How Real-Life Graffiti Mirrors Video Games’ Environmental Storytelling

Mark Twain never played a video game. But he did, more than a century ago, succinctly summarize the difficulty game developers continue to have as they attempt to craft believable worlds.

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” Twain wrote in 1897. “But it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.”

As it turns out, there is little fiction that video game critics are more skeptical of than the graffiti developers dream up to emblazon their virtual walls. Back in 2013, Kotaku published a piece titled “Cool It With The Dumb Video-Game Graffiti” that chronicled the medium’s history of on-the-nose wall writing. And, until recently, it was easy to agree with the argument presented in that piece: that game developers spend so much time constructing living, breathing worlds, filling them with meticulous detail. Why ruin them with un-subtle graffiti? And besides, what’s the rationale? Wouldn’t people in the midst of a crisis have more important things to do than writing obvious graffiti messages to be discovered by some late-arriving player character? Would they really spend their precious time scrawling their discontent? Would the residents of The Last of Us’ quarantine zones really steal a can of spray paint to write “Stop feeding us lies! Give us our rations!” on a wall?

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Author: Andrew King