fortress Classic, and Team Fortress 2.|
When Wikipedia editors wanted to make a visual comparison between the original Counter-Strike and Counter-Strike: Source, they used screenshots from de_dust; using another map would seem a little bit wrong, because de_dust is the canonical Counter-Strike map. In a sense, de_dust is Counter-Strike, and it doesn’t matter which revision of de_dust you are talking about. (This is especially striking because de_dust was not in the original game. It is made for the Bomb Defusal gameplay mode, which was not added until Beta 4, about 5 months after the initial release).
|This is Wikipedia’s image comparison between two versions of Counter-Strike, showing the view from the same place in de_dust. Cosmetically they appear different, but gameplay-wise they are very similar.|
So it seems to me that these places are landmarks, but not in a visual way. Rather, they are landmarks in a conceptual space, a space of understanding where to go and what to do; that when A happens at location X, then probably B at Y and then C at Z.
Here’s a sand-castle that someone made of de_dust:
Note that it’s a model of the full space (possibly from memory). Pictures of what the view looks like from particular places in de_dust, as you might get as a photographer in a virtual space (or in the screenshot above), are not so compelling. The landmark I am talking about is the entire structure of the level, along with the collected experience from playing it, not a view from a single point in the level at a single instant in time.
It’s worth pointing out that these maps became canonical because they were so compelling to play. They survived the tests of time and rose above the other maps.
Now, I realize that my definition of “landmark” has come pretty far from the meaning that Stephen originally intended. But to me that’s what is so interesting about games — they help us to see things in new, possibly deeper ways. What I have described above is sort of the super-nerdly version of a landmark, but I tell you — if back when I was 15 I understood that “normal people” in the year 2007 would be spending so much time doing the modern version of the same things that I, in 1986, was so shunned-as-a-nerd for (logging into BBS systems and typing messages to people!) then I would have had a very different view of my life at that time. So if anyone out there understands what I am talking about in this post, let’s just think of ourselves as trailblazers.
Stephen casually mentions fame as being one criterion for landmarks, but I’m not sure that’s a good gauge. Most Americans have heard of Niagara Falls as some kind of great waterfall, but Victoria Falls is much more spectacular. (Just to take one measurement for example, Niagra Falls is about 60 meters high, while Victoria Falls is 100). Victoria Falls is a better landmark, but it’s harder for Americans and Europeans to access, so it is less famous for us (though it is considered to be one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, whereas Niagara just isn’t on that list. [Though there is no full consensus on what the Seven Natural Wonders of the World actually are, some items are on pretty much everyone's version of the list: the Grand Canyon, Victoria Falls, Mount Everest, the Great Barrier Reef.])
Then again, de_dust is the most famous Counter-Strike map, so, who knows.