You're in the midst of a bloody uprising, fighting not just for your freedom but for your life. The air is rank with the stench of battle. At every turn, people are dying. There's a brief respite from the fighting, and you take the opportunity to grab your spray-paint can and leave a message on a nearby building: "You'll die before we starve!"
Or at least, if you're a person living in a video game world, that's what you do. Why would you do this? Because it makes the world more believable, of course! How else will future passersby know what happened?
Environmental storytelling, so popular in video games these days, can be a risky proposition. Get it right, and you can add layers of depth and nuance to your game. Get it wrong, and you can undo all the work you did making your environments believable in the first place.
A notable recent get-it-wronger is Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider. The game's setting was well-drawn, for the most part—a jagged, deadly island plagued by unnatural killer storms. But inside almost every building, crappy graffiti was waiting:
So… I'm getting that NO ONE LEAVES. What else?
Right. No one leaves. What if they have a plane?
Okay, got it. Even with a plane. No leaving.
So we should embrace the flames? What if we're trapped?
Ah, Father Mathias will set us free! And we should FEAR the demons. Okay, got it!
I said I've got it! You don't need to draw giant arrows pointing to it! Sheesh.
Tomb Raider messes up its graffiti mostly through overuse. Someone decided that "NO ONE LEAVES" text they had made was too good to use just once, so they spread it out over a bunch of places in the game. Even if you don't consciously notice that kind of thing, your subconscious will notice it and think, "Huh. Did they make a stencil or something?" I've been replaying bits of the game, and am struck by how the clumsy graffiti dumbs down some otherwise lovely environments.
Naughty Dog's The Last of Us had some of the best environmental storytelling I've seen in quite some time. The game's wasted cities and suburbs had so many stories to tell—a hastily assembled barricade, a stack of luggage left packed and unmoved in the middle of a living room; posters on a college dorm wall. Naughty Dog's environments were rendered down to the nooks and crannies. But even they couldn't quite get graffiti right.
Granted, they did a far better job than many other games. The example above, for instance, was a bit clumsy, but it's also the sort of thing someone really would write on their house to scare off looters. Better yet, Naughty Dog would often approach graffiti in the most sensible way—they'd make it look like actual graffiti:
But sometimes, mostly in Pittsburgh, their otherwise notable restraint went a bit out the window.
What WILL happen when the food runs out? Also, why did you write this on the wall of an overpass outside the city?
Tell us how you really feel!
Points for cleverness, anyway.
And on, and on.
Sure, it's possible to do some logical contortions in order to explain some of this graffiti away. Maybe the military had holed up behind its walls... and the rebels decided to leave them a message in the night... or something. But all the same, surely they didn't need to literally write on the walls in order to communicate what happened in this city.
Back when the gaming graffiti movement was getting started, the famous "Remember Citadel" graffiti in System Shock 2 was surely a bit of exciting frission—an ominous easter-egg for players of the first game.
That game (and its blood-soaked environmental storytelling) paved the way for its spiritual successor, 2007's BioShock, which contained all manner of evocative, memorable wall-scrawling. That same time-period, 2007-08, gave us the two other landmark graffiti games: 2007's Portal and 2008's Dead Space.
As it turned out, Dead Space's dumbest bit of graffiti wound up creating its most iconic scene. Shortly after the alien necromorphs attack, protagonist Isaac Clarke finds a helpful tip left by an unfortunate soul:
When you pause to think about it, it's a real head-scratcher. This guy was bleeding out, I guess… and he, what? He wrote a helpful note on the wall in his own blood? And left some handprints?
Yet it's still a striking image, and in the context of the game it was actually an effective scene. Which goes to show, some of this is dependent on the world the game is trying to build. What's goofy but passable in an outsized game like Dead Space or BioShock might look cartoonish and silly in something more grounded, like The Last of Us.
Valve's 2007 puzzle game Portal is a great example of just how good video-game graffiti can be. Not only did Valve practice admirable restraint with their wall-writing, they made their graffiti so cryptic, mysterious and darkly funny that it almost instantly became an un-killable meme.
We didn't know who wrote that, and we didn't know how the cake was a lie. We just knew that GLaDOS has been promising us cake, but that she had offered cake to someone who came before us, too. What happened to him or her? Did the cake kill them? What did those hatch-marks indicate? Had these notes been written by more than one person?
The Portal graffiti was sinister in a way that was never fully explained, a tantalizing mystery at the fringes of the game's main story. And best of all, you could totally miss it if you weren't paying attention.
Valve went on to prove themselves masters of video-game graffiti several times over with their Left 4 Dead games. Every safehouse contained a wall-full of unique scrawls and notes from those who had come before, each of which told a fragment of some other, mostly unknown story.
Left 4 Dead's graffiti wasn't just well-written and funny—it was believable, even when it was mocking the very sort of portentous, cheesy graffiti I've spent this article talking about:
Ha! Now that is how you do video game graffiti. Enough with the "WE ARE THE REAL MONSTERS" junk, you know?
Every time I see lousy video game graffiti, I'm reminded of this famous scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
It was silly in 1975, and it's silly now.
Video-game art directors, I beseech you: Stop speckling your beautiful creations with boorish, on-the-nose graffiti. You've crafted your worlds so carefully; sit back and let them talk to us on their own terms. A room can tell a story without writing it on the wall.
Left 4 Dead image via RPS