The camera pans across the entryway, sweeping past the pile of unopened mail, over the shoes kicked off in the hallway, tilting upwards toward a domed ceiling mottled with mould and peeling paint. The shot is accompanied by melancholic strings – there’s no end of depressing instrumentals pasted onto these sequences, it seems – as the camera lovingly caresses the dust, the decay, the decades of discarded decadence.
Sometimes you’ll see the sinewy tendrils of nature squeezing through the open cracks in the brickwork, trying to reclaim its land. Sometimes the decline is such that you can’t even see what a room once functioned as. Ceilings have tumbled and smashed onto floors now, and stairs gape open into the shadowy basements below. More often than not, drawers and cupboards are upended and ripped open, their contents strewn all over the place. Letters, clothes, bottles, toys, unpaid bills. Photographs that once mattered enough to someone that they were slipped into ornate frames still languish on dusty mantle pieces and beside carefully made beds.
I found urban exploration – or UrbEx as the cool kids say, although I am not one of them – in lockdown. It’s a contradiction that amuses me. I have left my home precisely one time since March 6, and yet somehow, via the magic of the internet, I’ve been all over the world exploring abandoned places. I’ve been to empty asylums still stocked with patient records and unsettling clinical equipment. I’ve visited deserted farmhouses where teacups sit on sink-side drainers. I’ve dropped by a sprawling English mansion in which every door has been broken down with force, each one now lying in splinters on the ground. I’ve even virtually tiptoed past unwitting security guards in a forgotten theme park and reached the peak of its rusted roller coaster.
I’ll be honest: even if we weren’t in the worst timeline amidst a deadly pandemic and forbidden from non-essential travel, I still reckon the odds of me shimmying up a drainpipe to sneak in via an open window are pretty fucking slim. But my god, I thrive on living this life vicariously through those who are fitter, and braver, than I am, even if I do set an astonishingly low bar on both those counts.
For the uninitiated, UrbEx is a legally opaque pastime in which explorers enter but never break into (thus typically only breaching civil laws, not criminal ones) empty properties. Pop the term into YouTube, and you’ll be assaulted by thousands of videos from all across the world, people dressed up in black sweats and full-face masks as they sweep through long-forgotten French chateaus and vacant mansions on Billionaires Row. Sometimes the places are entirely empty; sometimes there are still mildewy clothes sitting expectantly in the washing machine. They are always, without exception, fascinating to me.
It started with Silent Hill, I think. The deserted corridors of Wood Side Apartments. The broken splendour of the Lakeview Hotel. Picking through the detritus in abandoned subway stations. There’s something inherently enticing about a once-bustling building that’s since fallen into obscurity, and it’s why I’ve always been drawn to games that permit its world to tell its story – environmental storytelling, in other words.
After games like Silent Hill had sewn the seeds, it was Dishonored and The Last Of Us that lovingly watered and tended that curiosity. Though both Arkane and Naughty Dog alike are exceptionally skilled at character-driven drama, they also let the world they’ve painted tell its own story, too. The untouched dinner plates. The discarded diaries. The torn posters ripped off the walls. Those tiny, almost inconsequential details can reveal so much when stacked together.
PUBG’s Erangel map – purportedly a former Russian military testing facility that’s since been abandoned – intrigues me, too. I know it shouldn’t – it’s just a convenient backdrop to a battle royale, and there is no story behind it, not really – but the broken fences and boarded-up doorways tell a tale all of their own, don’t they? As much as I love shooting stuff, a tiny, pathetic part of me yearns to forego the battle and just spend the match exploring the empty homes instead.
The shimmying up the drainpipe part of UrbEx? Well, there’s a lot of that already. From Uncharted’s Nate Drake to Assassin’s Creed’s collective army of assassins, we’ve grown pretty accustomed to parkouring across our virtual playgrounds. Surely, now, it’s time for games to let us virtually experience a little UrbEx exploration, too?
Curiously, there are not that many games that let us, though. The brutal psychological horror Town Of Light probably comes closest. It’s a game in which you explore a (real-world) Italian asylum and discover why the (fictional) protagonist was once committed to its care and what happened to her there. While some of the devastating revelations are pulled from the protagonist’s consciousness, these are triggered – in both senses of the word – as you idly explore the dilapidated hospital, exploring the rubble strewn across the expansive site. It’s an incredibly careful, yet powerful, alternative approach to storytelling.
I’d love more of this – to be dropped into a wholly unknown location, and left to examine the discarded memories to pull together a tale of who once inhabited this place. I’d love to be able to weave together clues and conjecture, popping the pieces together to create a clearer picture of what happened here. It doesn’t even have to be a complete story, really; I’d be content with piecemeal glimpses from which I can spin whole – and wholly unsubstantiated – backstories of my own choosing.
And could you imagine UrbExing in VR? Valve’s stunning Half-Life: Alyx was an incredible world to explore, permitting you to peek into every nook and cranny, rummaging through every crate and box you find. Imagine just such freedom in a place where your understanding of its past can only be revealed by the clues you find.
Video games have already enabled those of us who are too old or too unfit – and yes, I include myself in that camp – to experience the limitless power of parkour in the safety of our own homes. How I’d love to explore abandoned properties, real or otherwise, from the comfort of my sofa, too.