A Coney Island By Design

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Walking towards the beachside, a small but growing crowd stands outside the Polar Express, a popular Coney Island spin-ride. The people are not waiting in line for their turn, but laughing, conversing, literally dancing in the street. This is not, I’m told, an uncommon scene to behold in this town of attractions overlooked by the looming tower of the TKT, held amidst the low growl of the States’ first wooden rollercoaster, the Cyclone. The Brooklyn-based amusement park often lovingly (often smugly) called “The Poor Man’s Riviera,” swells beneath skies full of rumbling piles of white and gray clouds that threaten to release in bangs of sound and falling rain. The Atlantic air is thick and meddling, full of buzz and sticky; nothing like that of its Pacific counterpart.

Music blasts from the speakers of some far-off funhouse and can be heard from blocks around. So can smells of salt, garbage, and sand. Writer and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti had written a book in 1958 entitled “A Coney Island of the Mind,” whose poems had very little to do with the actual park. But the collection was given its name believing, as Ferlinghetti did, that the work expressed “a kind of circus of the soul.”

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Coney Island’s “fairgrounds” are not unlike other urbanized oceanside environments. Creativity and calamity have a history of intermixing in generally impoverished areas where ample foot traffic meets with anxious merchandisers , eager street entertainers, area-specific  food vendors, and substantial masses of hoboes, artists, and freaks; think  of the Venice Beach, Santa Monica Pier, and Fisherman’s Wharf of many, many  years ago.

Boardwalk stores abound here, as do newly financed construction projects being resurrected in the distance, as do beaten facades layered with graffiti. On one modest concrete wall is a mural of Swan, Ajax, and Cochise, three members of The Warriors, a gang from the 1979 movie of the same name. But this guerrilla advertisement is for the forthcoming video game, painted and drawn in the cartoon realism characteristic of its reputable producer, Rockstar Games. Contrary to other accessible surface renderings , this one remains curiously unscathed by the tags of local and visiting crew s. This detail, however insignificant it may seem, is a subtle homage—to the game , the movie, and the book, and to the ever-evolving relationship of a place to an age-old story.

The Warriors replicates the journey in The Anabasis,” admits Sol Yurick,  author of The Warriors book published in 1965, in a recent introduction to a reprint. The story he references is over 2,000 years old, written by Xenophon,  an Athenian soldier and student of Socrates. The Anabasisis Xenophon’s retelling of the 10,000 Greek mercenaries that traveled to Persia to support an uprising, and then, once their leader was killed, had to find their way home employing tactics of flight and fight. This in mind, the story of The Warriors, regardless of how many times and in what media it is reborn, rests securely outside the mania of our pop-culture mores ; it suddenly stretches back into history and forward into the present-future as an extension of a timelessly  employed motif: the sojourn of a hero into exotic lands in hopes of a revolution / transfiguration, coupled with the  desperate return to one’s point of origin.

The application of Xenophon’s plot structure in The Warriors book is smart and imaginative: one July 4th, a gang leader named Cyrus, after The Anabasis’ Cyrus the Younger,  aspires to unite all the gangs of NYC into a revolutionary mob that can take over the city. (The anarchist in all of us gets goose pimples at the political implications of this alone.) The story is told primarily from the viewpoint of a minor gang called the Coney Island Dominators, who become lost in enemy territory after Cyrus is shot and police raid the meeting of the gangs. Rivals and law enforcement lurk; New York becomes the Persia they must escape; Coney Island the homeland  that awaits their return.

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Yurick writes measuredly, with great detail paid to the workings of gang mentality, to the consciousness of those youth regarded as social outcasts, and to the actual environment of their urban abodes.  The book, for its socio-anthropolgical accuracy,  at  the time felt new and daring. For the same reason, as time has passed, as NYC has evolved,  it seems a bit like a dated tome. This is in no way dismissive of a book that is still a genuinely  good read, but as can be said for many a title to come after it, perhaps the best thing to happen for The Warriors was to become a movie.

The release of the film version in 1979 incited gang violence at various locations across the country. Walter Hill, the director of the film and co-writer of the screenplay, used the bulk of the book’s plot, but where Yurick had attempted to be almost scientifically accurate of the dress codes and social matrix of the gangs, Hill chose to make them stylized hyperboles of the real thing. Gangs in the film are distinguished by their flamboyant  accoutrements (one group wears purple vests with ties), their choice of weapon (blunt objects or blades; very few guns appear in the film), their application of face paint (made iconic by the bat-swinging TKT), and of course,  their neighborhood moniker.  Even more surprising, they are totally ethnically integrated. Even the AC Turnpikes, which register on screen as a gang of skinheads, have exuberant African-American members. The very incredulous ness of the movie’s many aesthetic propositions make it the memorable, laughable, iconic film that it is.

In respect to those aspects of the film that would be smeared by the media as irresponsibly violent—gang warfare, economic despairity, social injustice— these were in fact the social circumstances prevalent at the time. Dick Zigun, founder of Sideshows by the Seashore,  premiere promoter of local sideshows, honorary Mayor of Coney Island, and resident of said locale since 1979, can attest to the disorderly state.

“Things get really bad for New York City in the 70s. That’s a period where the city essentially went bankrupt and the finances of the city got taken over by the state. NYC asked the federal government for help and they didn’t get any. That’s The Warriors period. There’s white flight out of the city, graffiti is everywhere, strip clubs lining the streets, and crazy artists running around everywhere… In some ways it was bad and in other ways it was really cool. It was everything Mayor Giuliani would rebel against.”

But before Giuliani could lay his hand to the city, crack would epidemically flourish, claiming its victims and wreaking its madness on those left behind. That was before the city was officially sanitized. As Zigun likes to say, “New York was a very different place then than it is now.”

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To be able to review that particular epic of NYC and render it accurately and creatively is a gift provided by hindsight. It’s also why The Warriors video game promises so much. Rockstar Toronto, the production  team responsible for developing this game, captures the details of Coney Island and the other burroughs with amazing historical accuracy. Their research extends over years, unique environmental nuances (such as building textures)  of the late 70s-early 80s cityscape culled from video footage, slides, old photographs and news clippings. Coney Island’s famous Wonder Wheel turns slowly in the loading sequence of the game, Ferris wheel cars lit up in the night  and swinging side to side, mirroring the image behind the opening credits of the movie. But the accurate representation of a time period does not solely a good game make.

“Our biggest challenge was to make a game worthy of the Rockstar logo,” explains game producer Jeronimo Barrera, “and to do that we needed to add plot and story elements that weren’t in either the film or book.  We tried to remain utterly faithful to both, and to do that we asked ourselves what was it like to be in a gang in the late 1970s?”

The answer came in delving deeper into the actual narrative of the gang and the stories of its individual members. The beginning of The Warriors storyline was extended; the beginning of the game is itself is a gang initiation where  you must prove your player worthy of The Warriors vest by brawling with homeless and other members of the gang. Once you’ve achieved your place among the crew, you navigate through the game using a subway map, choosing missions that are grouped by the hood and the gang that belongs to it. As you complete your tasks, which usually includes razing the city and beating ass, you find out how other members of the clan earned their vests, and how rivalries between certain gangs began. These added informational tidbits motivate the curious fanatic to engage in missions rather than wander the amazingly large virtual world of the game, though the ability to do just that is also an incomparable pleasure. But it’s in interacting with the environment, engaging in that first brawl, that the true freedom of the game is fully realized.

Throughout the course of game play, the player will become  each of the nine Warriors, each with access to three distinct fighting techniques developed to kick to some rival ass, take over turf, and thus complete various missions. In the course of gangland take-over, The Warriors can be directed as a crew to simultaneously rob stores, thrash neighborhood grounds, or engage in group fighting. They can also be commanded to stay back as you stealthily check out the scene or bust through a rickety fence to tackle a fleeing enemy. Objects in the environment, like bottles and garbage cans, can be picked up and utilized as weapons.  Rage mode can be entered to inflict some major pain with special moves, and Flash (read Poppers) can be consumed to heal the player’s ever-growing collection of cuts and bruises.

Ultimately, these attributes are necessary to create  what the game, outside of (but also due to) its artistic merits, truly is: a believable, hence immersable, fight -or- die epic.  Says Barrera, “Like in the book and movie, in our videogame fighting is essential for The Warriors to survive.  At it’s core this game is a brawler, but since the brawler genre is pretty stale these days, we knew we needed to reinvent the classic old school brawler.” Adding what Barrera calls mini-mechanics , such as jacking car radios and tagging across walls, is essential to creating a Warriors universe, i.e. NYC circa 1979, that the player can be engulfed by.

If one could then consider  the sum of The Warriors game’s parts—historical realism, narrative expansion,  hyper-interactivity—then  Rockstar’s  accomplishment is to have created a socio-anthropologically recognizable environment that can be traveled through and interacted with while embodying the archetypal outlaw .

Of course, come its October release, there will surely be detractors, a gang of upwardly mobile politicians  belonging to a moral lobby that spans party lines, ready to hack at the violent overtones of a video game for the sake of personal gain. And the usual arguments by the pro-gamers will await them: that the game acts as a morally ambiguous space that allows for the player to cathartically expel certain anxieties, or to disassociatively engage in illicit  behavior, safely and free of consequence.

But, more reasonably, any criticism of a creative work that sites simulations of violence as the sole factor pointing to the product’s social irresponsibility is giving no credence to the works artistic merits, its innovations relative to its industry, nor the intentions of its authors/designers. With regards to The Warriors project,  the dedication placed into making The Warriors materialize is self-evident; the  game is unlike most in that it makes a concerted effort to establish a distinctive connection with a particular place and period of time, creating a world that consists of vast virtual collections of cultural, historically  relevant  artifacts for the gamer to freely explore in visual and extremely physical ways. Ultimately, Rockstar is to be lauded for adding  a daring mutltiude of new layers to The Warriors saga, to the history of Coney Island and NYC at large, and continuing the on-going motifs that embody both and will outlast them all.

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