A new year has led to a new job, and with it a new commute. Being grimly determined to take exercise as and where I can, for fear of one day being the focus of one of those news stories where a fire crew has to demolish the front of a house in order to prise the occupant from a sofa and into a waiting truck to be taken to the morgue, I tend to walk as much as I can, distances that wouldn’t bother, say, a child from 1904 walking nine miles to school every day, but to a typical Londoner who’ll take the tube or bus to avoid walking 200ft, a marathon.
This particular roll of the career dice has landed me up in the north west of London, an area I’ve previously only been to in order to leave the city, and having spent time working there I understand more why it’s an exit point; I can’t imagine anybody wistfully looking around Paddington and thinking “You know, maybe I’ll stay!”. This is fine, though; Paddington’s no Clerkenwell but it could be worse; I could have ended up at Old Street.
The difficulty with walking the commute isn’t so much the effort as it is the tedium, and you don’t know tedium until you’ve walked from Paddington to Mornington Crescent. The bulk of the journey is taken up by Marylebone Road, which is about a mile and a half of absolute nothing; just anonymous, crumbling buildings. This is a road that exudes such a palpable sense of nothingness that whenever I walk along it I half-expect Atreyu to fly past on Falkor, looking behind him in terror and panic.
Almost every building along this road looks more or less the same; large, multi-storyed, mostly filled with people doing…something or other, but without much in the way of obvious signage it’s never quite clear what. There’s a noticeable lack of cafes, restaurants or amenities in general. It’s so lacking in distinguishing features it’s like the background of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, just looping endlessly past as Fred or Yogi or whoever runs along. Ok, fine, there’s Madame Tussauds, but that’s always closed at that time of night and even if it were open, why would I go in? Why would I go in, ever, in fact? There’s isn’t even a Planetarium there any more.
One evening, having been trudging this road for nearly a month, I had an epiphany. A long, boring road, full of buildings I couldn’t get into with no obvious purpose, yet full of anonymous people who dressed in dull clothing, had a range of stock phrases and never looked me in the eye? I suddenly realised where I was; I was in a sandbox game!
Marylebone Road is, like so many roads in Grand Theft Auto, LA Noire and other city-spanning games of that ilk, just a filler road, an immaculately-modelled stretch of land that needed to exist so that Edgware Road was able to connect to Great Portland Street without leaving an impassable void. A road on which I have no reason to be, except that it helps me get somewhere else. At the midpoint there’s a branch of You Me Sushi, which is presumably where I need to stock up on health packs and maybe pick up some side missions, but other than that it’s just tube access points and traffic.
The road makes a lot more sense to me now. Instead of feeling like my soul was sinking and leaking out from my shoes with every step, I’ve started appreciating the attention to detail the game modellers have put in. The variation between the buildings showed that they hadn’t just made a template and cloned it again and again, but also gave a decent sense of place — it really felt as if this pointless, tedious road had evolved over time rather than been made in one go, with a range of architectural styles dating from the ’60s right up until, ooh, maybe the ’80s at least.
As for the people around me, busily coming from nowhere and going to nowhere, these were obviously just NPCs, and I was safe to not only ignore them, but walk straight into them as well; they’re not programmed to do anything other than exclaim and settle back into their pre-ordained routine.
Next time I’m walking Marylebone Road, I’m going to give car-jacking a try. I can’t actually drive, but if I’m right about the nature of this place, this shouldn’t matter.