Man, I love a hub in games. And so few get them right. A good hub can elevate a game that, otherwise, I don't really care much about.
Example: I appreciated the good things in Dishonored, but I didn't love it. I can't remember much of the missions, or what I got up to in that painted sepulchre of a city. What I can remember - what I return to increasingly often, in fact - was the hub, set in a beer-soaked boozer surrounded by blitzy decay, buildings reduced to the ragged spines of their stairwells, pointed towards the cloudy sky.
This boozer was great. It gave me a bit of downtime between missions, of course, but it was also filled with jokes (the Portal scorch marks on the wall!), with a sense of the world of Dishonored and even a few mysteries. What was on the middle floor of the pub?
I was pondering all of this - and pondering what a good hub can bring to a game - after watching John Wick, which I finally saw this weekend. Spoiler warning here, for anyone who hasn't watched it yet.
John Wick, as I'm sure has been noted, is a movie that has a very interesting relationship with games. It's a film about an assassin of almost mythical abilities, played by Keanu Reeves, and the murderous rampage he goes on when somebody steals his car and kills his dog. Note that bit, because John Wick, amongst other things, is a masterclass in how games could streamline their storytelling for maximum effect.
It's all so quickly done! And it revolves around things, that make it nice and simple to understand. You could express the motivation of John Wick as a pretty simple formula and lose none of the nuance. WICK - (DOG + CAR) = MURDER. (I may not have got that formula exactly right from a mathematical perspective - I was too busy playing with doll's houses to study. Also, it's even better than that because DOG=SUBTEXT. The love of the dog is the love of his wife made tangible. Bravo, John Wick. Bravo.)
What follows is a kind of cinema that the director recently referred to as a kind of reverse first-person shooter. Wick visits various levels and dispatches people with a range of weaponry. This is all done with great elegance and economy. It's not so much like playing a game but watching a master play a game on Twitch. It's the first movie I've seen that's focused, as it were, on the idea of watching streams.
Hubs come into this early on. I was expecting the explosions and the exchange of gunfire and the people getting stabbed in interesting places. What I wasn't expecting in a movie as thrifty as John Wick was the degree of world building that gets done, albeit with great style and - yes - economy. In the world of John Wick, all the hitmen hang out together in a sort of commuter hotel for bad-asses. There are rules to this place, just as there are rules, say, for the Normandy in Mass Effect: You can't kill anyone while you're there. Also, the hitmen economy has its own economy, in the form of gold coins that seem to be exchanged for all hitmen goods and services. Hitmen linger in this hotel in between being dispatched on jobs - or, as the film progresses, in between just straight-up being dispatched. In the final act, John Wick even stops here to receive what amounts to a quest reward in the form of a lovely new car, which he uses in a very inventive manner shortly before it becomes inoperable.
John Wick's hub, then, does exactly what the pub hub in Dishonored did: it helps make sense of the world, and it suggests - audiences love this - a little more of that world than the film itself requires in order to tell its story. Man, that glimpse of a universe unspooling beyond the needs of the script is one of those things that really makes me fall for a movie. You're not just getting a neat narrative, you're getting something more writable too.
Not bad, Keanu. But I think there's one non-game hub that sets the standard for these things. And it's not in a film. It's in a book.
What a book, too. Frederik Pohl's Gateway, probably my favourite sci-fi novel of all time is set on hollow asteroid somewhere in the solar system. When humans find the asteroid, they discover that it's been used as a sort of intergalactic Atlanta Airport for ETs: it's filled with pre-programmed craft that will whisk their inhabitants off to a distant part of the universe and then bring them back again. Brilliantly, some of these trips take people to amazing places where there are vast hordes of alien technology to be found. Others take you to boring places, or to your horrible death within the centre of a distant sun, or inside the event horizon of a black hole.
Gateway's hub, in other words, fuels a novel that works like a roguelike: drifters and people with nothing to lose bet everything on a trip to Gateway, and then roll the dice on a trip into the unknown, that might make them rich, or might finish them off for good. My only disappointment with the book, in fact, is that it has to focus on one of these drifters in order to tell a story. I sort of wish it had acted more like a game, making the central character Gateway itself, and allowing you endless forays into the beyond.
Check out what this hub's doing. It's giving the book a fascinating setting. It's gathering a cast of reckless, hopeless, gold-rush lunatics, all of whom can be counted on to be a little unhinged and to have an interesting backstory. It's setting up the rules and rituals and gameloops that will drive the novel. Most importantly, it's also creating an emotional environment for the book, a tone and a viewpoint. The humans are useless in Gateway. They don't know how the tech works, they didn't build the place, and the best they can hope is to scavenge something from it before it kills them. This sense of a chip on the shoulder, of a human future drenched in inferiority complex, gives Gateway a lot of its strangely bitter force of imagination.
I've been surprised to spot hubs outside of games, working their peculiar magic, elevating, as celebrity chefs might say, the other ingredients in the dish. It serves as a reminder, I think, of how even the most basic of game elements are often filled with richness - with mechanical possibilities, storytelling possibilities, and something beyond all that which lets you gain an extra toehold, an extra bit of imaginative ownership.