I knew things were weird when I looked up at the street signs and saw I was at the corner of Elmtree and Elmtree. I furrow my brow and think, for a moment, maybe this is right and, in fact, I am the one that is wrong. Everything is so foreign but I have been told this is my home. I look out and see a 2 to 3 story building. Neglect clings to the windows of this building giving them that tell-tale checkerboard pattern of broken glass and grime. This structure, one I would never visit, towers over the rubble that surrounds me and I think for just a moment that things are right. That is the thing that keeps happening. Everything is wrong and in the incorrect place, but there is always that one thing that just seems right.
I do not know why I thought some guys from England would get Philadelphia right. I am playing a videogame called Homefront: The Revolution. The game itself does not matter too much. Its plot is paper thin: North Koreans conquer the USA and it is up to you, bland, voiceless, Brady, to save Philadelphia. If the story sounds familiar, it is because this game is a sequel/reboot to a game co-written by the writer/director of Red Dawn. He is not involved in this game. There are a few moments wherein characters shout “Wolverines!” The temptation had to be too great.
The mechanics are bland and it is not exactly a joy to control. The story is at best negligible, and, at worst, offensive and bad. I never came to the game for either of those things. There is plenty of better examples of storytelling or mechanics in videogames. This game is really only notable for a checkered development history in which the initial team that were making the game jumped ship, and that it was set in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia is a city that does not show up too often in videogames. There is one example that is notable and that is, in my opinion, the worst level in Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2. It was an amalgamation of FDR skatepark and Love Park, smashed together to make a skate park dream, and you collect Liberty Bells for an objective. That is really all Philadelphia gets reduced to in the wide breadth of cultural relevance: The Liberty Bell and all it represents; a history so grand that it overshadows everything that followed or preceded it. I guess we are also known for rowdy fans, cheesesteaks, and jawn. To be brief, a lot of that just comes from our history being greater than what we are perceived to be now. There is a saying that goes “Don’t start the show with a show stopper.” Philadelphia never got the memo; how do you top “Revolutionary War?”
I had bought into this game when I heard it was set in Philadelphia. I did not care about anything else. I was told I would be able to explore an open world set in my city. It sounds redundant to explore the place you live in, but you want to see what they got right and what they got wrong. How does the world see where I live. Should I clean up before I have company over? How close can they really get?
Of course, it is supposed to be a game set in the aftermath of a war, so I yield the bombed out buildings and the eternal papers, litter, and filth that has fused with the ground textures, as virtual people press broom to ground and push and scrub with never a hope of cleaning their world. These is something to understand about videogames and that is that reality is a distorted mess. It has to be: if getting a job in The Sims was as hard as it is in real life, that game would not be as popular as it is.
When I started, I started in an alley of buildings that can not exist in this city. You could play wall ball in these alleys. There was enough room that the fire escape was not scraping against another fire escape. Someone named “Philly Alpha,” is talking in my ear about revolution, but all I want to do is look at the buildings. I walk out onto the street and these are not Philly houses. They look regal, large, and run-down in that way that rain makes all buildings look run down. The problem is they are too spacious. It is not that authentic sort of destruction that age brings. There is not a speck of rust to be found. It is a clean destruction. It assumes the buildings are nice as is. It assumes I’m not trying to yell at my landlord for a leak in my kitchen that I deal with every morning.
I think to my own porch and I see it nowhere - it is too expensive and inconvenient for my landlord to fix. The wood is broken and weak from years of feet trodding upon it. During the day, I can peer down into my basement from cracks in the ground. I look at these virtual buildings and see none of the twisted iron decoration-turned fence that surrounds the porches of my neighborhood. I think back to being a kid and managing to pry one of those bars from the structure. I swung it around like a sword. My mom yelled at me and jammed it back into place. I see none of this around this faux-Philly. There is just a massive stoop that extends far too far into the sidewalk, like something in the nicer parts of the city with “historical value.”
This city scape is the generic city scape. This Virtual Philly is the representation of the general idea of a city that exists throughout the world’s consciousness, but with a nice visit to Google Images along the way. There are tall buildings and small buildings and they are all very close together. The architecture can be described as “generic.” It is frustrating because Philadelphia is so unlike other cities. The city’s history is rocky; filled with extremely high-highs and the withdraw that comes with it. The city built a lot of its success upon that initial launch, eventually invested heavily in railroads, and then Philadelphia was left with its tracks when the aviation industry got itself into the air. There was an obsession with history that superseded a lot of other wants and needs. Buildings were challenged because they would overshadow the height of City Hall, and were thusly turned away, which in turn kept a lot of buildings grounded.
Something peeks from the side though. It is a surprise: “Philly Chick Chicken,” a facsimile of Crown Chicken. I let out an audible laugh and send a picture of it to my friends from the area. They get a kick out of it. It is a strange thing to consider to put in your game. Weirder than that is when I turn around and see a 5 or 6 story building looming over the small neighborhood. It is the most boring of architecture: a rectangle that juts from the earth with square windows. It is weird because I can walk outside of my house and see a building exactly like it. These are the moments that stick out: the brief glances at the shadows of the skyline. If I stare too long, I see the errors, but just at glances, it seems just about right. The ground is wrong, the streets are twisted, but when I look up, things almost look correct.
The skyline became a common comfort for me throughout this game. I could always look towards the skyline and see something that just felt right. In real life, it is strange to these isolated buildings that tower over the landscape. They are abandoned, unused, or out of my reach. It is in these moments that Homefront manages a strange parallel - I know I will never be in those buildings. I see these large buildings and I know I will not enter them. That is a lot of work to craft interiors that function. Instead, they loomed as reminders of abandonment: abandoning what is large and usable space, both in this game and in real life. If they were to ever get any attention, in real life or in the game, it would cost too much money for me to come back to. I do not particularly like the game, so I will not give them money to explore an empty building, but if they renovated one of those buildings in real life, I simply could not afford to live there.
Then the skyline shifts and everything is wrong. You try and orient yourself in real life and the geometry is wrong. “This part of the city isn’t here…” I thought to myself, as they tell me the Italian Market is right against the Delaware River. Love Park is not across the street from City Hall in this world. It’s far away. These roads are not straight but turn at random times to go around buildings: this is a city where buildings bend to roads. I look for a numbered street and I am somehow back on Elmwood. I try and use City Hall to orient myself, or rather, where I know City Hall would be - in the middle of the skyscrapers. It is not there though. Someone shouts at me about Indy Hall. I want to scream.
Through the span of Homefront, I became oddly prideful of Philadelphia’s grid pattern city plan. I was running into dead ends left, right, and each time I shouted “That’s not right! I should just be able to go straight forever!” I would get turned around in circles. Apparently perpendicular lines are boring to play in, or maybe they just did not care. Maybe it is a cruel joke from these British developers: “America’s first planned city? I bet it looks like this,” as they begin to scribble lines on paper and cackle and sip tea like the stereotype they are in my head.
There is one thing that they got shockingly correct: the Broad Street line subway cars. The train was tilted to the side, buried by rubble, but walking in was simply jarring. There were the hard plastic orange chairs in pairs that ran up and down the car. There was the divider between the doors and the seats next to the car. They even got the grating underneath the seats. I felt, for just a moment, like I should sit down, I would be back in reality and this game would fix itself. It was early one when I saw them. They had some fake SEPTA logo painted on the sides. It was strange seeing them so empty. It was weirder to see them tipped to their side and still be so recognizable. I wanted to sit down. I wanted to take it to my subway station and emerge near my house and take a walk. It is just a shame that they are more interesting scenery than mobile units.
I saw molding around windows that made me think of summers working on ladders with my dad. In the game, I would occasionally see a building that reminds me of a street I would bike by, but those moments are rare. Homefront’s Philadelphia is The City the media talks about in TV shows when they do not want to specify a specific place, brought to ruin, and brought to you by Philadelphia. It is the back set that they use when they just need a city scene and the place does not matter.
Sometimes you walk behind a building and you’re greeted by small backyards that quickly turn to patches of earth if you neglect them for just a moment. You run into abandoned and destroyed versions of houses with the small patios with cast iron bars that run along the perimeter, like the house I grew up in and the apartment I’m currently residing in. There are other times where you sprint under an overpass, and think “I’ve been here. I know this place.” I accidentally stumbled upon their version of FDR Skatepark.
The biggest slap in the face was running into their version of Love Park: a statue that says HOME looms vertically into the sky in the middle of the park. I rolled my eyes and closed the game to get dinner. This was not home. Home was the place I was in in the real world. This game just borrowed these places. It makes a collage of images from Google and slaps them together and calls it a city. It makes no sense. I ask where City Hall is and I see it later. It is decorated in dreaded Communist Red (it really pops under the spotlights that circle the building.) I would roll my eyes out of my skull if it was not for the fact that City Hall just looked so right.
I just wanted to see the environments. I wanted to walk through the city. I was tired of the game shouting about “Indy Hall”; what they must think we call Independence Hall, as if it is a daily encounter that has to be shortened to save time. I am tired of running through Old Town, and I got tired of groaning at how close they were. Maybe they are just out to torment me. This Philadelphia is not mine. Granted, neither is the real Philadelphia. My landlord wants to do renovations to my apartment. He asks me when I am moving out. He wants to get the place fixed up so he can offer it to some people that will pay more. The location is prime, even if the building is falling apart. I a relegated to part time positions, or positions with weird hours. I can not afford a car, so I stay in my bike lane, weaving around broken glass, because I can not pay for another inner tube, all while getting muscled in on by large cars that want me off the road.
It is an all around strange feeling being in somewhere with touches of correctness. My head connects to these places and tries to fix the world around it, but it just cannot. If I wanted to fix this virtual city, I would need to start from near-scratch. Of course, I can reuse a few things. City Hall looks beautiful, so why not use that? By the time the process was finished though, it would not be Homefront. It would be some mod of the game - a side step from what it is. I have no skill - it would be shoddy at best. Philadelphia is not too far off. Sometimes I think of the buildings that spring up and I think it does not belong. I look at it with worry and unease.
I do not get to be in the big buildings, with large glass windows that overlook the city. I do not get to live in the studio apartments that spring up and dishevel the old aesthetic of a street and put a modern twist of polygonal right angles that jut and heave. Maybe it is the one thing that Homefront: The Revolution gets right: The sense that maybe it wants you gone.
(Header photo taken by author, from Homefront: The Revolution)