Sawbuck Gamer


Brutal Methods

Concrete wrenches revelation out of mean old architecture.

By Anthony John Agnello • March 26, 2013

Sawbuck Gamer is our daily review of a free or cheap game ($10 or less).

New Brutalism—despite sounding like a subgenre of heavy metal—is a philosophy of architecture spearheaded by Alison and Peter Smithson between the 1950s and ’70s. Responsible for a number of British monstrosities like Robin Hood Gardens, the idea was to create a style of concrete building perfect for low-cost housing and government facilities in a socialist utopia. Turns out most people hate the Smithsons’ buildings. They tend to inspire feelings of dread, like giant gravestones marking the end of human history. Christopher Nilssen says up front that his game Concrete uses brutalist architecture to make you feel alone and broken. It works.

Concrete opens like the sort a bad dream caused by mixing Pringles and 2 a.m. viewings of Johnny Mnemonic. A digitally masked voice of tells you to wake up. There are instructions waiting for you, and you have fifteen minutes to complete them. The clunky movement and mechanical sounds coupled with the barren, rain-covered rooftop you find yourself on are marvelously unsettling. Everything you do is painfully slow, adding a patina of panic as that timer counts down.

After finding out the true and morally dubious nature of your mission, a second voice contacts you offering an alternative path. The old-school computer aesthetic and the binary choice of obedience versus rebellion recalls The Matrix—which Nilssen acknowledges winkingly—but Concrete gives you more freedom in how to make your choice than just swallowing the blue or red pill. Few of the options are pleasant, but they are options, difficult and fun to discover, and something the old Smithson style was roundly opposed to. Nilssen’s methods for leading you to catharsis can be brutal, but they are certainly effective.

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20 Responses to “Brutal Methods”

  1. GaryX says:

    Most people don’t hate Smithson’s buildings. They aren’t all successful (the Robin Hood gardens are probably the most infamous failure), and they were certainly controversial in their time. However, they’re quality of life is as easy to criticize as lots of modern housing projects which neglected the ways in which people actually operate for utopian ideas and modern planning (this was even worse on an urban scale); Brutalist architecture was just more honest in its materiality than modernism. A lot of the Smithsons ideas such as the “charged void” or “street in the sky: ( are ideas still being explored today. The knee-jerk reaction and hate generated towards this form of architecture has resulted in the destruction of historical works of art rather than preservation despite the fact that the structures are direct links to later formal schools of thought such as deconstructionism.

    • Girard says:

      It’s a shame that with buildings, the works of art are too large to declare “it belongs in a museum!” Unfortunately that leaves us with the choice to cede valuable real estate (and human intra-spatial existence) to aesthetically and functionally problematic buildings indefinitely, or to tear down historic architecture to put up something more practical or contemporary.

      My alma mater’s CS department is/was housed in a universally despised brutalist concrete turtle. It was a maddening, prison-like place – every floor was an identical grey purgatory of concrete rectangles. Apparently the department has since expanded into a new building, which is a little silly-looking and incongruous, but kind of interesting, and apparently award-winning. The old building is still in use, though.

      • GaryX says:

        I like the “Sorry, world” scribbled across the top.

        It’s definitely tough with buildings, and I think we have to be selective with what we save. I wouldn’t be against reengaging with a progromatically faulty building through design that both tries to make the building “work” while either retaining or setting aside a portion of it for preservation. Unfortunately, we have enough problems actually preserving works that are aesthetically or functionally pleasing just because it’s not making someone enough money. 

      • Here in Halifax, where our downtown core still has numerous heritage buildings, we’re starting to accept a compromise when it comes to preservation. We’re preserving exterior facades even as we develop old blocks into taller buildings. 

        • Brutalism is a tough one. I personally dislike most examples of it on an aesthetic level, rather than a socialist utopian ideal it always felt to me like the powers that be deciding that the working class didn’t need aesthetics, that they ought to be grateful for any old cubic hunk of concrete and glass they get lumped with. When it comes to government buildings, too, it just seems lifeless and intimidating (like I.M. Pei’s rather reviled Municipal Government Center in Boston – )

          Here in Dublin there are quite a few examples, thanks to Stephenson, who on small scales produced some lovely examples of Modernism, but anything larger than a townhouse and he blighted the urban landscape with it. He was responsible for the first project to disrupt the “Georgian Mile” of townhouses in central Dublin, with a Brutalist building that in its facile efforts to echo the Georgian buildings, merely reminds one of how much better the original was.
          He also was the first to disrupt the architectural character of Trinity College with their Library. 

          The Central Bank building in Dublin is another example of his work, utterly huge and out of character with the rest of the city. I’ve yet to find anyone who likes it. 

          Part of the problem may be that the Stephenson buildings were constructed during a grim economic period in Ireland’s history, the 60’s – 80’s, so they kind of emphasized the depression of that age. 

          Sorry if I seem like a grouch, and I’m not against building in new styles in the middle of urban areas (part of what caused Ireland’s economic meltdown was a property bubble, exacerbated by an inability to replace old structures and a height limit of about five stories in the city centre) Now, Brutalism that I DO like? I’m not sure if it counts, but I absolutely love the Washington DC Metro stations. New York’s subway system has some of the most claustrophobic and apocalyptic stations I’ve ever seen, but DC’s are airy, palatial, and the simple concrete adornments help emphasize how nice it is to have so much space above you when you’re underground.

    • Logoboros says:

      I’m not sure if it qualifies as Brutalist, but grew up loving the inn at Fall Creek Falls State Park in Tennessee. It is one of those heavy edifices with lots of cantilevered concrete sections, but somehow it works in a kind of contrast to the natural beauty around it — in a way, it’s almost like a big log-cabin lodge would almost become sentimental, whereas this inn feels oddly grand in its cavernous qualities.

      The inn has been added to and somewhat remodeled in the last decade and a half (and it doesn’t feel quite like it did in my childhood).

      Inn entrance:

      Here’s a pic of the original design — the entrance is actually into the second story, visible in the middle of the left-side of the image:


    • exant says:

      Whenever I see brutalist concrete buildings or something similar, it always makes me think of architecture in Doom. I did a lot of map building in Doom as a kid. The nature of the 2D engine was such that you had to do a lot of tricks to make things seem 3D, resulting in very similar architecture to government buildings, without the demons.

    • boardgameguy says:

      Minneapolis has some vestiges of brutalist architecture hanging around thanks to Ralph Rapson.  The best example is Riverside Plaza, which was going to be a whole complex of buildings that had everything a community would need in an internally connected series of buildings:

      I’ve come to love the look of it and, having done some work with its residents, might also have a soft spot for it generally. But I’m glad it’s sticking around.

      As far as the game goes, I got busy and needed a quick ending.  Surprisingly, the game let me jump down an elevator shaft to my own death providing me the out I was looking for. Not sure if I achieved salvation or not.

    • Halloween_Jack says:

      Well, isn’t that typical of a lot of reaction toward a lot of big design movements, though? It isn’t necessarily the originators that create the worst of the type. 

      • GaryX says:

        True, though the Smithsons were hated at the time by the general architectural community (and some of their stuff wasn’t great).

  2. To the Sawbuck inclined, there’s another Mobile Humble Bundle out today (for Android) that has Plants vs Zombies and some other cool-looking stuff in it:

    • And there’s a sale on some THQ games this week, if you’re into that sort of thing.

      • Chalkdust says:

        One damn dollar for Red Faction: Armageddon.  Is that game worth one damn dollar?  I say yes.

        • I could not get past 2-3 chapters of the single player campaign, but I’ve played a few hours of the destruction derby mode, or whatever it’s called, and it’s a total blast (no pun) and absolutely worth a few bucks.

        • Chalkdust says:

           @twitter-495079299:disqus I enjoyed the campaign, though it admittedly isn’t anything special in terms of story.  I like the level design and especially the destruction tech.  Been playing Red Faction since the first one, and I kinda wish they’d middleware their “GeoMod” engine (just like I wish LucasArts would middleware their materials library they developed for the Force Unleashed games), because that level of environmental interaction is very satisfying.

        • @Chalkdust_TMAI:disqus I have a friend who worked on Armageddon on level design who was kinda bummed about the bad reviews, I will pass him your compliments. :)

          I liked the destruction engine alot, and I wish they could’ve done something more clever with the rebuilding tool other than ‘fix the bridge to proceed’ because the effect looked SO. COOL.

        • Chalkdust says:

           @twitter-495079299:disqus Yeah, if they could’ve done something a bit more “Crayon Physics”-y in terms of, like, aiming and painting platforms/barriers instead of just activating pre-placed objects, that would have opened up a lot more options in gameplay and exploration.  You can still get mileage out of it in some battles, repairing your cover and stuff, but to be able to build new cover/paths where none existed before would be a lot cooler.

          It’s unfortunate that, folling THQ’s demise, the company that picked up Volition’s rights only did so with Saints Row, leaving the Red Faction franchise in limbo AFAIK.

        • @Chalkdust_TMAI:disqus From what I can tell, even THQ wasn’t likely to make another Red Faction game anyways.  I got the previous Red Faction games bundled with Armageddon, which one would you recommend I check out?  Guerilla?

          (sidenote, Saints Row rules, against all good taste and better judgement)

        • Chalkdust says:

           @twitter-495079299:disqus Hmm… Guerilla is the only one that really breaks from the linear campaign structure of the others, going for a ‘Grand Theft Mars Rover’ vibe as it does.  It’s varied and expansive, with lots of fun weapons and a solid upgrade system.

          It’s also the game most people who are familiar with RF came in on, which could account for the disappointment in Armageddon’s return to its straightforward action game design template.  Of the original two, I vastly prefer the first, because the GeoMod they used there actually allowed you to blow holes in the level and not just structures (something I was very disappointed to see did not return in Armageddon).  When presented with a locked door in a subterranean mine, do you hunt out the key, or waste a rocket or two to blast away the rock surrounding the door?

          All that said, Guerilla is the most ambitious of the lot, and probably ultimately the one I had the most fun with.

  3. Eco1970 says:

    Well, that just made me angry. Firstly, calling it an ‘experience’ not a game just ruffled my ‘what a pretentious wanker’ feathers. Then, the timer. Great thinking, Einstein. Don’t want me to see the ending, huh? I’m not going to trudge through all that terrible dialogue and ponderous gameplay again. I didn’t waste much time at all, but I couldn’t finish the gun because I might have not found one of the bits. Not really certain about that, because the file access farrago was annoying too.

    Less is more.