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Come, Travelers. Enter this City of Steam and Smoke for I have a Guide for You

When taking the stage of my individual journey in City of Steam, my character was required to find a companion with whom she was supposed to be familiar amidst the horde of evacuees. This guide was of my House, lecturing me through my avatar on the necessity of a quick Exit Stage Right through the city burning all around us. Though my character was supposed to be of the House, I knew nothing about the House’s background, the politics of the land, who consisted of my virtual family members, what rank we all were, and for how long this guide was programmed to have known me/my character. In this world of Colossus and industrial steampunk ruin, I was the amnesiac, the tabula rasa, and only my guide knew who and what I was.

What I find fascinating is the ways in which games encompass their tutorial within and through a guide character. My character may be of the world, but these characters alternate between treating me like some newly arrived extraterrestrial or time traveler and treating me like a veteran soldier. As a long-time lover of video games and someone who is quick to mash buttons to figure out which one will let me swing my sword (or, I guess, raise my shield. Priorities, people), the guide with the tutorial spilling from their pixelated mouths are just there to tell me, Yes, you are of this world but here is a way you may survive it. I am less interested in their battle basics and more interested in them pointing me in the right direction.

While my guide (assistant?) in City of Steam was helpful on that front, there were other elements of her existence that seemed false to me in a way only an MMO can reveal. She would lead the way, past rubble and terrorized virtual victims, and then stop in a space where I would be sent forth to pick up items, talk to other non-playable characters, or battle my way through monsters. Like a faithful puppy, I  would do her bidding, stumbling past other players who would talk to my guide. Unlike in a single-player console RPG, this guide was not my guide alone. I was not in an isolated playground where I could pretend that this gaming experience was unique to me; I was being given the same tutorial experience as everyone else who had chosen my race and class. She was the guide, not my guide as much as the game tried to frame her existent that way. I was not the only hero who would collect the fuel to get the game out of town, not the only one she would scold for House matters, and not the only one who would try to find a safer passage way to keep up with her through a burning building.

Now, as I followed this woman, I realized that this program, this code taken humanoid form, had to follow the same path until she was no longer needed, herding players like me through a city that was doomed to burn over and over again, so that we could play as heroes.  We would crowd around her, awaiting instructions that would lead us towards the next stage of the game, and I began to wonder how many lives she has lived so far, though it would inevitably be the same life. My guide, their guide, our guide, hurtling again and again through a city racked by smoke and fire, overshadowed by the awakened denizen, the ancient debris that had fallen from the sky, and the Brood of monsters who lay siege on the population.

Step This Way

When the Rain Begins, Empires Will Rise and Fall

A story must always begin somewhere, right? But every story begins in the middle of something else, and even the birth of a person happens in the passage of, or sometimes the end, of a mother’s life. So where does the story begin for my characters in City of Steam? At the end of a city, the end of an empire, as an ancient object from the sky comes thundering down and awakening that which had slept in the midst of the city. It is odd to think that a city would emerge and grow in the shadow of a Colossus the way most towns would around a body of water. What would it be about a giant, slumbering, mechanical god-like creature that would offer such a promise of protection?

That offer of protection failed as the city of steam turned to the city of smoke and ash, with its people fleeing or dying beneath the onslaught of battle between Colossus and the ancient object. But, what truly causes an empire to fall? Is it when the smoking husk of the city ruins are visible? When all the people have fled or died? Or does it take longer than that? Does an empire last so long as someone claims it as a birthplace, identifying him/herself as a citizen of its former glory, or does that person’s citizenship and loyalty belong to another place? Can we define an empire by the physical foundations or by that which is the foundation of the idea of an empire? I am reminded here of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities  as borders and boundaries of any nation only exist in the collective agreement of the people. So when the city of steam turns to the city of smoke and ask, do the people collectively agree that their homeland is being laid to waste by that which has fallen from the sky and the very Colossus they had felt previously sheltered beneath? When the city is left as a burnt husk on the horizon, as its people flee by trains which I helped collect fuel for, and left as a nest for the Brood that emerged alongside the bloodshed, is the empire to be abandoned, neglected, forgotten all but to the annals of history?

My characters in City of Steam. We are among those who fled.

My characters in City of Steam. We are among those who fled.

This Empire Will Only Rise Once: