The Representation of Paris in Video Games


I’m sure that for a few of you out there, Paris has been a disappointment. Perhaps some horror story has prevented you from having a pleasant opinion of the famous city, possibly a cheese baguette gone awry. For most, however, Paris is wonderful, artistic, grandiose, and many other flattering and applauding adjectives. I would undoubtedly agree with the latter opinion, having been there quite recently, and would say that it is one of the most awe-inspiring places that I have ever had the pleasure of visiting; its well-established idealism is definitely warranted.

However, video games seem to share in the former perspective on France’s capital; they represent it in a scene of violence, grotesquery and downright dangerousness. With the recent release of Assassin’s Creed Unity, this representation has grown as the titular hero, Arno, deals bloody justice in the midst of the French Revolution. In light of this, I have sought to examine the use of the city in various games, and illustrate how developers seem to paint it with a blood-splattered brush.

Hitman: Blood Money

Agent 47 may not use a brush as his primary utensil, but he certainly does have an array of weapons at his disposal. In Hitman: Blood Money, he makes sure to pack them away safely while on a trip to a rehearsal performance at the Paris Opera that depicts a scene of violence that is both strange and grotesque.

Obviously, there are many mundane routes that 47 can take while attempting his assassination of Alvaro D’Alvade, a world-class opera singer and assumed paedophile, but a far more bizarre method is available. This consists of disguising yourself as D’Alvade’s fictional executioner, and murdering him in full view of the audience, with an all-but-prop pistol, then making your escape off the stage and into the Parisian beyond.

They’ll never suspect a thing.

The strangeness of the situation harkens back to a tale set in nineteenth century Paris by Edgar Allan Poe, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, in which violent and brutal crimes are portrayed in a way that defy logic. Agent 47 acts similarly, as his killing is shown to be an uncanny act, where the onlookers are baffled by the seemingly inexplicable circumstances. Of course, this way is only one of many; 47 may even take-down every inhabitant within the building, which provides a staggering performance of violence, inside a place of artistic endeavour.

Bioshock Infinite

The romantic artistry of Paris is well represented, in less murderous detail, throughout Bioshock Infinite and the second part of its downloadable content, Burial at Sea. Here, Elizabeth has succumbed to the city’s romance in a way that borders on obsession; we learn that Paris is a means of escapism for the girl, that she has studied its fashion, art and literature, and dreams of one day escaping from her tower in Columbia, in search of the ‘mythic’ city.

Enjoy it while it lasts.

We get a glimpse of her idealised Paris in Burial at Sea, as Elizabeth envisions herself living there during the Belle Époque. She interacts with famous literary figures, explores the Technicolor banks of the Seine, and serene music from phonographs and bluebirds fills the air. Everything is bright and beautiful, but of course, that doesn’t last long.

When Elizabeth begins to pursue Sally, a little sister from Rapture entreating upon her vision, the scene dissipates into a clouded nightmare of distorted buildings and greyscale. This shows that Paris’ idyllic representation is not meant to last; that it can only have a place within the fictional worlds that inhabit dreams.

Appropriateness abounds here, as the ending of the Belle Époque marks the beginning of World War I, a change that brought gloom and despair to France, after an era of such growth and prosperity.

Valiant Hearts

The horrors of WWI are obviously well known, but they are brought to life poignantly within Ubisoft’s period adventure game, Valiant Hearts. The degradation of trench warfare is duly noted here, as friends and enemies alike are forced into cramped, muddy and gas-filled spaces. The French landscape has been flooded with greyness, barbed wire and mortar shells.

Unlike Lille, Paris remained unoccupied during The Great War, but the underlying presence of conflict is still felt, as soldiers await their orders around the city streets, before setting out in their multitudes and onto Paris’ defence in the Battle of Marne.

The Saboteur

Unfortunately, the city has seen occupation, under the administration of Nazi Germany in World War II. This has been represented in The Saboteur, where a contrasting palette of colours is used to make a distinction between occupied and liberated areas. Black and white indicates those zones under Nazi oppression, while those of freedom are rejuvenated by colour.

A city of gloom.

This may seem like symbolism gone wild, but as well as distinguishing districts, it draws attention to features of fear and violence with an emphasis on redness: namely, the flags of the Third Reich, and blood. Violent actions are definitely brought to the forefront of Paris’ occupation, as blood splatters the screen during conflict, and comrades in arms are gunned down for resisting tyranny.

As well as highlighting violence, The Saboteur’s Paris focuses on the vastness of the city, and the importance of its monuments. The Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur and Notre Dame are all there, and while they are somewhat faithful interpretations, they also add to the uncomfortable cruelty of occupation; seeing one of the most famous cathedrals in the world draped in Swastikas and surrounded by barbed wire is certainly an unsettling sight. The final mission, an ascension of the Eiffel Tower, as Nazis commit suicide around you, is a harrowing experience that truly brings to light the destruction and inner-turmoil of war.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

Conflict seems to be of importance when conveying the city, and even in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, we can see that Paris has been incorporated within a major battle, that has led to the destruction of the Eiffel Tower. Infinity Ward may have been using this superfluously to shoe-horn another locale in their game, but I think that it indicates Paris’ magnetism towards war. New York City is given a similar treatment when it comes to dystopian movies such as I Am Legend and Escape from New York, and games such as The Division and Resistance 3; its iconic skyline provides an image that can become disturbing when filled with death and ruination. I think that the same can be said for Paris, as its historical, as well as fictional, conflicts allow developers to fascinate and shock the player with dark scenes of twisted destruction.

Assassin’s Creed Unity

Whilst it is certainly beautiful, the Paris of Assassin’s Creed Unity is filled with the dead and dying, poverty and sickness, filth and decay – and most importantly, gory revolution. There are violent protesting peasants, wagons full of corpses and actual executions upon scaffolds at the Place de la Revolution. This is far from the wondrous Paris of gilded bridges and sculpted facades that we can see today; it is a gritty and brutal portrayal that reeks of bloody accuracy.

Executed perfectly.

Although Unity is an exceedingly dark affair, I would say that this is the result of Paris’ own history, and that it has not simply been hyperbolised by Ubisoft’s development team. The city’s past has been thoroughly interlaced with conflict.

Paris is magical place of wonder, delight and breathtaking spectacles; to put it differently, the sound is a 9.5, but the graphics are definitely a 10. But why is it that violence and despair take the centre stage in the gaming industry’s outlook on the city? I feel that creative license may have something to do with it, that darkness and bleak outlooks are more interesting than idealised sparkle factories, but I think that there is more to it than that.

The history of Paris itself has been long, murderous and especially chaotic at times. It has suffered from the Revolution, countless wars, disease and famine. Perhaps it is not the games that are painting the blood onto its walls, but the history of the city itself. From the cannon-foddered Bastille, to the bones beneath the streets, the dead and defeat litter the modern boulevards. These occurrences may be well hidden, but they can never be erased. Merci.

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