Wandering Gamer: Tbilisi

Greetings readers! In this section/part/bit of my blog, I want to talk about real world locations (that I’ve been to), and how/why they make me think of video games. Recently, my partner and I journeyed to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia…

Initial

Tbilisi is at once an up-and-coming city and a crumbling ruin.

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The view from Narikala fortress, overlooking the golden-domed Holy Trinity Cathedral (in the distance).

Futuristic buildings stand completed, yet empty, gathering dust and attracting litter. Houses are often horrendously decrepit; some that have collapsed have achieved some sort of temporary entropic stability where a family or two can continue to live – indicated by multitudes of hanging clothes lines. Looming steel struts hold together streets of sagging homes; a futile Atlas preventing that which will surely yield. And yet, people flourish. The main streets in the city are crowded with locals and tourists, stepping over fallen construction work, rubble, trash, potholes, piles of bricks which were meant to be built but will forever remain piles of bricks, more rubble… But hang on, is that a Burberry store? This seems to be the essence of Tbilisi: chaotic rubble adjacent to designer shops, hipster cafés next to weather-beaten old grannies selling limes. It appears to be contradictory, but somehow, it works.

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One of many collapsing/abandoned houses.
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Yes, those are steel struts holding up teetering buildings…


A Historical Interlude

Let me set the scene a little. Tbilisi is the capital city of Georgia (Europe, not US), and throughout its existence, originating sometime in the 5th century, it has been controlled by many powers, kingdoms and regimes, which reflects in its bizarre mix of middle-eastern, Soviet, and avant-garde architecture (check this out).

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The empty theatre and exhibition spaces (tubes). Bow-shaped Peace bridge in the distance. Image taken from here.

Its prized location provided a commercial rivalry, being a crossroads along the east-west trade routes (much like Istanbul). One point in history which fascinated me was the Soviet occupation in the early 20th century. Perhaps fascinate is the wrong word, since the Georgians were terribly persecuted and oppressed by the incoming Bolsheviks: in the dying light of the First World War, Georgia’s best and brightest were murdered and a Communist regime was put in place – by those that wanted to regain what had been lost in the collapse of the Russian empire. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia regained its independence, and although some may rejoice, others take note that there was much stability during the occupation: the population grew, and industry blossomed (albeit for the Union). For a period of 10+ years, Georgia experienced instability and turmoil, until the Rose revolution in 2003, where the country adopted Western foreign policy and aimed to integrate into Europe.

Nothing is perfect, however. Georgia is a poor country, with unemployment being a huge issue. There are tensions between Russia and Georgia, seen especially in South Ossetia, and being on the border between Christianity and Islam, one could expect significant threat and danger. Contradictory to my preconceptions, the people in Tbilisi are some of the friendliest, calmest and most helpful citizens I have met on holiday. On the surface, I felt that people were scary, brutal-looking, and didn’t want to be disturbed, but this is a fundamentally wrong attitude to have.

The harshest looking faces will break out into armour-cracking smiles, go out of their way to help you out, and will be visibly pleased to be “disturbed”. 

Tbilisi has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. People leave their front doors and car doors unlocked. English is understood by most, Russian by even more (bar the most recent generations). McDonalds and Hard Rock Cafés can be found in Tbilisi. The city reminded me of a pre-revolution Iran, where Americanisation isn’t a bad thing, but at the same time, the Georgians are extremely proud of their traditions – it isn’t a western takeover, but merely an addition to an already rich culture.


Modern vs. Ancient

How do video games come into this, you may wonder? The video game I drew parallels with in the aesthetic of Tbilisi was Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. (I have played more games than the Uncharted series, don’t fret!) The unique essence of the game emanated from the city, for me, dynamically: in the way we explored Tbilisi, the contrast of ruinous and vacant spaces with urban and hectic ones, and the tendency for the city to have jaw-dropping views.

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Some wonderful fan art from Uncharted 2, see here.

More specifically, I’m talking about Chapter 5 – Urban Warfare, which is the beginning of the Nepal section, culminating in catching the soon to be wrecked train we escaped from in the game’s prologue. Much of this portion of the game is tasked with disposing of our main adversary’s private military, evading explosive shrapnel-filled death by a whisker, and leaping fearlessly from building to building in war-torn Kathmandu. Although my hands were mashing R1, my eyes were glued to the crippling aesthetic: its damaged, waning street signs, puddles of dirty water lapping at Nate’s feet, crumbling walls and devastated homes – partial floors destroyed, the steel struts and raw concrete now visible. This town must have been so beautiful once, and now war and greed was flattening it to dust.

There are firefights outside once majestic temples, snowy-pink mountains (Himalayas?) in the background portraying a beauty that can’t be so easily destroyed, unlike the toil of men. Uncontrolled fires burst and splutter in an urban soup of bullets and blood. Broken washing machines litter teetering apartment blocks, litter the roads, litter everywhere – seriously, there are washing machines everywhere.

Eventually we make it off the roads, and go temple-diving, Tomb Raider style. The lore and golden magnificence of untouched artefacts is a sight to behold. The puzzles are delightful, and one almost wishes to truly discover an ancient civilisation so dedicated to preserving a secret that it would construct such time-defying trials, a la Indiana Jones.

We leave Nepal in locomotive style, a bullet to the abdomen, hanging in an (almost) certain death tableau: strapped to an exploded train carriage, orthogonal to gravity, hanging dangerously from an icy cliff edge. 

All in day’s work for Nathan Drake.

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More fan art :). All credits here.

Tbilisi: Charted!

I saw Uncharted in my travels, in Tbilisi, Georgia. I saw Nathan Drake traipsing through Rustaveli street, smiling away pushed sales of Georgian candy, wandering through unexploded bomb sites to get to a restaurant (okay, it was an abandoned construction site, but it looked scary!). I saw Chloe Frazer, bartering and laughing with locals, trying to get the best deal on fashionable wares, winking at me with glittering, mischievous eyes. I saw the invisible residents of war-torn Nepal in the fallen, dusty faces of men and women, selling home-grown herbs and fruits on the roadside next to a McDonalds, a Dior, an Ermenegildo Zegna. I felt the same thrill Nate must feel when climbing a 45 degree slope, up to a ruined fortress, up to a botanical garden, up to a ghostly, out of season theme park. I saw politically charged graffiti; graffiti that made you think, that made you realise that there is creativity here, defying Maslow’s pyramid.

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This looks profound… I need an art interpreter, stat!

And so what? It was cool to see a video game in my travels, or perhaps, if I had played Uncharted after visiting Tbilisi, it would be the other way around. But cool isn’t a particularly profound message. I think what I want to say, is that video games can breathe life into electronic nothingness.

Just like art – hell, they are art – they can be depictions of reality, perhaps exaggerated, but nevertheless, they capture certain, curated aspects of a reality for us to consume.

I am so lucky in my life, that I can travel to places like Tbilisi, but for others, this is impossible. Video games can offer a glimpse into other human being’s toil and struggle, into crumbling architecture, into war and devastation. One can draw a line from this exponentially up: one day (if not already), we’ll have VR perfected, such that you can stand in your living room, put on your haptic gloves, set up the olfactory simulation fan, switch on surround sound, step onto an omnidirectional treadmill and virtually experience a cultural trip abroad.

But hey, add some imagination and video games already do that. Books already do that. Virtual transportation devices exist already. And that’s pretty cool.

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Followers 😉

Note: Images are my own, otherwise taken from Google Images, which have ‘free to use or share’ usage rights.

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