Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Paradigm Playground

"Urban reclamation" is simply the idea that by creating an urban landscape around us, society has robbed us of something dear to us. In the vein of the Situationalists in France (or psycho-geographers), graffiti artists, skateboarders, and the like, Parkour is a movement of reclaiming the urban landscape. As such, it is a cultural movement to break the monotony of the urban lifestyle. [...] We re-imagine the concrete and architecture as we see fit, and are no longer bound by the rules of "stairs" and "barriers" and "fences." We reclaim all land to what it was meant for: movement.

—Andy Tran, 'Two Theories on Parkour Philosophy'


"3. A system of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitutes a way of viewing reality."
—wiktionary.org, definition of paradigm.


Screenshot from Mirror's Edge: Faith leaps over a giant storm drain Faith accelerates feet-first along a zipline

Parkour is everywhere these days. It was conceived fairly recently and took off as people realised that it's actually a pretty cool concept, with some interesting underlying philosophy. The main idea revolves around getting from one place to another, usually in an urban environment, and traversing with ease and fluidity all the obstacles that might get in your way—be they fences, walls, or entire buildings. Everything is done with the human body: jumping, vaulting, scaling, swinging, rolling, sliding, and whatever else it takes to keep yourself moving. It's about reclaiming a kind of freedom over the domineering architecture of urban spaces. I've never tried it myself, but I do find it interesting.

These days, alongside its rise in popularity, it's featured in a lot of action movies and games. One of these games is Mirror's Edge (2008), a relatively realistic first-person platformer with a focus on movement and speed across a very clean, sun-bleached city, all stark white and primary colours. You have to figure out the best route and strategy for traversal, scaling rooftops, climbing ladders and drainpipes, using ziplines, balancing on ropewalks, or wall-running to reach harder-to-grab ledges—as well as avoiding armed SWAT teams. You can engage them in combat if you take them one at a time, but it's not easy—the focus is on the running.

A pristine building interior in Mirror's Edge Faith on the ground, feet in the air, looking up at a helicopter

While it's obviously not the same physical experience as real parkour, the game is very good at conveying a sense of physicality and effort on the part of Faith, the player character, as well as a sense of dizzying heights that would probably make most traceurs pause to reconsider. The game lets you experience its city with the kind of freedom that parkour affords, but with a heightened sense of action and urgency that comes from being on a mission and having bullets flying your way.

Parkour, though, is not the only novel way to interact with the city in video games. Just one other example is in Jet Set Radio Future (2002), which jettisons realism in favour of a more expressive urban reality that has you improbably moving through the city by grinding along telephone wires and tearing across billboards in a quite impressive pair of rollerskates—as well as spraying graffiti powerful enough to take down helicopters, robots and swathes of armed forces. It's crazy but a lot of fun, and all the more fun because you're doing it in a very artistically rendered but recognisable urban space where you get to enjoy impossible kinds of freedom.

Screenshot from Jet Set Radio Future: grinding along a billboard Skating ahead of traffic

But while these games offer you these new kinds of freedom, they take just as much freedom, if not more, away. The urban spaces in these games are noticeably superficial—we are mostly denied interaction with the city beyond the level required for the games' main activities: parkour, grinding or graffiti-spraying. There's little or no interaction with members of the public, who are reduced to responsive scenery, and conventional paths that everyone else seems to use are largely made unavailable to us.

The same could be said for parkour, to which these things are not relevant, or they're antithetical, to what parkour is about. Insofar as traceurs treat their movements philosophically, that philosophy tends not to incorporate every little thing an urban space can be used for. Conventional paths are deliberately rejected, and there is a refusal to engage with the public insofar as they are by definition 'the public' by using public spaces as intended.

Skater sprays graffiti over anti-graffiti signs and police tape Overhead simplified map of the city

Additionally, Andy Tran, who I quoted at the start, argues against the use of gloves or other protective gear because they interfere with what he believes is the philosophical point of parkour. Likewise, I doubt most traceurs would approve of the use of, say, jetpacks, as much as they might aid freedom of movement. Only a certain kind of freedom is the point. Maybe parkour is about freedom from technology, too, but that's to bring the focus back to where it belongs—and in these two games, the lack of freedom to interact with the city how you choose is to bring the focus of these games back to where it belongs.

It's interesting to note that both Mirror's Edge and Jet Set Radio Future frame their gameplay as actions against oppressive authorities or regimes that don't abide by your behaviour. Narratively, you're up against forces that resist the redefinition exhibited by your characters and would seek to bully you back into the pedestrian mould as shaped by the urban spaces' intended use. In Mirror's Edge, you're a Runner, a rooftop courier of intelligence working under the radar of the totalitarian government. In JSRF, you're any one of a number of street kids whose skating and graffiti spraying is elevated to the status of expressive combat against the chronically uncool authority figures and corporations that are trying to squeeze you out of the city.

Mirror's Edge: elevated view of the street View from the bottom of the giant storm drain, looking up at the sky

However purely hypothetical these regimes' attempted coercion is in terms of gameplay, given that neither game gives you the option to submit in any way other than death (or blackout), it nevertheless renders your actions in the game—even when simply playing it in the only way you can—even more significant for being placed within a particular narrative context.

How effective these contexts are is another matter. A criticism that can be levelled at both Mirror's Edge and JSRF is the superficiality of their narratives. The framing narrative of Mirror's Edge is not totally ineffective as context, but it's mostly unoriginal, simplistic and paper-thin in execution, by far the game's weakest aspect. And while it's easy to overlook the substance in the style of JSRF, there's no denying the two-dimensionality of its various personalities. In tune with the pure arty ecstasy of this game, that stylish expression is what defines these kids may be the whole point, so I'm not going to pass judgement too hastily—but nonetheless, there's a lot that seems about as thin as literal paint.

Jet Set Radio Future: colourful view of Shibuya Terminal Skater grinds up a pipe wrapped around an industrial silo

Still, points are made, and new perspectives are offered by city spaces redefined to do the job—being fun, sometimes exhilarating experiences in the deal. Above all, we play these games because we want to do what these characters do; to experience the novelty of being able to traverse these urban landscapes in the ways that the games let us. The narrative contexts that frame them just go to show how this redefinition can also, and connectedly, be used to more significant ends.

The analogy with real-life parkour ends where, on the one hand, a city is exploited in ways it was not intended to be used, and on the other hand, a city is designed to be exploited, however supposedly conventional it is on a theoretical story level. But the underlying expression is the same, only it's engineered by the game designers, and executed by the fact of you playing. Either way, the end result is that you come to view the city, and your relation to the city, in a different way—but the games make you do this without the conscious mental action real parkour requires.

Mirror's Edge: approaching train in the subway Night-time view of the rooftops

It's the agency of parkour meets traditional narrative, yet different from both. By playing the game, you are put in a position of action in a narrative constructed to give that action meaning.

And besides that, who wouldn't rather grind along the telephone wires than use the footpath anyway?


BONUS CONTENT!!! (more on that substance in the style):

Michelle Baldwin has an awesome write-up of Jet Set Radio Future's story and themes over at Pioneer Project.

And Edge magazine, as part of their Time Extend series, did a really cool article on how JSRF achieves such a vibrant and convincing urban playground.

Anyone has any good stuff on Mirror's Edge, I'd be happy to read/watch it.

Jet Set Radio Future: the winding vertical dragon of 99th Street Pale rays of the sun over buses at Shibuya Terminal

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4 Comments:

At 20 July 2011 at 19:00 , Anonymous Nic said...

CHAMELEON, MERCI

Nice prose.
I know that these 2 games focus specifically on the whole 'find a route through the urban landscape' thing, but don't all games let you jump off buildings and suchlike? TO SOME EXTENT.

At 20 July 2011 at 19:16 , Anonymous Chris said...

EMERGENCY WHICH SERVICE

Yep. Even just taking urban-based games alone, there are tons and tons of superhero games that have you flying around the city and such. These are usually just power trips, maybe with some superficial morality system built in, but the principles of redefinition are the same.

Same with something like GTA, where, once you strip it down, you essentially have a city consisting of garages and gunshops. Options for interaction with the public here involve either (a) running them over, (b) gunning them down, or (c) not running them over or gunning them down. GTA redefines the city like that for satirical purposes--at least ostensibly.

And yeah, every single game redefines the world like that in some way, sometimes problematically. I picked these two as examples because of their similarities and because they make the point about positive redefinition very clearly.

At 8 October 2011 at 00:48 , Anonymous Andy Tran said...

I was going to email you, but I can't seem to find a contact page.

Very interesting read. I'm a little surprised anyone is paying attention to things I wrote so long ago, honestly, but it's nice to see a critical analysis of Parkour from the eyes of an outsider. It makes you really think... Have we (traceurs) boxed ourselves in by attempting to be a counter-culture?

Thanks for this.

At 8 October 2011 at 03:50 , Anonymous Chris said...

Hey Andy, this was unexpected! I think I stumbled across your post just Googling for 'parkour philosophy', then Googled around a little more to make sure I had your name right. It was a very interesting post. Hope you didn't mind me digging it up!

Re: boxing yourself in, I guess it depends on what kind of redefinition is going on, how much you're just putting different restrictive rules in place, and if you are, to what end? So as far as counter-culture is concerned, as long as it's genuinely countering culture that takes away from people what traceurs strive to reclaim, I think it's all good. I think the boxing in would start when it's done for the sake of it, when you're not integrating with public space at all just because it's public and you want to eschew that. But parkour's sense of reappropriation doesn't seem that rigid to me: as far as I interpret it, you're redefining the city according to yourself and your own freedom, not insisting on being anti-establishment in a way that would ultimately be just as oppressive. Does that sound about right, or am I way off?

Sorry about the hard-to-find email; you're not the first. I have it on the copyright page rather than the about page, which I realise makes no sense at all, but apparently it did when I put it there.