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Take an Amusing Architectural Tour of Postapocalyptic Manhattan

Apr 11, 2019 | 831 videos
Video by Leonhard Müllner and Robin Klengel

“New York is under martial law, which can be dangerous for us casual urban explorers,” warns our tour guide, dressed in full combat gear. The members of his tour group, each armed with an AK-47, move awkwardly in their avatars. The guide explains how to maneuver with keyboard controls. “We're in a narrative multiplayer shooter game,” he says. “But today, we will walk through the battlefield with a peaceful intention and just focus on the city itself.”

Tom Clancy’s The Division, a blockbuster action role-playing game set in dystopian New York, is the backdrop for the short film Operation Jane Walk, a wildly entertaining pacifist jaunt through the history of urban design and architecture of midtown Manhattan. Robin Klengel, an urban anthropologist, and Leonhard Müllner, a new-media artist, reappropriate the game’s militaristic environment to ends both incisive and absurdly humorous. Rather than embody a violent vigilante, which is what the game’s developers intended, our deadpan tour guide is more interested in commenting on the tension between the public official Robert Moses (“No one in the history of urbanism has built more miles of public roads”) and the activist Jane Jacobs, who wrote the famous book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The guide deftly avoids combat situations, instead leading the urban flaneurs to a number of iconic sites, including the UN headquarters and the former PanAm Building, and intermittently waxing poetic on the “rhythm of this dead city.”

Neither of the film’s directors has ever visited New York, and they were struck by the game designers’ acute attention to detail in creating the digital replica of Manhattan. “We were mesmerized by the digital architecture,” Müllner told me. “It is a Potemkin village, which only consists of facades, and does not reveal the underlying structures. It's really quite a Disneyland version of New York.”

Designing the tour was no walk in the park. “It is a hostile environment and full of characters that are trying to distract you from the architecture,” Müllner said. “It is nearly impossible to walk [a] few steps without getting shot or killed. We died many times trying to find the world's peaceful corners.” The dystopian world’s weather, too, was an unpredictable nuisance that often required the co-directors to postpone filming.

In their work, Müllner and Klengel strive to critically examine the artistic and social value of video games. “Games are simply too important cultural phenomena to be overlooked,” Klengel told me. But they feel that many mainstream game narratives employ the same infinite loops of reactionary tropes. “The genre largely fails to challenge the values of their players, and instead affirms moral concepts of hegemony,” Klengel said. “We acknowledge that this medium is currently not realizing its cultural potential, and we hope to appropriate digital game spaces and put them to new use.”

The pair laments, however, that many of their peers in the art and film world dismiss the medium altogether. “There are many prejudices towards the medium in general,” said Müllner, “but people tell us that they catch a glimpse of the game world through Operation Jane Walk and are fascinated by what it’s capable of. We want to convince the art people about the beauty of games, and gamers of the beauty of art.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.