Anyone who plays video games understands on some level that the virtual worlds they inhabit are ultimately cold, lifeless creations. Why else would there be so many games set in the zombie-riddled post-apocalypse? Building vibrant ecosystems that approximate real-life cities is incredibly difficult, if not altogether impossible. Nonetheless, games like Grand Theft Auto inch ever closer with each successive release. But even last year's outstanding GTA V had plenty of uncanny valley moments where the digital consensus reality suddenly broke down.
Creatively speaking, this doesn't have to be a bad thing. But big budget titles like GTA are so focused on creating a sense of visual verisimilitude that they rarely play with their own limitations in an interesting or self-aware way. That hasn't stopped the players from doing so, however.
This is part of what I love about Duncan Harris's work. A games journalist by trade, Harris also produces screenshots (or virtual photographs, depending on what you want to call them) for his personal site Dead End Thrills. His newest batch comes from Grand Theft Auto IV, and they're absolutely stunning. Recast in stark black-and-white with barely any human subjects in the frame, they paint a desolate picture of the game.
GTA IV is set in Liberty City, a lightly fictionalized version of New York. Fans of the series have always admired Rockstar's unmatched ability to capture the mood of different American cities down an intensely granular level of detail. Looking at the new Dead End Thrills series, you can see why. Taking the color out of the cityscapes, Harris recasts Liberty City in a crystalline, nihilistic light. These don't evoke the quirky humanism of street photographers Bill Cunningham or Henri Cartier-Bresson. Rather, they seem to channel the frenetic energy of the legendary crime photographer Weegee, who developed his signature style (and his pseudonym) by chasing ambulances and police cars around Manhattan throughout the 1930's and 40's.
That makes sense given that Grand Theft Auto IV is a game that invites its players to run around a New York City lookalike and perform all the unspeakable acts us flesh-and-blood New Yorkers can't get away with so easily. But Harris captures human subjects (so to speak) sparingly here. The ones that are pictured—two figures standing at opposite ends of a vacant subway station, a homeless man curled up into a ball on the sidewalk—only accentuate how lifeless the city has been made to appear. It's an uncomfortable, disturbing image; one that's difficult to see when you're actually playing the game. But it still feels true to the experience of inhabiting a world as brutal and combative as Grand Theft Auto.