Make the world a better looking place
This year marks the 15th birthday of Jet Set/Grind Radio, a game about Olympic-grade rollerbladers who bear their eccentric souls through colorful street art (when they aren't busy grinding across skyscrapers). One of the first titles to incorporate graffiti as a game mechanic, Jet Set's still one of the best a decade and a half later, when using graffiti as nothing more than a post-apocalyptic flavor enhancer has become a tired trend.
But it's not all bad. While some games have morphed in-game graffiti into little more than a forgettable storytelling shortcut, others have put the power of aerosol to good use. Whether it's giving you tips through crimson-colored etchings or letting you leave your still-wet mark on the game world, these titles show gaming graffiti's true potential. Read on, and see what games have done grandaddy Jet Set proud.
The Last of Us makes it look real
We can't all be Banksy. For every fine artist that graces the mean streets with their aerosol masterpieces, there's 1000 taggers who focus on ten-second spray jobs that are either incomprehensible or pretty damn dull. Most games don't tend to showcase that part of graffiti culture, preferring their nameless citizens to be articulate and ominous in their frantic wall-scribbling. The Last of Us, however, makes a point of including some more everyday graffiti, from messy tagging to deliberate notes that get their message across in the most functional way possible.
While some games create graffiti that tries so hard to be unnerving or atmospheric that it quickly grows stale, mixing it up is a great way to keep the player immersed. By incorporating a mix of tagging, direct messaging, and the more cryptic writings games like to go for, The Last of Us' world feels a lot more real. Plus, it's nice to get a warning about the guy who'll shoot you if you want into his house. Thanks for the heads-up!
Dead Space gives you an important tip
Most 'graffiti' written in blood is hard to take seriously. That's especially the case when the message is vague and enigmatic, because you'd think when you're dying of massive blood loss you'd get to the point a lot faster. This once unique shortcut to creepy has been trod so often it's basically a five-lane highway, and now blood-based messaging almost always looks cheap. Almost, because Dead Space gets a special exemption. The first time you see CUT OFF THEIR LIMBS fingerpainted across the wall, it actually looks incredibly disturbing and gives you critical information.
Given that Isaac just witnessed his comrades being brutally murdered by an unknown monster and almost got chewed on himself, you were probably pretty freaked out when you first stumble upon this helpful and sticky message. It plays well into the atmosphere the game is building, and it's such practical advice for how to deal with necromorphs that it doesn't seem out of place. The UI kind of ruins the moment by immediately explaining what them note means, but don't blame the graffiti for that.
She's always watching in Dishonored
While Dishonored does commit some of the standard game-graffiti sins ("Rats are eating our babies" was scary the first time, but less so the ten times after that), it's not all the same vague declarations of misery that make every post-apocalyptic reality look exactly alike. In addition to giving you information about Dunwall that's more specific than 'here be generic unrest', it's also tailored to Corvo and what in particular would catch his eye.
Specifically, the street art of Dunwall does its greatest service to the Empress, who appears in stenciled form frequently throughout the city where you least expect to find her. Given that she's the North on Corvo's moral compass, the fact that images of her are everywhere makes it feel like you're being carefully watched, and gets you wondering (usually uncomfortably) if you're doing the right thing.
Get creative in Infamous: Second Son
Most games stick exclusively to graffiti as a controlled, atmospheric component, which is kind of ironic when you think about it. Infamous apparently decided it's had enough of the man's version of graffiti, and decided to put the spray can in your hands. Through a series of mini-games that require you to turn your controller on its side and shake it around (and you'll do it regardless of looking dumb because it's fun as heck), you choose between various 'good' and 'bad' stencil designs that you can paint across Seattle. You'll also get good or evil karma depending on if you paint something uniting or inflaming, so maybe stick to giant rubber ducks if you want to stay benevolent.
Second Son isn't the first game to make graffiti an interactive experience, but it adds an extra layer of player agency by letting you choose what kind of tone you want to give the work and how you want it to affect the world. Do you promote unity and peace, or rebellion? That's up to you, but whatever you choose, it's gonna look sick.
Something's not right in Portal
In the Aperture Science Labs, where everything at first seems so purposefully and perfectly arranged, it's the small inconsistencies that make you realize something's amiss. Like, say, a wall panel that's propped open a little too far. Get close enough to crawl inside, and the wall of manic scribbling that greets you removes any misguided feelings of safety you might have had.
While it might seem pass now that THE CAKE IS A LIE memes have driven us all up the wall, Portal's graffiti is cleverly designed to make sure you feel truly unsafe in Aperture while still making basically zero sense. Not only is some person hiding in the walls so he can write this stuff, but turning familiar imagery into something sinister (like a security cameras with the words SHE'S WATCHING YOU scribbled next to it in bright red) while not giving you anything concrete immediately sets you on edge. Good thing too, since that sets you up for a close call later.
Silent Hill 2 raises creepy questions
Silent Hill knows that less is more, especially when it comes to street visibility and safe places to hide. The series is known for using a visual or trick only once, making the most of the one moment when it would be scary and then not falling back on it again. But enough about that one damn bathroom jump scare (*shivers*), because Silent Hill 2 does something similar with graffiti. There are only two notable pieces in the whole game, but they're used to such chilling effect that I remember them to this day. And not by choice.
The two pieces are drastically different - one is nonchalant gibberish about a missing hole in the wall, while the other is a direct threat to the state of James' semi-rotten soul - but they work together to scare the health drink right out of you. The nonsensical but eerie nature of the first primes you for fight, and, so you're even more shaken when you see the note telling James to kill himself. In one splashing of gorey street vandalism the game puts you on edge, tells you that someone wants you dead, and leaves you wondering why James and his late wife Mary wouldn't show up in the same place afterward. And isn't that a doozy of a question.
Left 4 Dead feels so familiar
Few games like to take the 'metro station bathroom stall' route with their graffiti, but sometimes that's just the most natural, embarrassingly human way to go. The safehouses in Left 4 Dead are littered with graffiti from survivors who've gone before, with messages varying from poetic notes to helpful information to mocking the guy who wrote the poem because oh wow, that was terrible. Special ridicule is reserved for the kind of eerie messages common to other games, and you can expect a note like "We are the real monsters" to be annotated with "You are the real moron" in response.
In addition to being realistic - you know you've seen some bit of graffitied wisdom with PS I'm fat scribbled below it - it also does the exactly opposite of most game wall writing by making the world feel less empty. While you only have your wits and your three friends of varying combat skill to save you from the oncoming horde, seeing that other people have made it to the safehouses and brought their juvenile humor with them creates a weird sense of hope. Maybe misplaced, but let's try to be optimistic.