On the Terrific Power of Video Games as Time Capsules

Want to see Edinburgh around 2003? Fire up ‘Project Gotham Racing 2’, and drink in the low-poly memories.

by Chris Scullion
Jun 6 2017, 6:57pm

‘Project Gotham Racing 2’ screenshots captured by the author.

Over the past few weeks, I've been living in the past. Or, more specifically, driving in it.

My free time's been spent exploring a city I thought was gone forever, and it's all thanks to Project Gotham Racing 2.

Let me give you a bit of background so you don't think I'm having some sort of fever dream. Back in 2001, I moved to Edinburgh for four years to study journalism at university.

As is the case with many other people, these years in higher education were among my most formative, transforming my personality and giving me the confidence and social skills needed to make it in life.

Back in my hometown I was a shy boy, an introverted lad who didn't go on nights out with the other teenagers at my school. I was happier at home playing games instead.

Edinburgh photograph courtesy of the author—seen from the same perspective as the screenshot above.

While my school friends were down the park every Friday night drinking Buckfast and trying to chat up anything in a skirt, I was winning the cup in International Superstar Soccer 64 and unlocking all the cheats in GoldenEye 007.

Moving to Edinburgh gave me a fresh start with new friends, a new environment and a completely clean slate. It gave me the kick up the arse I needed to gain confidence and come out of my shell.

I was still a gamer, buying an Xbox and a GameCube in my first year. But I also went out most nights and had fun with my new mates. It was among the best four years of my life.

The streets of Edinburgh became a bank of memories that triggered in my mind everywhere I went. The Virgin Megastores where I blew every student loan payment on horror DVDs and GameCube games. The Stationery Office Bookshop where I bought all my uni supplies. The pub I visited for every leg of Celtic's UEFA Cup run in 2003.

Long story short, the Edinburgh of 2001 to 2005 will always have a special place in my heart, because it was where I became me.

'Project Gotham Racing 2' screenshot by the author. Edinburgh photograph courtesy of the author.

After I graduated I got a job at Official Nintendo Magazine, which meant leaving everything behind again and moving to London. Another set of new friends, another new environment, another clean slate. The Edinburgh memories remained, but it was time to build some new ones.

In the nine years I spent in London I worked for three publications, lived in four different homes, fell in love and got married. Then, when my wife and I decided to move back to Scotland, there was only really one place I wanted to live again.

We moved to Edinburgh in 2015, a full decade after I'd left it behind. My excitement at returning to the place where I spent those four important years quickly turned to confusion and disappointment when I realized that the city had moved on and left my memories behind.

I set up my original Xbox and, ignoring how terrible it looked on my 4K telly, I was back in my Edinburgh again.

The Virgin was gone, thanks to its liquidation a few years prior, and in its place stood an Urban Outfitters. The bookshop was now a Nando's. The charmingly scummy student pub I visited for football games had become a hipster craft beer joint.

It's an odd feeling to be in a city that's so familiar to you and yet so alien at the same time. We'd moved to Edinburgh, but this wasn't my Edinburgh.

Recently I dug out my old Xbox because I had an odd urge to play Pro Evolution Soccer 4 (the best in the series—don't @ me), but instead I noticed my old copy of Project Gotham Racing 2.

'Project Gotham Racing 2' screenshot by the author. Edinburgh photograph courtesy of the author.

Like its predecessor and its spiritual ancestor Metropolis Street Racer before it, Project Gotham Racing 2 offers a series of races through a bunch of digitally recreated cities. While the first PGR featured four cities (London, Toyko, San Francisco and New York), the second game offered 10 new ones to drive through, including the likes of Barcelona, Chicago, Florence... and Edinburgh.

I eagerly set up my original Xbox and, ignoring how terrible it looked upscaled on my 4K telly, I was back in my Edinburgh again. Everything I remembered was exactly where it was during my university days: that bloody Nando's was a bookshop again, for starters.

I spent a good hour in Time Trial mode, slowly driving around each of the game's Edinburgh tracks in a Mini Cooper, studying every building. As I did, a lot of developer Bizarre Creations' corner-cutting became apparent: that same bookshop appeared no fewer than three more times, in random places where it never existed, no doubt to make up for a shop name they didn't have permission to use.

But by and large, it was lovely to travel back to the past and enjoy a low-res, polygonal version of this wonderful city the way I remembered it.

Future generations won't get to experience this feeling. Google Maps recently unlocked its Street View photo archives, meaning any time you're exploring Street View you can call up any of the photos previously taken (before they were replaced by more recent ones).

'Metropolis Street Racer' screenshot captured by the author. Leicester Square photograph: Jul 2014 © 2017 Google.

Call up London's Leicester Square in Google Maps, look at the Bubba Gump Shrimp restaurant in Street View and with the click of your mouse you can roll back the date to an archived 2008 version and see the Planet Hollywood that used to sit in its place.

Assuming Google isn't going anywhere in the future; for today's children nostalgia will be a simple case of loading up Maps when they're older and choosing the year they want to be transported to.

But for people in their early 30s like me, those early eras of polygonal games and the first attempts at "photorealistic" recreations of real-life locations have created capsules of cities at a time it's otherwise impossible to return to and revisit.

Want to see London at the turn of the millennium? Load up The Getaway on PS2, where 10 square miles of the city is there in all its low-poly glory. Fancy a trip round San Francisco circa 1999? Get yourself a Dreamcast and a copy of Metropolis Street Racer. Want to recreate that night you spend taking LSD in Newcastle? Um... just play Rez, that'll do.

'Metropolis Street Racer' screenshot captured by the author. Ripley's at Piccadilly Circus photograph: Jul 2016 © 2017 Google.

Often a game won't aim for a brick-by-brick recreation of a city, and will instead simply offer a feel for what it's like. The district of Kamurocho in the Yakuza games gives a real sense of exploring the real-life Kabukicho area in Tokyo, even if only a small number of the buildings are based on the real thing.

The small shopping district of Dobuita in Yokosuka may not look exactly like it does in Shenmue, but you get a similar vibe as you wander its virtual streets, and often that's enough.

But for me it's really special when an in-game city just feels spot on, when a place you've visited frequently—Edinburgh and London for me, New York or Tokyo for so many others—is immortalized in polygons for all time.

No longer are these games a passable way of seeing modern cities: they're now the best way to visit past ones.

There are even special circumstances where studios went above and beyond what was necessary, the best example being Team Bondi's recreation of 1940s Los Angeles in L.A. Noire.

Given that it was set nearly 65 years before the game was released, Team Bondi would have completely gotten away with making a city that looked vaguely what a '40s LA would have looked like and most people would have been happy.

Instead, the designers went to painstaking detail and researched it thoroughly, creating a version of the city that was as accurate as possible.

This led to a beautiful Eurogamer article by Christian Donlan in which he drove his dad—who actually grew up in LA in the '40s and '50s—around the game's recreation and was thrilled to discover just how detailed it actually was.

'Yakuza 3' screenshot courtesy of Sega. Kabukicho Image capture: Jun 2013 © 2017 Google.

Nostalgia always brings a warm feeling, and it's a lovely thing to see how the purpose of these games has changed over the years. Back when Project Gotham 2 came out I remember—during my entitled teenage years—driving round the Edinburgh track and pointing out the occasional inaccurate detail.

"That shop shouldn't be there." "That construction work's out of date, it's gone now." "Edinburgh castle doesn't look that small."

More than 15 years later though, I find myself driving round its standard-def streets once more and this time excitedly pointing out everything that's right about it.

Related, on Waypoint: 'The Getaway' Could Have Been More Revolutionary than 'Vice City'

I'm willing to bet that nobody at Bizarre Creations back in the early 2000s was trying to do anything other than create the most accurate versions of each of their game's cities. The same goes with Team Soho working on The Getaway, and Sega on its Yakuza series.

Technology of the time may have meant these studios fell slightly short of the perfect recreations they were aiming for, but in at least trying they unwittingly created something that would become far more important years down the line. No longer are these games a passable way of seeing modern cities: they're now the best way to visit past ones.

For 99% of gamers it may be an unnecessary level of detail, but for that one percent who can relate to it on a personal level, going back can mean the world.

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