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In Defence Of In-Game Graffiti

In-game graffiti has been a major talking point throughout industry circles recently, especially as we near the release of the Dead Space remake with its infamous 'cut off their limbs' plea. The conversation has mostly been light and friendly (a rarity in gaming discourse), and quite informative as developers and designers with far more insight and knowledge weighed in. However, I still feel compelled to write a defence of in-game graffiti, not just from a gameplay perspective, but as part of the texture of the culture and society these games depict.

There's a road in my town that I drive down most weekends. It takes me from my house to the cinema, which is why I most often drive it, but I need to drive the same road to get to the city, to the shopping centre, to my parents’ house, and even the hour-long path that takes us to my in-laws. On the road, daubed in big white letters are the words 'Jimmy Henderson is a nonce'. I've changed the name, but you get the idea. One day it was painted over. Then the words were sprayed on again. Painted over once more, this time just the name covered up. The name is now back, and 'nonce' is underlined.

There's a lot of storytelling going on here. We don't know from the graffiti that Jimmy definitely is a nonce, but we do know that someone thinks he is, and wants the world to know. They're dedicated, too, returning to the scene to underline their point quite literally. We also know that Jimmy has a defender, or is possibly defending himself – this defender either thinks Jimmy Henderson is not a nonce, or at least doesn't want the world to know about it.

We learn other things, too. I live on a fairly nice street, but this road I drive down is not so nice. The North East of England, where I live, is mostly a collection of nice places stitched together by not so nice places. It's an area left behind and it has developed in an odd, atypical rhythm. There is no 'wrong side of the tracks', just tracks constantly crossing over each other nastily, with quiet refuges in the middle. We learn about Jimmy from the graffiti, sure, but we learn far more about the place itself.

Your own town likely has a version of this, or if you live on the 'right side of the tracks' in a place with clear division, you can at least picture this sort of thing in the alleyways too dark to venture down. When you see stickers like 'trans rights' and 'refugees welcome' in one part of town, you know that's a different place to the walls with 'covid-1984' spray painted across them. And, in places where you see both, you learn a lot about that place too.

This is my major issue with the discussion of in-game graffiti. Most of it is like the 'cut off their limbs' where it is explicitly instructions for a player, rather than telling us about the world. There also tends to be an attitude of scorn reserved for in-game graffiti in ways we don't see for other world building like posters, pamphlets, or codex entries. Graffiti, a normal part of life for many of us, is regarded as low-brow and vulgar in a medium built on shooting generic goons until they explode into piles of viscera. We ignore its character and storytelling ability because it is just petty vandalism and it'll bring down the house prices, darling.

Think of how well it is used in Left 4 Dead. 'We are the real monsters' is the kind of trite graffiti you often see from designers unfamiliar with how graffiti actually works and fishing for the most narratively resonant, on the nose line they can. However, Left 4 Dead then adds to the world's character by adding extra graffiti calling the original vandal out for being a moron, a jackass, an idiot, and even wishing death upon them, before a small and easily overlooked 'I miss the internet' line below it all. It's a fantastic use of graffiti that understands it’s a tool of creation, of rebellion, of environmental control, and individual expression, not just some kid with a marker pen. Left 4 Dead even tells stories with its graffiti, at appearing in the safe rooms feels as natural as seeing writing scrawled on toilet stalls in our world.

The one voice of dissent that does make sense is localisation. Graffiti uses language, and when games are localised, language changes with it. For a character, that's a question of either recording new voice lines or (depending on the available budget, usually) changing the subtitles. Both are easier than graffiti. Scrawls on the wall need to feel part of the world, and changing them across multiple territories causes a huge amount of work. So, if something mentioned in the graffiti is narratively important, players in other territories either get a worse experience as the graffiti is subtitled for them, or you add copious amounts of unnecessary work to the dev team. Then, if it's not narratively important, it raises the question of 'why have it at all?'. It's a fair question, but one you might as well ask of any tertiary part of world building. It's to make the setting come to life.

In-game graffiti, like anything else in games, can be done well or poorly, can be overused, misused, and can elevate a game. We take too dim a view because it's seen as lower class, and as a result is implemented too simplistically, meaning we like it less, meaning we use it less, meaning it gets worse, and so on and so on. But it's a brilliant tool for a game designer to have – they just need to use it properly.

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