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Post-Katrina New Orleans as "Fictional Space" Post-Katrina New Orleans as "Fictional Space"

Post-Katrina New Orleans as "Fictional Space"

by Jamin Warren
December 4, 2009

Videogame developers often shy away from putting real places in their games. That's perhaps for good reason. In 2007, Insomniac Games provoked the ire of the Church of England for using the Manchester Cathedral during one of the firefight sequences in Resistance: Fall of Man. Never mind that the game's title makes direct reference to the Christian doctrine of original sin nor the fact that film directors have long been demolishing holy sites without a whiff of controversy. For director Roland Emmerich, flattening the sacred in movies has become a matter of sport.

The potential backlash didn't scare off developer Valve Software from choosing the deep South, including a beleaguered New Orleans, as the site for the zombie shooter game Left 4 Dead 2. The previous title in the franchise made no mention of a particular place, but Erik Johnson, producer for the game, says that choosing a specific location was crucial to understanding who the four survivors of a zombie outbreak actually are. "We wanted there to be progression through a real place," he says.

Although a prominent setting in other creative mediums, the South is frequently neglected as a location for games. The industry has yet to find its Faulkner, but Johnson and his team chose the same noir setting that animates HBO's True Blood. "The geography, the plant life and the look of that part of the country lend themselves to gameplay. One area is in this hot, humid swamp and we chance you through that spooky place." Valve sent several artists to the region to capture the Greek revival, American Colonial and Victorian style that dot the area.

Part of what makes the finale in New Orleans so evocative is that we've seen that city in the midst of chaos. The images of the aftermath of Katrina are an integral piece of the public's understanding of what the city is and what it means to be from there. That's the burden of game developers using a real place-their audience already carries with them memories of how that world should and could be. Game theorists refer to that aspect of playing games as the "fictional space," the place where imagination and the computer-generated images meet. New Orleans has a particular resonance that Johnson didn't want to be confused or muddled. "With setting, people inherently know, even if they can't explain it to you, when it looks wrong."

Jamin Brophy-Warren is a freelance writer living in New Haven, Connecticut. He is a former arts and entertainment reporter for the Wall Street Journal, a contributor at Slate, and editor of the forthcoming gaming magazine Kill Screen.

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