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GDC 2002: Manhattan as Muse: New York City as a Conceptual Tool

Games need to have a strong narrative to make sense, but they also need to have a strong and structured environment to reinforce that. Whether real locations or abstract patterns, formal constraints and ordering devices for levels can be drawn from different sources. Primarily, it is a matter of looking at our immediate surroundings and thinking about how to reinterpret them for games. In this instance we are going to look at Manhattan, both as a reflection on some of the roles it has taken in books, games and movies, and also simply on the city itself.

Duncan Brown, Blogger

April 17, 2002

20 Min Read

The purpose of this article is to consider how conceptual architectural skills can be used to generate game environments. Levels are often sited in a variety of geographic locations, which provide a context and background for game play. In his book Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas suggests that Manhattan is part of a project "to exist in a world totally fabricated by man, i.e. to live inside fantasy." This makes Manhattan a particularly appropriate study for games and level design.

Games need to have a strong narrative to make sense, but they also need to have a strong and structured environment to reinforce that. Whether real locations or abstract patterns, formal constraints and ordering devices for levels can be drawn from different sources. Primarily, it is a matter of looking at our immediate surroundings and thinking about how to reinterpret them for games. In this instance we are going to look at Manhattan, both as a reflection on some of the roles it has taken in books, games and movies, and also simply on the city itself.

It is possible to sample a location's organization, and re-use it at a different scale in another context. Games like Deus Ex and Max Payne do an excellent job of conveying the character and atmosphere of New York, but we are going to look at New York in terms of attributes that can be abstracted and applied elsewhere.

In the context of these references, Manhattan is used as a tool to create pre-production schematics of levels. Schematics are the first step of a design proposal, much like pre-production. Ideas are blocked out in rough form; everything is kept open and flexible, before approval is given to proceed. Many ideas exist at the schematic stage that do not make it beyond that point, but they can be used later in other situations.

We will look at Manhattan, describe isolated event locations and consider how their typical use might be inverted or disrupted. Then we will review the city grid, two other networks, their breakpoints and connections and how these could be used as organizing frameworks for game events.

The Big City

New York serves as the location for many movies and television shows. A search on the Internet Movie Database for New York, New York yields 2554 results. A search for Manhattan, New York yields 250 results. Frequently, however, it is only as the backdrop to character interactions. "Seinfeld" and "Friends" were not even shot in Manhattan where they supposedly take place. Woody Allen movies like Manhattan are similar in this respect. A series of events and exchanges happen between characters, but there is no real interaction with the city. It suffices to say New York equals "Big City" and the scene is set.

In action movies, where we draw most of our examples from, the protagonists are directly involved with traversing or transforming the city in some way. I think everyone remembers the breathtaking car chase under the El in The French Connection. These elements could serve as components for game play and the transit system itself interpreted as a structure for a level.

Cultural icons are images or symbols that people immediately recognize and understand their significance; the American flag, the Statue of Liberty, Coca-Cola. Icons are elements that are introduced into stories for narrative effect-plug them in and you generate values. New York contains many cultural icons; so many aspects of the place are symbols and as such function as ready icons for narrative incorporation.

However, rather than create narratives, the intention is to provide a framework of events around which we can build our own experiences; like talking a walk on a Sunday afternoon. Some people like to manipulate the events and create stories that you participate in-the concern here is just the event potential.

In the same way pieces of film, music and text can be sampled, so can a building or element of architecture. Sampling means drawing out particular characteristics or a fragment of a subject and reintroducing it in another context. While the Surrealists articulated this formally a long time ago with their collages and visual puns, in the creative process, we unconsciously take pieces from here and there, reassembling them into new systems.

When we reinterpret something we take some its characteristics and introduce them in another context. It means looking at events in a new way. One could say there is nothing new under the sun, that it is simply a matter of new and alternate interpretations. We can draw on these alternate interpretations and readings of spaces and sequences for our own purposes.

Events are encounters or "happenings." In the real world or an RPG, this might simply be meeting someone; in an action-adventure game, it might be fighting a boss. In all cases the possibility exists for the level space to support or encourage that activity. The key is that it can also initiate it. Game play is the character, quality and intensity of these events.

Events as such take place within singular spaces or across a number of spaces. With the advent of next generation systems, I think there is a shift to a greater detail and focus of level spaces. Levels are becoming more like movie-sets; highly detailed and subject to re-use.

New York offers a great number of grand classical interiors, which will be considered as potential event containers. In the past level design has nominally been consigned to corridor-type spaces, but examination and analysis of existing interiors allows for an understanding of the richness of scale and detail that existed before malls became our civic interior space.

Without referring directly to the story, the different locations can be sampled for visual references and developed schematically. Images can also be sampled from photographs and historical data and quickly mocked up as game spaces. Perhaps in the end result, they are not used as a station, a library or a museum, but they are a quick way to test ideas about scale and organization in a new project.

Grand Central Station

Grand Central Station, which was completed in 1913, has an enormous concourse. The single main space is 120 feet wide, 375 feet long and 125 feet high. (Just as a comparison, based on eight game units being roughly equal to a foot, Quake III Arena's Arena Gate level is approximately 128 feet by 328 overall.) Very few game engines can support the Grand Central scale. Perhaps as pre-rendered scenes, but certainly without the crowd and it would be tedious to walk across. However, we can reutilize the space's formal configuration and detail character at a smaller scale. The space is not just the concourse but also a system of entries, balconies and ramps that extends over four floors.

Rockefeller Center

Rockefeller Center is a great modern complex of underground spaces and circulation. Buildings are linked underground, more common in Minneapolis than Manhattan, and you can travel for blocks indoors or underground. The buildings are classic Art Deco design, not just a series of corridors but lobbies with strong connections to outdoor spaces; squares and below grade plazas.

There are numerous other potential examples to study; from the Metropolitan Museum to the Guggenheim, and more recently the Rose Center at the Natural History Museum. Many more buildings and spaces of similar scale exist in Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles and provide opportunities for study and inspiration.

A Simple Walk

A simple walk down Ninth Avenue from Times Square offers different program types and locations for events. There is the space of Times Square itself and all the electronically animated activity leading off from it. We pass the Port Authority Bus Terminal with its super-scaled structure and myriad of transit connections. The Jacob Javits Convention Center is just a few blocks west on the river. The air vents for the Lincoln Tunnel are a dramatic construction. At 34th Street, we cross over the Amtrak entry into Penn Station from New Jersey, which opens up a large hole in the ground, and reveals a building spanning the tracks on a large truss. Traveling further south we pass a Post Office Sorting Office. And in need of a temporary conclusion, we can turn right and head towards the piers.

The Alienist

For more of an armchair sampling, we can draw examples from a book set in New York. The Alienist by Caleb Carr is a historical thriller with a group using early detective methods to hunt down a serial killer. The killer ritually murdered his victims in prominent places close to water. In 1896 New York was just developing and much of it still under construction. The plot leads the reader through a series of turn of the century downtown environments; the Williamsburg Bridge, Lower East Side tenements, Madison Avenue mansions, Bellevue Hospital and the seedy bars of the Tenderloin. Unrelated to the story, a list of locations could create another narrative-a parallel space of events.

Reversal of the Ordinary

The establishing shots for Die Hard with a Vengeance cover the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, river views and then street vendors, yellow cabs and the subway. You know where you are.

A reversal of the ordinary, or inversion, is used in game play situations to create new, exciting events. In the case of Die Hard in New York, this would be the scenes of driving the cab through or across Central Park, you don't get to do that everyday, and opening the street grate to jump down on to the moving subway car. Or the fact that the aqueduct is still under construction gives additional room for play. Riding the motorbike through the subway in Money Train would be another example. Or that Times Square is completely empty in Vanilla Sky.

By nature of being a sports arena, Madison Square Garden is already designed for event purposes. It contains not only sports activities, modern day gladiatorial combat, but in Godzilla it takes on another role-spawn site for the creature eggs. The arena is a centralized space, but also a network of supporting corridors, lobbies; crowd gathering and meeting places.

Godzilla visits New York, takes a downtown tour, and tramples everything. In this respect, Godzilla represents an assault on the iconic event locations, and Mimic the infrastructure. In Mimic, the bugs visit New York from the opposite spectrum; no single entity but a massive, persuasive, insidious attack.

Organizing Frameworks

Architecture has a long history of techniques and strategies for tying all these events together. Structure in the sense referred to here is the order or organization of a system. Analyzing building and cities, other levels, or even pieces of art and music, we can abstract patterns of order. Architecturally that order is usually tied to a particular time and place, but they can be creatively reinterpreted for our own purposes.

Movies have their own structure of cuts, dissolves and fades. Movies have an establishing shot, then cut to an interior or sound stage. In the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, the Metropolitan Museum is actually the entrance lobby to the New York Public Library, and then it switches to a set for the galleries. As a fragment of architecture, levels need a continuity and structure that doesn't seem forced. Like the embassy at the beginning of Rainbow Six, they are partial city fragments-gated environments.

Levels exist at a scale between buildings and cities. In terms of experience, they operate between movies and theme parks. They are an assemblage of buildings, and fragments of large cities. We will quickly survey the potential of the city grid, the subway system and the highway network.

The Grid

A street grid is the most basic organization for laying out spaces and events, connecting them together. Manhattan's grid is perhaps one of the most famous and unrelenting in the world. There are two distinct roles for the street grid in the city. Downtown where the buildings are lower and the section simpler, the grid was simply overlaid on the outlines of the old Dutch farm settlements; producing a complex pattern of intersecting diagonals.

In Midtown, it acts as a neutral background for the skyscrapers. The 1811 master plan divided the remainder of the city into the 2,000 plus blocks that we know today, creating as Koolhaas writes, "an undreamt of freedom for three-dimensional anarchy." Buildings stack multiple activities on top of one another.

What is particularly exciting is the way the buildings work in section or vertically in New York. Subway lines are many floors below ground, with utilities between them and the street. Buildings and bridges, that support trains and cars, cross streets layered with pedestrian circulation too. Level design is often only considered in plan, but New York is also an opportunity to consider it in section.

The Subway

The first of the subways opened in 1904, replacing the El train in congested city blocks, and linking the city center to new housing developments in the Outer Boroughs. Today there are over 700 miles of track and roughly half the city's workers use the subway to get to work. The New York Subway merits study in its own right for game design potential. It is not just a simple two-dimensional network of tracks but a complex accretion of overlapping routes; above ground, on grade and many stories under the surface.

Every station is a web of pedestrian movement. The subway is a lot like a skeletal level structure that can be further developed in terms of character. With the exception of odd nodes for newsstands and gift shops, they are pure circulation, square tubes of pedestrian activity, effectively completely enclosed.

With linear systems you have a starting point, where you enter the subway or leave one train, and you have a goal; getting out or catching a transfer. Having blocked out your basic organization, you have a level you can play test, add events to and develop.

The Highway

At a more global scale, the highway system provides another study example. New York's complex network of express and parkways is a framework that can be sampled and abstracted for design purposes. The curves and overpasses could be used as a racing track at full scale, but also the diagram for a level at reduced size.

The many bridges and tunnels that cross between islands provide dramatic structures and are key nodes for player activity. The fact that many locations are under repair or construction is also occasion for game events.


By infrastructure, I mean the elements that support a city's existence without necessarily being too elegant or spatial. Water and power supply, sewers, roads, bridges, subways, and all their connecting structures. In buildings themselves, it would be the mechanical rooms, ductwork, and the elevators and their shafts.

Significant opportunities exist in relation to a city's infrastructure, and particularly where its components overlap and intersect. New York's scale and density abounds with numerous possibilities. Without being subject to more dramatic tragedies, New York has sufficient daily disruption from water-main breaks, parades and subway outages to provide diversion and variety that can be incorporated as game play.

Connections and Fractures

Connections are the places where different components of the city's infrastructure overlap and intersect. Ferry terminals, train stations, subway stops. The Port Authority Bus Terminal is a bus terminal, subway stop and shopping center; it is a concentration of connections.

Fractures or blocks to flow are breaks in the system that are pre-disposed for game event locations. All the triangular fragments that Broadway leaves on its course through Manhattan are natural locations for events; most notably, Columbus Circle, Times Square, the Flat Iron building and Union Square

Metal Gear Solid 2 begins beautifully with Snake's dramatic leap off the George Washington Bridge. (Bridge jumps onto container ships seem to be a popular theme.) All the New York atmosphere is there; the mist, the rain, the skyscrapers on the river. Allowing for a little license with the incredible ocean swell that the river has in the rain.

I think The French Connection captures a lot of the hardness and grit that people try to evoke of New York. It is not uncommon for levels to be time-based, but imagine a scenario like the car chase under the elevated tracks where completion is based on a pair of simultaneous arrivals.


We want to visit rich worlds, and with its density New York is halfway there. Unlike the greater Sacramento-San Jose metropolitan area, Manhattan has a concentration of buildings and space. The compression and superimposition of motifs sustains richness and compensates for the lack of the real, missing components in the digital realm.

Saturation involves the density of experience, such that, when you visit a place you have been before, something different happens. Sufficient difference is built into the level. It means that you see something new every time. Maybe you walk out of your house every day and there is a panhandler at the corner who moves location, or the garbage truck is at different stops along its route.

In fictional New York's like The Fifth Element and Batman's Gotham, one particular element is accentuated and exaggerated. Through duplication and intensification, the street scenes in The Fifth Element create what we essentially want-a densely layered active scene.

Duplication is used to repeat or increase the role of a visual element. For example, in The Fifth Element walkways are repeated in section to force the perspective and increase scale. Repetition also serves to create a variety of backgrounds for events.


Narrative is the story line that drives the character and game forward. New York has too many stories to tell… I am looking at a way to collect pieces and elements of level space that can be assembled to support an overall narrative and are rich in their own right.

What I am trying to group together are the pieces that you could apply to an imaginary city to create game levels. I am trying to build a loose kit of parts of spatial components, large public spaces, and organizing frameworks that can be used to explore game ideas. They are just used as a starting point. (It would be worthwhile to have a database, like the Internet Movie Database, of game locations.) In abstract form they are archetypal and we can take them and translate them to other cities, other locations.

So if you are in Chicago, you can think about events and infrastructure and implement them in your area. Those in turn might allow you to come up with ideas that you can apply to an action-adventure set on one of Jupiter's moons. The purpose of this article is to be able to take a set of principles and apply them in your own immediate environment.

Selected References

Ric Burns & James Sanders, New York: An Illustrated History. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999

Eric Homberger, The Historical Atlas of New York City. New York, Henry Holt and Co., 1994

Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York. New York, Monacelli Press, 1994.

Bernard Tschumi, Architecture and Disjunction. Cambridge and London, MIT Press, 1996.

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About the Author(s)

Duncan Brown


Prior to joining LucasArts in 1996, Duncan Brown worked for ten years as an architect in New York City. While at Lucas Arts, he has designed levels on three completed projects: Jedi Knight, Mysteries of the Sith, and Star Wars: Episode 1: Racer. A fourth title, Battle for Naboo, is nearing completion.

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