An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Saint Denis
Posted on December 28, 2018
Every day there is so much we ignore, objects and actions visible only in our periphery. The French writer Georges Perec described these instances as the “infra-ordinary” and over a weekend in 1974, in Saint Sulpice Square, set out to record them in detail, an endeavour later published in his book An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. The idea behind the project was to document the everyday and to find out what happens in those instances when nothing happens.
The thought of applying the same logic to a video game is an idea that has followed me around for a while now, ever since I first read Perec’s book in 2012. I was interested in seeing whether a video game world could live up to everyday life or whether the cracks would start to appear after three days spent vigorously documenting every passing NPC and store sign I came across. After all, video game worlds are created often with the player at their centre, with every action serving only to expand on and improve their experience.
It wasn’t until I played Red Dead Redemption 2 and reached Saint Denis, however, that I finally decided to give the experiment a go. Below are the recordings of three days in-game spent jotting down every insignificant thing I came across in a small area of Saint Denis. The area I chose was Milyonne Avenue, near the General Clancy Harris monument, due to its proximity to several landmarks and its ample foot traffic. Without further ado, let’s begin.
I exit the saloon I’m using for board and head outside to the benches across the street. I observe a man on a horse, followed by two carriages.
Looking across the road, I notice the advertising on the side of the Bastille Saloon. It reads, “Liqueurs, Poker, Bourbon. Hot Food.” A horse comes into view and I compliment the rider on his steed as he gallops by. A carriage follows.
Across the street, I watch the tram from Milyonne Avenue to Crescent Street roll by. It’s owned by the Cornwall Railway Corporation. A man crosses the road, wiping his face. And some moments later, a French gentleman bids me “Bonjour” while he walks by.
I spot another tram, but I’m too slow and miss its destination. A carriage passes and it directs my attention to a large group who have gathered across the street. There’s a man in white leaning on a post, smoking, talking to a woman. The woman is waving a fan close to her face, in order to battle the heat.
Over time, it begins to rain and a strong gale starts to blow. Another carriage rolls by and a police officer begins to eyeball me as he crosses the road in my direction. I try not to match his gaze, instead turning my attention to a gardener who has just started work behind me. He starts raking leaves, making a repetitive scraping motion with the rake against the dirt and gravel. Elsewhere, in the garden, a man toils behind a bush replanting flowers.
On the other side of the road, a man and woman are waiting for a tram to stop so they can cross. The man crosses, but the woman hesitates and has to wait until after it passes.
The rain stops and the sun finally appears. A carriage goes by and a man outside the La Coquille St Jacques Seafood Restaurant across the street admires a cat passing by. A tram interrupts my view.
Next to the man in white outside the saloon, a bunch of men drink. Two men lean against the window of the saloon and a third drunkenly sways near the side of the road. Music fills the air. Near to Café Balzac, I see a trumpet player carrying a tune, flooding the street with the sounds of brass. Under the melody, there is another sound, the din of a rider urging his horse forward. I turn to see a red headed man reach down over the saddle to feed his horse.
Behind me, to my left, I see a man standing guard, perhaps a plain-clothes officer or just a very austere figure waiting for a friend.
I turn around and notice two men pass the street performer without stopping. A third man, a gentleman in a waistcoat takes interest in the musician and turns his head, but doesn’t stop. He has somewhere important to be, I’m sure.
I watch the trumpeter with interest, waiting to see who will be his first audience, and moments later my curiosity is rewarded when a woman in an elaborate hat stops to listen. The man embellishes his playing, arching his back and bending his knees, before resetting to his standard position. He finishes the song and the woman stays waiting for the next tune. He continues to play.
A policeman ambles past. A cleaner with a broom crosses the street further down the road near the V. Dawson and Co. Hat Manufacturer and walks by.
Interested in seeing more of the gardens, I step inside and walk down the centre path. A couple stand at the foot of the General Clancy Harris Monument. The woman leaves and the man remains. He appears lost in thought.
I walk around the exterior path in the garden and a gardener in the bushes says hello. He wipes the sweat from his brow with the back of his glove and gets back to the work. Satisfied with what I’ve seen, I walk to the benches outside and retake my former position. In that time, the woman with the hat hasn’t moved an inch, captivated by the artist.
More carriages strut by. The weather becomes dusty and overcast. The bell of a nearby city tram resonates, a thin, springy ding.
Eventually, the woman in the hat leaves. The trumpeter stops playing. He hesitates without an audience, but soon continues his performance.
I turn around again and see a man with a top hat waiting in the gardens. I look directly at him and he lights a pipe and leaves. There’s another man not too far away sat on a bench. As I stare, he is surrounded by flies and starts to swat them away with his hand.
The town hall clock chimes 1.
An older French woman walks by and takes up a spot in front of the musician.
I notice the man from before is still sat on the bench. Perhaps he is waiting for someone.
Elsewhere, in the gardens, two new people take interest in the monument: a man with a top hat and moustache and a woman. The man leaves, and the woman leans over the railings and sniffs the nearby flowers. Two trams go by. One to Crescent St and the other to Hestia St. Two more women stop to listen to the trumpeter. One of the women says she’s ‘Happy to see the turn of the century.” The other stare blankly and ignores her. It gets dark. The street lights come on. The Milyonne Ave to Crescent St Tram goes by.
‘Mother nature, she’s always scared’ says one of the women. The others stay mute, perhaps not understanding the point she’s trying to make. I know I don’t. A policeman threads the crowd.
I look across the road and see the drinkers are still positioned outside of the saloon. Two of the women leave. One mentions a train robbery as she walks past.
It is starting to rain and the wind is now picking up. The woman with the hat, who earlier was watching the musician, returns. This time she doesn’t stop. The last person watching the musician departs. She crosses the street and disappears behind the Pacific Union tram to Crescent Street. I decide to turn in for the night.
The second day begins with a morning drink at the Bastille Saloon. I exit through the wooden doors and as I cross the road to my usual spot a cagey man tells me to stop following him. I ignore him and continue walking, shaking off his comment as I take my place.
When I arrive, there is a couple standing on the outside of the gardens by the bench. One of them, a man, is smoking and his friend, a woman, is busy fanning herself. Nearby a blind beggar asks for change. I give him 50 cents and take up a spot. A carriage passes. The first I’ve seen today. Another follows, going to the Crescent. Through the gaps between the seafood restaurant and the Saloon the sun sprays beams, obscuring my view.
A woman walks past and tells me a story. Her grandmother has just died and thought she’d never live to see 1908. Turns out she was right. I respond with a greeting and she departs soon after. A little weird for people to be so open about their family affairs, but I shrug it off and get back to it.
The Crescent tram crawls by. Then another.
The Blind Man has become silent and has stopped soliciting passers-by for money. The gardens behind him are bustling with rich, higher society personnel.
I spot a man from yesterday, one of the two men who stood at the monument, pass by in a carriage with his wife, drawing my attention to another man crossing the street carrying a newspaper. The Milyonne to Hestia tram jutters past on schedule.
On the right side of the garden’s entrance, a woman sits on the bench checking her nails. I get closer and notice it is Tilly. After a brief catchup, she gets the trolley and I circle back to the same old spot. The Blind Man has vanished. His hat remains. I pick it up and notice that there are a bunch of coins on the floor. I scoop them up. No point in them going to waste.
A tram to Hestia rattles on. As I follow it with my eyes, I see my horse appear on the corner of the street, blocking traffic. A driver of a carriage leans forward and shouts at the disruption, so I drop everything and dismiss the horse. It rushes down the street and out of view. Behind the spot where I am stood, the cleaner reappears with his trusty rake. Again, he focuses on the same spot, before moving on.
I look over to the Bastille Saloon and drinkers have started to congregate. The Man in White is replaced by a man in a black suit with another woman. I become lax on recording details.
At some point, the Trumpeter sets up at his post beside the shoeshine stand and begins playing.
A red-headed man, perhaps the one from the other day, waits in the garden. He grows tired of standing still, lights a cigar with a match, and flicks it into flower bed. He exits right. I turn my attention back to the saloon. Nearby there is a sign for Pence China and Glass. I’m lost in thought, when an old man pushes past me and sits down on a bench. He talks about an investor to another man who is sitting nearby.
I hear some distant barking and again get lost in thought. I settle for simply watch people filter past and observe the street lights fading in. The Trumpeter finishes his set and sit down for a smoke. I talk to him for a bit, then exit to my room at the saloon.
I arrive into the square at 2pm. I can hear the trumpeter already, but as I draw closer I notice it is a different person to the one I had encountered over the last two days. What has happened to him? I wonder.
Near the entrance to the garden, a new couple stands next to a bench. A woman is fanning herself, while her partner is pouring tobacco into his pipe. A tram to the Crescent passes by and I notice for the first time in three days that the posts lining the streets are sculpted to resemble horses.
I enter the garden, passing a police officer on the way, and encounter a woman reading and an urchin sat on a bench. The boy’s clothes are worn and when I pass he flings an insult at me. I don’t respond. Instead, I pass into the walkway to the west, where I find two smokers. It begins to get dusky out.
I cross the street towards the saloon and check on the cat that lurks on the nearby corner. It moves from its position sat in the shade and starts moving southwards. Close by a couple sit at a table drinking wine, watching the carriages pass by. I return to the benches outside the gardens.
A man passes the busker and doesn’t stop. In the garden, behind me, a woman checks out a man in the park.
Suddenly, it’s 6pm.
A new man is stood in the gardens. Another plain clothes policeman? He leaves after lingering around for a while and nearby a French Man stands takes a stand near a uniformed policeman. In the distance, I hear a man complain about a road blockage. Fortunately, for me, it’s not my horse.
It’s getting dark.
Two men stand by the left side of the gardens in an alley, smoking and talking. It’s 9pm. I walk over to the right side of the gardens and visit Café Balzac, apparently the best in Lemoyne. Two men nearby share a hostile glance, but nothing comes of it. It begins to rain.
The Trumpeter leaves his post to take cover under the canopy of the nearby café. He smokes a cigarette next to a poster for Benjamin Lazarus’s magic show. His trumpet has disappeared. I check the bins nearby. They’re cylindrical in shape. The trumpet has vanished. I decide to turn in for the final time.
For the most part, the experiment was more interesting than I initially thought it would be. It revealed some fascinating insights into the game, like how the environments have certain constants that become more apparent the more you play.
For instance, you’ll frequently find someone leaning on the post outside the Bastille Saloon with a companion at their side or a trumpeter performing outside the small gardens in the centre of Saint Denis. Though the person performing this action will randomize between several different characters.
There are also other deviations, too, that keep up the illusion of a living city, with new NPCs also populating these same areas, performing new tasks for you to take notice of.
That being said, there were times when it did become abundantly clear that I was at the centre of the game’s universe. NPCs would mumble half lines of dialogue without context when I was within ear shot and passers-by would do their best Linda Blair impression, contorting their neck uncomfortably to keep me in view as they sauntered down the road.
If anything, the experiment gave me a better appreciation of Saint Denis as a place, as well as its technical limits. I noticed small details I never had before like the names of stores inaccessible to the player, some of the popular transport routes taken by the city’s trams, and how every bollard lining the street is topped off with a horse’s head.
The amount of detail is astonishing and, while it doesn’t hold up entirely under scrutiny, it is not hard to imagine that galloping at full speed through the city streets, the player likely wouldn’t know any better or even care that the entire world’s gaze is focused on them. I enjoyed my time in Saint Denis, but, sadly, now it’s time to move onto other places.