Dec 8, 2016

Let there be Game Cities

It took a little bit longer than expected, all things do, but I do believe it's looking rather lovely, and hopefully as enlightening as possible. I am of course referring to my brand new personal/professional site (and not blog) Game Cities, that can be found over at A place for my work on designing game cities, consulting on urban matters, and approaching  the creation of all sorts of settlements in video games, board games, and RPGs.

Have a look. And, if you are looking for some help on your project, do drop me a line!

Oct 6, 2016

Game Cities: Five Equally Essential Books

Feeling that five books can never be enough --let alone cover the bare essentials of applied imaginary urbanism-- here is a list of another five books that will hopefully help you further understand cities, and design or tweak the ones about to appear in your game. It is, mind you, a proven list of books that has already assisted me in tackling the game worlds of a variety of projects. So...

Let's start with a classic; none other than Italo Calvino's literary masterpiece Invisible Cities. Though far from a technical handbook, this rather famous work is the darling of each and every urbanist, planner, and/or city geographer I have ever met. It follows Marco Polo as he explores dozens of fantastical, whimsical, and wildly imaginative cities, and describes them to the ageing Kublai Khan. Each city is fundamentally different to the other ones, and over the two or so pages that are dedicated to it, explores a different idea. One city might look like a ship from the desert and a camel from the sea, whereas another one might be hanging over the abyss, or be sitting atop a huge necropolis mirroring it and encompassing its past. Each of said cities could obviously help inspire an entire game world by itself, or even allow us glimpses at the reality of the human condition or, at the very least, its built expressions.  

A Burglar's Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh wasn't what I expected it to be, and though it really does help with providing a vastly different approach to viewing the urban environment --as a burglar and thus as someone not constrained by doors and the accepted use of urban space-- it isn't as thorough and methodical in its approach as I would have liked it to be. Still, the Burglar's Guide is a fine source of inspiration, and, unexpectedly, a very handy tool when it comes to actually approaching level design on the city level. The fact that it made me think of other alternate approaches to the use of urban space --say by a beggar, a dissident, or a prostitute, to name a few-- can only be considered a good thing. 

If you are working on a dystopic setting though, what you simply need to read is Evil Paradises (edited by Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk). It is a provocative, varied, and thought-provoking collection of texts, focusing on the horrible utopias pure capitalism has created for itself in cities, deserts, and even the oceans. A multi-faceted examination of how the (impressively innovative) utopia of the rich is bound to become the dystopia of the poor, the book covers places from Dubai and Orange County, to Kabul and Beijing. It features the words of urbanists, geographers, architects, planners, historians, and even China Miéville.

The Spotter's Guide To Urban Engineering was suggested to me by former PC Gamer US editor Logan Decker, and, despite trusting the man's taste and knowledge, I frankly didn't quite know what to expect. Happily, I ran into an excellent book covering everything regarding the foundations of the modern city. Everything I was taught when studying to become an engineer has been condensed, illustrated, and brilliantly presented in a way that will make sense to all sorts of creative and not-so-creative people. Infrastructure, materials, technology, roads, nuclear plants, communication networks, sewage systems, and all sorts of other mostly ignored crucial bits of the urban tissue get presented in a useful, and, most importantly, implementable way. 

Cities of the World - A History In Maps by Peter Whitehead does exactly what it says on the cover. It crams centuries of global urban history into its couple hundred lush 9"x12.2" pages, and shows it off with short texts and some wonderful cartography. Major cities across all continents are showcased, and unique insights into their history as well as the whole of the history of cities are provided. As for the 16th century map of Venice by Ignazio Danti you'll find in this book, well, it's a masterpiece. 

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Aug 31, 2016

(Bits) Of Ancient Cities and The Dreaded Nékromegà

So. Here's what I've been working on both lately and mainly in case anyone was wondering and for everyone who doesn't really care for introductions: Nékromegà, Moribund, and an interactive, stylized version of ancient Athens for Culturplay. Now, as these things are taking up tons of time --all of the time actually- I will not be elaborating on any of them just now, but I will be fervently hoping that you try and check them out. Also, do please keep in mind that one of the lot will be a truly ambitious freeware thing and sport three (whole and wholly) imaginary cities.

Jul 5, 2016

Eye^Game^Candy: Wonderland

Being one of the most ambitious text adventures ever created, and making a brave attempt at thoroughly modernizing interactive fiction interfaces, Wonderland by Magnetic Scrolls is one of those few games that should be considered important. It also happens to be one I really do love. Somewhere between the fact that I never managed to finish it, the childhood memories of opening its big box with all those 5.25" floppies, the amazing little visual vignettes, and those incredibly appropriate and very whimsical puzzles I absolutely struggled with, I may have created a mental image of Wonderland that might just be too good to be true. I know. And even though I don't want to spoil the memories, I know I'll eventually have to revisit it.

You can play the game online here (albeit not in its full glory; you'll be needing DOSBox for that), and find out more about it on Mobygames and the Magnetic Scrolls Memorial

Jun 23, 2016

Game Cities: Implying Size and Complexity

Let's imagine for a moment that you have created a unique, believable, sprawling, and impressively detailed metropolis. You have it mapped out, thoroughly described, and have its architectural styles all sorted out. It's a unique, beautiful, and complex place, and you are rightfully proud of it. Only problem is that realizing all of it on screen would probably cost you a few million dollars/euros/pounds/what-have-yous.

Assuming you are neither Blizzard nor Rockstar, you'll thus have to try and keep things as simple and cheap as possible -- your ability to create assets will always be limited. Chances are you will have to abstract and generalize your world, decide to move to 2D, avoid creating an open-world, or to even allow exploration and gameplay in only a handful of locations. As you will not be able to show the full size and complexity of your work, your city, you will simply have to imply it.

Now, take a look at the picture above if you will. Notice how few buildings are actually shown, and ask yourself whether this could be a village scene. Or even a picture taken in a small town.

It could not. Of course, it could not. You know, possibly without exactly knowing why, that this is a picture depicting a part of a big city neighborhood; most probably of a 20th century metropolis. You might only be able to see a tiny part of said city, but this sort of density, and this kind of spatial organization couldn't be found anywhere outside a big urban centre. A town or village would neither be able to support it, nor would they need it.

What's more, said picture provides the viewer with even more information. Information that goes beyond the type of urban agglomeration we are looking at, and lets us feel the living texture of the particular place. A thousand little stories, some of them possible only in this particular city, have left their mark on the hanging clothes, those buildings, the women, and even the wires we see, while the organization of everyday life itself and the class-based nature of those tenements is instantly obvious.

Small urban scenes and carefully selected areas, you see, can work brilliantly in implying size, complexity, urban function and texture, and in letting us conjure images of everyday life. In showcasing our elaborate creation in an easy to summarize way. Provided of course, there is a sensible backstory of our city, and an imaginary or real geography to draw upon. It's incredible how the existence of a city plan, regardless of whether it's ever used in its entirety, can help lend even the tiniest of places character and, once again, imply size.

Here is a screenshot from the wonderful Blackwell series:

It is, admittedly, based on a very real place, but only a well thought out and decently mapped imaginary (or, indeed, real) city, would make it easy to calculate what the view from a particular position would look like, and to decide upon the street furniture. Besides, not every place sports ghostly jazz musicians, and only a metropolis of certain wealth would be able to both afford and need such a bridge.

Infrastructure, bridges and roads in particular, but not exclusively so, are another means of instantly conjuring images of massive urban formations. You don't see many places with the road and mass transport networks of big cities, and it would be sensible to assume that a huge, multi-tiered bridge close to the home of an important NPC, would imply said NPC is an urban dweller.

Admittedly, as cities are incredibly complex and dynamic entities, and as bigger cities are even more so, tricking players into believing that a handful of locations or a vastly abstracted open world setting are functioning, living cities, can be done in a myriad of other ways too. Ways that can and should be combined with each other, without obviously ignoring rather crucial matters such as the ones already mentioned.

We can have players travelling through space (but only looking at it via the highly controlled and easy to manipulate view of a car window) long enough to make them feel the sheer enormity of things, we can present them with architectural creations designed to daily service tens of thousands, we can model and properly arrange a few buildings in relation to each other, and obviously we can provide them with maps. Actual in-game maps.

Possibly like the one from the original Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father, which, combined with the excellent and highly atmospheric locations, gave adventurers the illusion of exploring a huge chunk of New Orleans:

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Jun 17, 2016

Out of the blue and Into The Basilica

Sometimes my brain works in mysterious ways. Some other times the poor thing gets hopefully confused, and on even rarer occasions it decides people should have free access to the Into The Basilica: Revisited PDF. Why? Well, because I think it's a nice little booklet I had fun putting together, and because it's a document oozing misguided pre-launch optimism. Oh, and it's not been available anywhere else since that one time it appeared as a Bundle In A Box bonus.

Also, the pictures in it are interesting, as are the words. Apparently and for some incredibly odd reason I still have fond memories of the making of Droidscape: Basilica too...

Jun 1, 2016

Adventures In Urban Imagineering

With the first (and hopefully not last) part of my cooperation with Frogwares on the Sinking City's city just completed, I felt I really should let you know what the plan is, oh reader dearest. Besides the odd patreon supported piece for, and those Warp Door or Retro Treasures posts, that is.

Well, excitingly, I've started working on another big project involving cities and games with a fantastic new studio. It's back to urban imagineering full-time, and I couldn't be happier!

I cannot say much more about this new project just yet, but I'm loving the fact that I got involved in it early in pre-production, and that the team is determined to create both an excellent game and a unique urban environment. Some incredibly intriguing concepts have been going around lately, though I do imagine there's a lot of work to be done before things can be made public.

What I can talk about though is Nékromegà. An adventure-RPG hybrid sporting voxels, that is already looking unlike anything I've ever seen, and will attempt to do very weird stuff with its storytelling, while simultaneously tackling matters of colonialism and undeath. My role in it is, not entirely surprisingly, being an urban consultant. Mostly.

Oh, and I'm very slowly designing a fantasy / medieval city for my own entertainment, which might or might not evolve into an exploration focused game. It's too early to say, and, before I embark on another project of my own, I will have made sure that all the work on Earthling Priorities has been completed.

Off to work! 

Mar 25, 2016

Urban Planning for Lovecraftian Horror: The First Steps

[This article was written for the Frogwares site and originally appeared there.]

Cultists can worship ancient and essentially unknowable deities in or around any city. A basement in New York, a posh London apartment, a secluded New Orleans swamp, a derelict church in Kiev and, in extraordinary cases of summoning something truly gargantuan, Mexico City’s Plaza de la Constitución can all work brilliantly. Cultists operating in them and strange things happening hidden in their shadows wouldn’t though make New York, London, New Orleans, Kiev or Mexico City Lovecraftian cities in and of themselves. It would only make them cities in which something Lovecraftian is going on.

Happily, when Frogwares approached me to work on the Sinking City’s open world city, they already knew they weren’t just looking to create an intriguing, living 1920s urban environment, and then simply flood and fill it with horrors in order to create a passable background of urbanism. They wanted to create something fundamentally different. A city the foundations of which had been subtly but definitely shaped by the Cthulhu mythos. A truly Lovecraftian urban environment with a strong sense of place –a Genius Loci— and the ability to feel disturbing even on a lovely autumn afternoon.

But, how would such a city differ from, say, a haunted version of Providence or Boston? Well, let me indirectly answer this by giving you an example; the very same example that helped me approach the matter. Think if you will of Lovecraft’s ‘The Horror At Red Hook’ and ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’. The first is taking place in a brilliantly presented yet still metaphysically mundane Brooklyn, whereas the latter in the decidedly different from your average city Innsmouth. Innsmouth, you see, is not merely a place inhabited by strange people with alien customs, nor is it just the hiding and mating place of the Deep Ones.

It is instead a very unique town built around the needs and desires of a hybrid and Deep Ones population, which simultaneously allows for some semblance of seemingly normal city life and maintains a facade of humanity. Innsmouth serves the monstrous religious needs of its inhabitants, lets them, among other things, move around unseen, live in relative comfort and have easy access to the sea, but it also has a small network of shops, residences, hotels etc to offer to the unsuspecting mortal. Obviously, it can never feel absolutely right, even though people who’ve lived there for years still can’t exactly describe what is wrong with the place. They know they should be scared, but cannot tell what of exactly.

A spoiler-free glimpse at the 90-pages long ‘Urban Manifestations of Lovecraftian Horror’ I wrote for the Sinking City team.

The main question I and the Sinking City team had to answer was thus what the city of Oakmont would look and feel like, and that was a question that, handily, could only begin to be approached in a perversely traditional geographic way. The works of H. P. Lovecraft simply wouldn’t be enough in providing us with all the answers, though admittedly re-reading HPL’s urban focused stories felt too good to be considered work. And, uninhabitable as it might be, R’lyeh is quite the metropolis…

Anyway. I was certain that the first thing we’d have to do would be decide on what the functions of such a city would be, and acknowledge the fact that they would have to be divided into two broad and necessarily intermingling categories. Not dissimilarly to Innsmouth, on one hand there would have to be normal urban functions such as traffic, commerce, and production, and on the other hand there would have to be the secret functions serving ancient inhuman goals. Both sets of functions would have historically shaped the city, while dialectically tending to the dark soul of Oakmont and allowing for a hefty 1920s urban center to exist and retain its population in pre-Depression New England.

Until the flood* struck, that is, and promptly submerged great chunks of the place under water, while allowing its less advertised set of functions to take over and start inviting every passing Old One to the city. The flood that helped Oakmont’s dark core to emerge and make itself obvious.

Said majestic and terrifying core cannot emerge in an unshaped vacuum though; nor in front of a flimsy, obviously fake urban background. The horrors of the flood and those unearthed by it have to manifest themselves in a city that actually feels and behaves like one. No matter how strange and disturbing Oakmont might at times (and places) be, it will have to feel lived-in and real, and that’s why we have to excavate its present in its history. That is why crafting its detailed history has been so important to me.

It will be –and to a point already is– a history that even when invisible has informed planning choices ranging from the mundane (what street furniture do we need?) to the architectural (how does this temple look like and has it changed during the past 100 years?) to the urbanistic (why is this house here?) to the occult (when were those half-hidden monoliths erected?)  to those important matters of everyday life (what do people do on a Sunday evening when not running away from eldritch horrors?). Planning choices both collective and individual, both spontaneous and institutional.

The Sinking City is not being treated as a collection of buildings. Its streets are not merely an opportunity for Frogwares’ artists to show off their skills in creating facades.  We are not limiting ourselves to horror or architectural elements either, and the whole team has realized that cities are much more than even their functions. They are way more complex than that. They are the people. The public spaces. The climate, the sky, the smells and colors. The impromptu festivals and the strikes. The looming factories and the old harbour.

In the case of Oakmont the city is also the roaring ’20s, New England, speakeasies, Prohibition, and most emphatically the flood, and we’ll be doing our very best to create a complex, living, breathing Lovecraftian urban environment unlike anything else and possible only in the interactive medium of videogames.

*This is not your average garden-variety New England flood. It is a flood stranger and way more persistent than even the 1936 one that devastated much of New England leaving behind over 150 dead.

Mar 16, 2016

Progress Harder with Workers In Progress: Special Edition

I announced it a while back and it finally happened. Huzzah! Just like that and in the most magical of ways possible the brand new WIP is here and it's no longer a WIP, so, please, do take a moment to welcome and several to play Workers In Progress: Special Edition - Progress Harder. The definitive be-the-working-class-of-Greece simulation and, thanks to the amazing twine-powers of lectronice, a truly beautiful and polished text-based game.

But looks and fancy typography are not all that's changed. I've actually edited and partly re-written most of the game which, handily, can now be played in English, French (translated by EnsembleVide), Turkish (translated by Işık Barış Fidaner) and Spanish (translated by Pablo Martínez). Oh, and there's still a book suggestion for every ending you reach!

WIP:SE-PH can be played online on or downloaded from a variety of sources to be enjoyed off line and in the browser of your choice.

Reminder: I could really use your support via Patreon in order to survive long enough to make more indie gaming (and gaming in general) words and, of course, actual games and things. Thanks! 

Feb 25, 2016

Game Cities: Five Essential Books

Despite what many seem to naively and inexplicably believe, designing a more or less fictional (and in equal measures functional) city is not an easy thing to do. Even less so when it's a city that will have to take a myriad of technical and cost constraints into consideration; a videogame city. Still, one has to start from some place and should one actually desire to come up with something believable and interesting, well, I do suggest one starts by reading through the five books I'm about to suggest.

A word of warning though: It would be wise to keep in mind that, what with cities being the incredibly complex and dynamic entities they are, five books could never be enough. Every imaginary urban place project I've worked on, for example, did indeed require quite a lot of fresh research and I've been studying cities since the late '90s.

On to the books:

The City In History by Lewis Mumford. 650 pages of exquisitely written history that go beyond merely presenting readers with the exciting story of urbanism from the neolithic to the modern era, and actually attempt to define the essence of the city. To identify its core and understand its function, while presenting readers with an amazing journey through human evolution, philosophy, architecture, planning, politics and art. If one ever hopes to truly understand any urban environment, one simply has to have read Mumford's classic, definitive work.  

Good City Form by Kevin Lynch is, despite its narrower scope, another classic that has defined contemporary urban thought. It may not be as all encompassing and grand in its ambition, but it does focus on the visual aspects of the city and is thus crucial when it comes to the quite visual medium of videogames. Good City Form examines and reviews the physical forms of the city, its image, its planning, its design and its structure and is thus a very handy tool for every designer of places both imaginary and real.

Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson. A recently released and unexpectedly excellent book that, you'll be happy to know, is not aimed at planners and/or architects. It's a book that effortlessly moves from Cavafy's barbarians and Wright's unrealized projects to revolutionary Hungary, post-revolutionary Russia and the wildest sci-fi urbanism, only to return to Bruno Taut, the pirate utopia of Libertatia and the mad Great War heroics of Gropius. A book that will definitely inspire and get you both thinking and imagining.

City of Quartz by Mike Davis. Often described as the work that predicted the Rodney King riots, the City of Quartz impressively does what it says on the cover: it excavates the future in Los Angeles by exploring an immensely intriguing and very existing contemporary dystopia and its brief but brutal history of breakneck evolution. What's more, the book manages to showcase just how complex, dynamic and vibrant every city is, while simultaneously telling a story involving Chandler, Brecht and some absolutely excellent jazz.

Key Concepts in Urban Studies by M. Gottdiener and Leslie Budd. Back when I was actively teaching people about cities, geography and planning this was the book I had used the most in order to provide students with a spherical knowledge of the field. It's a small, excellently researched and up to date work that swiftly covers an impressive variety of subjects from housing and gentrification to the models of urban growth and suburbanization.

[In the off chance you are fluent in Greek, I'd suggest you also read my PhD thesis. It's freely available online here and it will cover most of your metropolitan and theoretical needs.]

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