Albert Porter’s Revenge: a videogame concept

The following is from “Cleveland Stories: True Until Proven Otherwise,” a project of the Kent State University Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative. The concept is by me and the illustrations by Gauri Torgalkar (CUDC).  The complete illustrated videogame concept for Albert Porter’s Revenge is currently on display at Cleveland Institute of Art Reinberger Galleries now available in print, along with other great Cleveland stories. Check it out!

Albert Porter is one of Cleveland’s great folk villains. His legend is writ large, but fuzzy, in the city’s history, cultural consciousness, and built landscape. I’ve met few Clevelanders who recognize the name of Albert Porter; those who do invariably hold him in fuming contempt. For many others, those who’ve never heard his name but know his work, he’s “that guy!” — the long-serving Cuyahoga County Engineer (1943-1976) responsible for carving highway overpasses through working class and ethnic neighborhoods; the one who, though it was approved and paid for by citizens, killed the downtown subway; the one who wanted to tear down the Guardians of Transportation — “monstrosities” in Porter’s view; the one who tried to build a highway through the Shaker Lakes, only to be turned back by a klatch of “little old ladies in white shoes” (at least according to the legend, though the truth is more complicated).

Albert Porter is Cleveland’s Mayor Daley (albeit less effective and far less frequently admired): a Democratic party boss, a presidential candidate, a political force seemingly unstoppable, though not immune to his own hubris. His career spanned the post-war decades so formative in the development of US car culture, the proliferation of regional highways, the rise of suburbs, white flight, the stagnation and decline of once-great industrial cities. Albert Porter is Paul Bunyan, looming over the cityscape. His axe, a bag of cement; his blue ox, a Democratic ass; his unconquered forest, a loosely connected expanse of (sub)urban and industrial nodes.

Albert Porter’s Revenge is a video game concept designed to explore not just the legend of Porter, but also the concepts and the consequences of political power, civil engineering and urban design.

The game’s title, intentionally provocative and playful, is meant to convey Porter’s often-threatening demeanor. It is interpretively fluid and morally ambivalent. “Revenge” for Porter comes in many flavors and depends on each player’s perspective and in-game decisions. For some players, revenge may come as historical redemption for a man who, with few precedents to consult, was tasked with basically inventing an automobile-centric transit system for northeast Ohio. For others, Porter’s revenge may come as vicarious retribution against political opponents and environmental obstructionists, seeing, if they wish, algorithmic proof of “liberal” naiveté. Those who participate in the oral tradition that keeps Porter’s infamy alive will simply enjoy lampooning an opponent who was at once untouchable and famously insecure.

The player takes on the role of Albert Porter and has two primary goals: building and improving the Northeast Ohio highway infrastructure, while staying in power for as long as possible. Underlying each of these goals is a complex system of rules, competing interests, environmental, cultural, and economic variables, and metrics of success and failure. Importantly, the rules of the game, as well as key historical conflicts, emerge organically as the game progresses; in an experience mirroring Porter’s own, there is no tutorial, just a vaguely-defined mission based on economic analyses of a given district or region.

For example, one “level” in the game may be to construct an efficient network of roads connecting the east side Heights to the city core, inner belt and outlying highways. The player is free to do so however they choose, but each action incurs measurable consequences. Should the player build through the parklands of Shaker Heights, city leaders and residents in that historic and politically-connected suburb will revolt, threatening legal action, and carrying out high-profile political protest. Pushing on despite resistance involves varying levels of risk. Each district, suburb, or neighborhood has it’s own profile, including descriptive and demographic information and characteristic metrics based in classic role playing games (e.g. Wealth +5, Stability +6, Historical Significance +8, Political Savvy +10, Biodiversity +3, etc.) which the player must analyze to calculate the odds of his or her own success. While building through the Heights is a political challenge, constructing a turnpike through rural areas, for example, may be a political and economic boon.

Like the various municipal and demographic units throughout the region, Albert Porter himself has a profile consisting of similar status metrics, each of which respond dynamically to player actions. For example, successful completion of a large-scale construction project may result in increases in Labor Support, Campaign Contributions, and Political Clout. Conversely, that same project could bring with it decreases in Legacy and Popular Support, as well as other areas of region-wide concern, such as Environmental Health, Economic Health, Cultural Harmony, and Population Stability.

The consequences of key actions will vary to the degree that they have a known precedent in local history, civil engineering, and demographic studies. These consequences will not only impact the player’s profile, but will also be acted out visually in a number of ways. If a highway overpass is constructed through the center of the Tremont neighborhood, for example, players will see the houses and businesses being seized and demolished via eminent domain, and watch as the population moves centrifugally away from the new structure, while the once-singular place will split into two or more new districts, with adjusted physical, cultural, and economic characteristics.

In instances where the player “stumbles across” specific historical events, they will be treated to interactive infographics and situation profiles, “cut scenes” and “boss battles.” Cut scenes will include cinematic presentation of evocative primary source materials (e.g. local newspaper headlines, archival photographs, TV news footage, etc.) that reinforce the historicity of the event. Likewise, players will be able to interact with various other sources of information, including raw news coverage, highway impact studies, oral history interviews, and brief historic essays. In some cases, players will see computer-generated imagery that combines existing or historical landscapes with their own proposed construction plan (e.g. a freeway running though the Shaker Lakes), addressing “what if?” scenarios.

Boss battles may play out according to the historically-informed script or, if the player has built a strong enough profile for him or herself, they may be able to “defeat history” to carry out plans that the real Albert Porter failed to implement. Such battles might include the Shaker Lakes Freeway Fight (wherein Porter takes on the little old ladies and their high-powered lawyers, racking up “kills” of rare birds and other wildlife along the way), the Guardians of Transportation fight (Porter must smash the art deco sculptures on the Hope Memorial Bridge while fending off bespectacled preservationists led by Bob Hope himself, whose father was one of the stone masons on the initial construction and for whom the bridge was rechristened in the 1980s), and the Downtown Subway fight (Porter must balance, perhaps in a motion-sensing minigame, the competing interests of the public with those of Higbee’s and Halle’s department stores; the stores fought tooth and nail to prevent one another from having a stop on the proposed route, ultimately helping to kill the project altogether).

Depending on how the game is played, each player’s in-game choices will reveal important lessons about history (not just facts but it’s value, meaning, and construction both locally and nationally), displaying the trial and error nature of public policy-making, and engaging complex systems of political power, economics, and urban planning. In the end, players will be left with as many questions as answers, addressing not just the above concerns but also revealing their own values.

What are the connections between urban, suburban, and rural areas and how does that impact our infrastructure priorities and outcomes? Is there an environmentally sound way to build highways and other transit infrastructure? Is it somehow better to build a highway through an impoverished and minority-populated urban district than to build the same through a wealthy suburb? (The game, like history, tells us that it is certainly easier, but the reasons why leave much room for discussion). Was Porter, and by extension the player, the victim of an economic and political ecosystem in which there really were few “right” choices to be made. Or was he (both Porter and the player him or herself) just an asshole? This is not a flippant question. If a skillful and conscientious player can navigate this complex of competing interests and interwoven systems, dutifully constructing highways while minimizing harm, then perhaps we may continue to regard Porter as a great villain of Cleveland lore; if not, perhaps we reevaluate his legacy as one of disastrous but forgivable experimentation.

This essay appears in Cleveland Stories: true until proven otherwise (Urban Infill, Volume 4)