The other day I was replaying The Crew 2, driving from Texas to San Francisco in my silver 1955 Mercedes-Benz SLR. After passing through the epic canyons and peaks, I finally arrived at the glistening Pacific. Looking at my GPS, now barely 3 miles away from downtown San Francisco, I was shocked to still be seeing dense redwood forests and not, say, suburban Millbrae. Then in a flash, I was finally amidst skyscrapers. But when I looked in my rearview, there were the redwoods I barely left behind.
Booting up GTA V, GTA San Andreas, Saints Row, and Watch Dogs 2, I noticed a similar pattern. We are transported to major cities and vast countrysides, but nothing that really speaks to the in between — to the suburbs.
Where is New York’s mighty Westchester County, once ground zero for COVID in those early days? What about Chicago’s burbs where Ferris Bueller went ham?
As a native New Yorker turned Angelino, it almost seems strange to be asking this question. Once a city slicker, always a city slicker. But I’ve racked up about a zillion miles on Amtrak trains and am obsessed with maps and geography in general. So I started wondering, how can open world games leave out a space that we fundamentally see as Americana? Is this about design choices and constraints, or does it speak to something deeper about how we really view American suburbs – and how desperately we want to escape them?
I figured I would first take my suburbia question to someone who has been creating games since the early 1970s. Don Daglow, pioneer of the MMORPG genre with Neverwinter Nights, broke down his answer into three parts: scale, visual interest, and stereotypes.
In terms of scale, suburbs typically have lots of smaller, more repetitive environmental elements when compared to cities. Think strip malls and identical homes versus the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building.
“Big objects in the environment create vertical movement opportunities as well as horizontal movement in 3D spaces. You can support superhero skills, think Spider Man, and jumping, think early Assassins Creed.” Daglow said. “Godzilla never attacked a small suburb on the rail line north of Tokyo. Why would he waste his time there when there's so much more to chomp downtown?”
This lack of things to chew on in suburbia even held true during the Pokemon Go craze, when the limitations of suburbs in the virtual world collided with the real world. One Rolling Stone article, “Why Pokemon Go Sucks in the Suburbs,” lamented the dearth of PokeStops and gyms in suburban areas when compared to cities.
Lazlow Jones, voice of GTA III’s Chatterbox FM and a longtime director, writer, and producer at Rockstar Games, agreed. But Rockstar itself made a gradual progression from the chaotic cities of GTA to the open natural worlds of Red Dead. Then the company brought the two together in GTA V.
“When I was at Rockstar, we started off focusing on open world games set in urban areas because it gave us great density,” Lazlow began. “But over the years we expanded to rural environments while keeping them interesting and engaging.”
In GTA III, notice the way you’re plopped down in Liberty City’s bustling Portland Island, a Brooklyn-Queens rendition. But what’s still great about that game is how the world opens up slowly and you’re able to see, but not yet taste, the even more intriguing Staunton Island (Manhattan) on the horizon.
But if the more suburban third island, Shoreside Vale, came next, I might still be chilling at my first safehouse and Salvatore Leone might still be alive.
Lazlow did mention “fan favorite” Bully, Rockstar’s foray into suburbia featuring elite high school cliques. But Bully also brought Rockstar’s patented brand of humor and satire, where you wreak havoc in small town New England with an arsenal of slingshots, bags of marbles, and itching powder.
Other suburban settings in video games, from the more open world ‘50s alien spoof Destroy All Humans and Simpsons Hit and Run, to the very linear Bart’s Nightmare, also bring with them humor and a heightened reality. Bart’s Nightmare mixes standard beat-em-up fare as homes, hostile mailboxes, and Principal Skinner himself whiz by, with more supernatural levels like Bart in hell.
The one place where the suburbs might be routinely depicted in gaming is in the zombie and survival genre. As for why that might be, I’m reminded of the quirky documentary, Los Angeles Plays Itself, which notes how much Hollywood loves to destroy L.A. in the movies; we’re not talking about a city with a long history like New York, nevermind Rome or Cairo. In video games, though, there’s no city not worth blowing up. But when zombies descend on the suburbs, where many players still boot up their gaming systems and computers, it’s seen as an existential threat.
Carly Kocurek, who teaches in the Game Design and Experiential Media program at Illinois Tech, says suburbs operate in the realm of “perceived beigeness” making it hard to imagine them as settings for the kinds of stories and worlds we see most often in open world games.
To the extent that suburbia does show up strongly, these spaces often serve as a starting or transition point for a character, akin to maybe the first 10 minutes of a film, or the movie’s midpoint.
Robert Rabin, who’s worked as a lead open world designer on games like Atlas Fallen, points to GTA V as a good example of this. Michael De Santa’s character arc focuses on whether he’s going to finally fully settle into family life with his wife, kids, and painful afternoon yoga, or build a criminal empire that spans every square inch of San Andreas.
Ignoring that Rabin and I sparred over whether Beverly Hills should actually be considered a true suburb, it is accurate that Michael gets pulled back to his gated community throughout GTA V’s main storyline. His suburban angst is further hammered home by contrasting it with two other main characters at your control who are sometimes world’s away, like a huge warp to Trevor, alone in diapers at the peak of Mount Chiliad.
There are other design reasons why suburbs don’t feature prominently in video games and why sparse areas away from intriguing points of interest are often the first to get cut.
“You’re really trying to compress a massive space in real life, into a virtual space which is actually really small. It’s like taking something and cutting it down by 10x,” explained Will Harris, who led the open world design team at Light Speed LA.
Harris says that in world building, one of the first steps is thinking about defining features. What makes Chicago, for instance, feel different than Washington D.C.? Huge landmarks immediately orient us in a specific space and differentiate it from others.
And woe unto you if you do try to architect suburbs in large numbers. Developers could try to build out distinct houses, began Erik Villarreal, an environmental artist at Visual Concepts/2K. “But this requires a developer to create homes that stand out from each other, which can be time consuming and tie up a lot of resources,” he said.
Harris adds that there are only so many mechanics in sandbox gameplay and design. He calls the suburbs “interstitial spaces.” But the larger these spaces become, the more unwieldy, and the more quickly the player realizes that these spaces are superficial. We’ve all had the frustrating experience in gaming where we reach a certain part of a map, but then discover there’s nothing actually to do there. “So the Staten Island kit gets vaporized. We trim the fat.” Harris says.
This explains why True Crime: New York City, which takes nearly 26 minutes to drive through (a true feat for 2005), only features Manhattan. Or why the mythical Gator Keys that some GTA fan communities claim was originally planned for Vice City, was nixed, fun as it might’ve been fun to see Rockstar’s take on the swampy Deep South back in the early aughts.
This brings us back to the experience I had in Crew 2 and also playing GTA San Andreas Remastered, where without distance fog, you can see towering Mt. Chillad right down the road from San Fierro. But after all my conversations, I’m not sure I can blame my unfortunate experience in these games solely on the disappearance of suburbia.
In fact, there are many other games I’ve played where I never experienced that kind of game breaking immersion. With or without suburban spaces, a world needs to add up. When it does, every corner of its world has a purpose. This is why I’ve always felt that GTA San Andreas is the most groundbreaking of the franchise.
When CJ first gets banished to the countryside by Officer Tenpenny, you really feel like you’re in a whole new world. And after that first heist with Catalina, you’ve already forgotten about Sweet, Ryder, and the rest of your homies you left behind in Los Santos.
“This doesn’t get talked about enough, trying to get the world to play nicely with each other in terms of spacing, timing, and blending one art set into another. But that’s the hard part.” Harris says. “We’re not really trying to build realism. We’re trying to build believability.”