This is the second part of a five-part series on INFRA. The first part was Optical Delusions.
Mark climbs the tower in the steelworks so he can repair a mobile transceiver. Luckily, as a videogame avatar, he has a head for heights, because up there you can see everything for miles.
Stalburg looks pristine. It’s easy to forget the rot that brought you here.
The city can be an impersonal, alienating environment, living and working amongst permanent strangers. It can also be a potent stew of diversity and change. Small towns don’t change, they just grow old and die. A city constantly reinvents. How can you resist the siren call of a sprawling metropolis?
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and be blown away.
* * *
Mark finds himself at Pitheath metro station.
The workers are on strike, so the station is deserted. Not only is this a good excuse why there are no interactive people around but also why you won’t be catching any trains. But then INFRA says, hey, here’s a maintenance tram, please be a good lad and drive it out of here.
Oh shit, I’m up for this.
Let’s be honest, the opening tram ride from that Half-Life game you might have heard of was pure showboating twattery. Gaze upon my lush heavily-modified Quake engine graphics, she said. Don’t worry about how I’m locking you in a box. Don’t worry about the lack of exciting explosions or any of that palaver. People are just hanging out and working. See, there’s some boring shithead carrying a briefcase. There’s a robot with four legs carrying a crate. And there’s a leak of toxic goo that someone should fix right the fuck now. I’m so gorgeous, she chuckled, you don’t even care that you have no pew pew gun right now. You’re going to write essays about me.
INFRA goes further than Half-Life’s tram ride: it offers a journey through the divinity of the mundane. First, you travel through the underground metro station you had been exploring but soon you plunge into daylight – you see the city, cars running along roads, office blocks.
You can stop the cab. I stopped the cab. And then the cab stopped me. See you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. The cab is just another locked box. I was not permitted to look out from the edge of the rail bridge because it was too dangerous. I might puncture the simulation, glimpse the rendering event horizon.
I’m not sore. INFRA is letting me see more than the real world does. I can’t just hop in a cab and drive down a London underground track; I’d probably have to wait for it to be closed down and turned into a museum and read pamphlets about the Golden Era when trains would rattle down these tracks, sometimes on time.
Still, resistance is futile – at least until you reach the end of the line. You might reckon the end of the line is just around the corner: a nice snapshot of a road and we’re done here. But INFRA isn’t done. No, sir. You’re on this ride for five minutes – or more, depending if you stopped to gawk like I did. INFRA will show you dirty tunnels and it will show you metro stations. And then it will collapse the rail tunnel to bring the journey to its unnatural end, which is classic INFRA by this point.
Actually, now that I think about it, that’s classic pew pew game too.
* * *
Wires and cables are a big feature in INFRA. I know what you’re thinking, a lot of first-person games have wires. But when you engage something like Prey or Control, wires are not the type of detail they’re interested in pumping out. Pipes, maybe. I couldn’t speak for AAA level designers but I’d imagine rerouting cables across levels when making tweaks would be a right pain in the constipatable. In shooters, you’re travelling through nice environments repurposed as a warzone and the wires and cables are usually hidden behind the scenes.
INFRA insists on letting the guts hang out instead of tidying everything inside non-descript boxes and behind walls. Once you start noticing wires, you’ll notice them everywhere. I became a wire junkie.
Look at the side of this cabin in the early Hammer Valley section. Why are these wires here at all? They’re easy to miss. They have nothing to do with puzzles.
Of course they’re here for the realism, but it’s more than spice for the eyes. They are a symbol for how infrastructure binds everything together. INFRA often uses electrical disconnection to represent a malaise in the infrastructure and many puzzles expect you to fix the electrics.
If you try cutting the cables in the basement in The Lurking Horror (Infocom, 1987), you’ll find that something organic has grown through them and they’ll heal before your very eyes.
INFRA is not about workplaces, parks, playgrounds, bars or restaurants. It’s about what props up the façade of the metropolis, that concrete and pipework labyrinth, abstracted away through corporation motifs and manhole covers. Its existence is without question but what exactly lies beneath your feet?
After you leave Mark’s office block, you pass through the veil into the city’s Upside Down, a parallel world of knotted systems that are dying beneath it. Now you walk dank tunnels, maintenance stairwells, control panels that convey messages in the baffling medium of tiny electric lights. Perhaps the buildings are merely the shoots of the infrastructure mega-organism that have broken into the human world. Inseparable yet divided. The city and the city. But if the city below perishes, so does the city above.
You will encounter people during your great quest through the Upside Down – but they will always be on the other side of the glass. At least, until the Upside Down’s crumbling reality demolishes the border between the two worlds.
* * *
I grew up in the industrial town of Port Talbot in South Wales. I didn’t realise, until I was older and had flown the nest, that the town was a natural treasure. It was a coastal town with a sandy beach, backed up against beautiful mountains. I didn’t have a head for heights yet I still lost hours up there, where you can see everything for miles. Port Talbot wasn’t pristine, it was chaotic and dense, with houses, schools and businesses squeezed between the M4 and the sea.
But it was the steelworks which dominated the skyline and filled every night with a hot glow and the hiss of distant smelting. It was infrastructure in the sense that the steelworks made Port Talbot; it was the local economy.
My family didn’t have much money so a trip to Aberafan Beach was usually by foot rather than by bus. The quickest route was via an industrial estate, along a dirty, unkempt road strewn with debris. You’d also pass under an archway of pipework; there was no reason for vanity to tuck this clutter away out of sight in a place that was already out of sight.
And once you’d reached the beach, the container cranes at the dock stood proudly in the distance like sentinels defending us from the infinity of the sea. Behind the sand dunes further down the beach could be found the alien sight of a petrochemical plant, a metal chemistry set of impossible proportions glittering under a scorching sun.
I loved all of it.
I’ve talked about my Atari childhood but equally important was the shadow of industry I was raised in. Factories, pipes, cables, scaffolding, towers, noise, dirt, power, water, gas: this were ideas that resonated for me. For childhood inspiration, I turned away from the mountains towards the man-made. Nature was fine, but engineering was clever. Power cables and water pipes are hidden behind your walls and under your floors – isn’t that something? When I played alone in my room, I’d often “lift a panel” away from the floor to fix something, probably a trick I’d taken from Star Trek, but a scenario that was intimately connected with the background music of my childhood, an industrial town.
But it was not the same creative utopia for adults who watched their washed clothes turn black when hung outside to dry and grimace at a beach sandscape defaced with industrial graffiti: oil stains and all that other dark shit the sea dragged in.
This attachment to factories and infrastructure outlived childhood. What does the inside of a factory look like and why? What are the functions of its spaces? My wife and I share this interest and I joked to her many years ago that, for her birthday, I should have arranged a hot date out to a chemical plant. Thus I loved INFRA.
The British steel industry has been in decline for a long time. The Port Talbot steelworks is still running, but at a fraction of the capacity of its heyday. Port Talbot, like all industrial towns where the industry fire fades and the specialised workforce is left to flounder by free-market governments, has seen hard times. I left, of course, for the siren call of a city which constantly reinvents. Small towns don’t change, right? They just grow old and die. That’s what they tell me.
I’ve never seen inside the Port Talbot steelworks, whose survival each year is uncertain. But part of your journey through INFRA takes you to the steelworks of Stalburg Steel.
Its story is already over. The furnaces are dead and silent.
In its abandoned buildings, light filters through musty windows… and I’m fooled for a moment, as if I am looking down a hall lined with stained glass.
This dead church of industry, whose followers have been routed, does not feel fictional.
Next: A Game I Hated