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How Real-Life Graffiti Mirrors Video Games' Environmental Storytelling

Though on-the-nose in-game messages have often been the butt of jokes, a pandemic and social upheaval reveal that maybe all that graffiti wasn't as goofy as we thought.

Mark Twain never played a video game. But he did, more than a century ago, succinctly summarize the difficulty game developers continue to have as they attempt to craft believable worlds.

"Truth is stranger than fiction," Twain wrote in 1897. "But it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't."

As it turns out, there is little fiction that video game critics are more skeptical of than the graffiti developers dream up to emblazon their virtual walls. Back in 2013, Kotaku published a piece titled "Cool It With The Dumb Video-Game Graffiti" that chronicled the medium's history of on-the-nose wall writing. And, until recently, it was easy to agree with the argument presented in that piece: that game developers spend so much time constructing living, breathing worlds, filling them with meticulous detail. Why ruin them with un-subtle graffiti? And besides, what's the rationale? Wouldn't people in the midst of a crisis have more important things to do than writing obvious graffiti messages to be discovered by some late-arriving player character? Would they really spend their precious time scrawling their discontent? Would the residents of The Last of Us’ quarantine zones really steal a can of spray paint to write “Stop feeding us lies! Give us our rations!” on a wall?

But then the last few months happened. The COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the United States, leaving more than 130,000 dead. The national unemployment rate was 11.1% in June.

"Extreme moments in history such as elections, wars, etc., cause the public to take to the streets and write their feelings and thoughts," said Alan Ket, co-founder of The Museum of Graffiti in Miami, Fla., in an email. "The COVID-19 pandemic is having the same effect on people."

And in the midst of the pandemic, protests broke out in all 50 states following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by the Minneapolis police in late May. In this time of national unrest, graffiti keeps popping up. If you've criticized video game graffiti in the past, it may surprise you that the art and messages graffiti writers are spraying on walls look an awful lot like the kind you would find in a video game. It's un-subtle. It's pointed. It's made by people in the midst of a crisis, spending their precious time writing messages on a wall.

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Basically, video games got it right. But what is the purpose of graffiti anyway, in games and in the real world? How is it used by developers and artists? And how do the purposes of IRL wall art and scribbles on virtual walls compare to each other?


Back in March, Gone Home and Tacoma developer Steve Gaynor shared a picture from a neighborhood's NextDoor post in which someone had painted "Plague" across the street in large white letters. That bit of real-life environmental storytelling was just one way reality was beginning to resemble a video game.

"It was so funny," Gaynor said in an interview with GameSpot, laughing. “It was the first weekend after the first real stay-at-home, shelter-in-place orders had come out and we went on a walk in our neighborhood and just kept our distance from everybody. My wife and I were walking around and... there was a little kid who ran by who was pretend-running away from his friend just screaming, 'You've got the 'rona, you've got the 'rona!' And then some ladies biked past and they were talking about how they weren't going to get to leave their houses for forever long. And it was like: all of this is dialogue you would hear from NPCs that were in a city that was on a pandemic lockdown. But I guess this is just actually how it is when you're in a situation like this."

Of course, graffiti with a socio-political message isn't unique to times of extraordinary crisis. Since 2015, the Tumblr blog Radical Graffiti has curated a collection of spraypainted "anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian, and anti-colonial graffiti from around the world." From March of this year on, many of these posts have captured COVID-related messages. "Capitalism is the Virus" is a common refrain. Calls for a rent strike have also become common in the past few months. In the midst of the worldwide uprisings following George Floyd's death, the COVID graffiti has often been infused with anti-police rhetoric. One throw-up reads "COPS = COVID." A message in Berlin, when translated from German, reads "Quarantine the Cops."

By linking these distinct, but connected, societal issues, graffiti helps to reveal the roots of the protest movement which it accompanies. John Lennon, associate professor of English at the University of South Florida, has studied this kind of street art for his upcoming book Conflict Graffiti: From Revolution to Gentrification, the Politics of Writing on Walls. Lennon advocates understanding conflict graffiti as a phenomenon that comes in three waves. We're currently in the middle of the second or third, depending on where you look.

In the first wave, writers (that is, graffiti artists), who are already actively involved in the street art subculture, create art. But in the second wave, folks who have never picked up a can of spray paint before begin to take to the streets, expressing their discontent on walls. In the third wave, some of the graffiti is sanctioned and, as a result, co-opted by official channels. Radical messages demanding concrete action are replaced with calls for love and unity. Artists behind these messages may have good intentions, but in practice, they serve to undermine the protest movement. Lennon says that graffiti is indeed part of the protest movement; a distinct but connected form of direct action.

"What graffiti is right now during these movements is one tool of many tools that people use," Lennon explained. "I personally believe that writing on the walls is one tool that is connected to staying in the streets, as well. Both are types of bodily protest. They're very different, but they are intermingled and they do play off of each other in important ways.... So someone who writes graffiti is disembodied. We only see the message. But that is connected to hundreds and thousands of people on the streets."

According to Susan Phillips, Pitzer College professor and author of The City Beneath: A Century of Los Angeles Graffiti, graffiti as a political tool has existed roughly as long as graffiti itself.

"Political writing has a long history that does indeed date back to the ancient world," Phillips said. "Political graffiti tends to emerge when change is possible, when systems are being challenged, as people are seeking to create new narratives. Graffiti works in concert with other aspects of social movements to create change. Did people writing 'Defund Police' in the streets influence Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's decision to consider funding cuts to the LAPD during the Black Lives Matter protesting here? It's hard to say that it did directly, but messaging like that has definitely helped to amplify that demand, as well as many of the demands [from] Black Lives Matter. Political graffiti has always played an important role in change movements."

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To Express A Message

Umurangi Generation, released on PC in May, nails the use of graffiti as political expression as explained by Lennon. A photography game set in a dystopian alternate present, the game follows a group of friends through a series of urban spaces. Most of these levels are littered with graffiti, created either by street youths like the protagonists or the underworked soldiers tasked with guarding the country against a mysterious threat.

"I guess the kind of conclusion around the whole thing can be seen as a bit of a political statement from me. The game itself is essentially about looking at how neoliberalism handles the problems it creates," said developer Tali Faulkner, a Māori of Ngāi Te Rangi descent, living in Australia.

"The example from when I made it, being here in Australia, these bushfires just decimated everything. The system that allowed that to happen was totally unequipped to handle it. And the idea was that, with the situation we're in at the moment with COVID-19, here we go again. It's, for me, kind of the idea that the characters are going through the same thing that I as a Millennial feel at the moment and also that I as an indigenous person feel at the moment. And I think... when you've got the opportunity to say something like that, I think you really can't pull your punches, because people who disagree with you definitely won't."

The graffiti in Faulkner's game, similarly, pulls no punches. But the people who have hired your character to photograph it attempt to undermine its message just the same. For example, in the game's "Walled City" level, a piece of graffiti states bluntly, "Cops Come Here to Kill Us." But the player's instructions task them with capturing the word "Cops." The product you create, then, is entirely divorced from its anti-police context. As the player, you play an active role in transforming a "Wave 2" expression of anti-authoritarian sentiment into a "Wave 3" piece of aesthetic propaganda.

Sometimes, in games, the crisis is simply within the character's mind. The world of BioShock, for example, provides plenty of reason for paranoia. The underwater city of Rapture was founded on the objectivist ideals of Andrew Ryan (whose name is a clear nod to Ayn Rand, the philosophy’s real-life proponent). It’s a philosophy built on the idea that it is morally good to act in one’s own self-interest, and the people of Rapture have, by and large, bought in. Inflated egos rule the city, and its denizens experiment with superpower-granting Plasmids and become addicted to the ADAM from which Plasmids are composed.

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In BioShock 2's Minerva's Den expansion, we meet Reed Wahl, who meets both criteria. Driven mad from ADAM overuse, the engineer imagines himself as embattled, under siege by his one-time colleague, the brilliant Charles Milton Porter. Wahl paints "Traitor" in stark white paint across Porter's portrait. He covers the floors with unhinged messages in a blood-red scrawl. Conflict doesn't need to be real to feel real.

Sometimes, though, the crisis is real. And the graffiti can guide us through.

To Teach

You can't talk about video game graffiti without talking about "Cut off their limbs!"

Back in 2008's Dead Space, hero Isaac Clarke arrived on the USG Ishimura, a massive spaceship designed to function as a “planet-cracker”--transforming celestial bodies into usable raw materials and energy. As Isaac and his team arrived, they found no signs of life--except, of course, for the Necromorphs who had overrun the ship.

As he ventured in, Isaac found the message above scrawled in blood (and accompanied by a pair of bloody handprints for good measure) above the 211-V Plasma Cutter, a weapon that would allow Clarke to follow those sanguine instructions. It's a controversial piece of environmental storytelling. Some players found it effective. Some imagined a fatally injured person dabbing at their mortal wounds like a painter at an easel and rolled their eyes. But zeroing in on whether it's believable or not misses another function that this in-game graffiti fulfills.

"Well, obviously [cutting off the Necromorphs’ limbs] was our major mechanic in the game and when we first started testing, people weren't picking it up," Dead Space co-creator Glen Schofield said. "And this was in early testing... as we're starting to put more storytelling into the game, [and] we're realizing that people aren't cutting off the limbs. They're still doing what they would normally do in a video game. Even though the weapons were cutters, they were still shooting [Necromorphs] in the bodies, trying to shoot them in the head. And I remember saying, 'We've got to do something about this,' and so we just said, 'Well, we're writing things in the world already. Let's put that in there.' And yeah, it was pretty memorable when we put it in there because, boom, right away, people just started shooting off the limbs. It was great. It was a real cool way of promoting our major mechanic."

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When tutorializing players, developers have plenty of tools at their disposal. They can present the game's rules via text box. They can transport players to training rooms where they can practice a move until they can consistently execute it, as id Software has done in its recent games, such as Doom Eternal. They can build the tutorial into the game's story--think Alyx Vance teaching Gordon Freeman to use the gravity gun during a game of catch with Dog. But, ultimately, one size doesn't fit all.

The same is true of environmental storytelling, more generally. When key members of the team behind BioShock 2: Minerva's Den, including Gaynor, left 2K to found their own studio, The Fullbright Company, they had to find new ways to tell a story. What worked for Rapture--an underwater city founded on Randian principles and populated by Big Daddy-sized egos-- wouldn't necessarily work for the domestic setting the team was working with in Gone Home.

"When you're just in a normal family's house, it's like, none of them have gone crazy," Gaynor said, referring to the setting of Gone Home, which is littered with notes and other objects left behind by a family. "Not a lot of bloody writing on the walls. But you also get to rely on [other] things. I don't need to put a sign that says 'attic this way' because people know that the attic is upstairs."

"Some of the challenges with this kind of narrative design is that it's not one-size-fits-all. So there will almost certainly be other great solutions for how to get story across ambiently, or as part of exploration that will feel very appropriate to the game that they're in. Such as, for instance, the narrator in The Stanley Parable. That's a whole narrative mechanical concept that's all about The Stanley Parable and you can't just drop that narrator into another game. But there will be more quote-unquote 'Stanley Parables' that have their own really cool [system] that you may not be able to rubber-stamp everywhere and hope that it'll work just as well."

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To Build A World

That's true for graffiti, too. The art form's usage in games is almost as diverse as its usage in the real world. The graffiti that Carl Johnson sprays over gang tags in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas serves a very different function than "Stop feeding us lies! Give us our rations!" emblazoned on the wall of a quarantine zone in The Last of Us. And bearing witness to wall writing in Umurangi Generation is not the same as throwing up your own tags in May's Sludge Life.

But the words that developers choose to display on their walls matter. They give us context. They tell stories. They build a world.

"The platonic ideal of environmental storytelling, I think, in a lot of people's heads, is being able to get some idea or some part of the story across without any words, and with just seeing this object and this object and it's in this environment, and now I know this whole story. And what I would say is that the bandwidth for the kind of story you can tell in that way is pretty narrow," Gaynor said.

"But that said, in an ideal world, the language that goes along with it is supplementary to that. So you might put [multiple objects] in this environment and then there's one word up on the wall and that ties all the stuff you saw together."

At its best, graffiti in our world can play a similar role.

"Graffiti is not a book. Graffiti is not something that is going to walk you through all the different points," Lennon said. "It's there to sort of just jar you awake."

One word on the wall may make everything make sense.


Andrew King

Andrew King is a museum caretaker and freelance journalist who writes reviews and reported features for GameSpot. Some of his recent favorites are Hitman 3, It Takes Two and Mundaun. Follow him on Twitter: @funnelchest94

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