Playing Concrete Genie transported me back a few years, to when I was living in the city of Sheffield. It’s a wonderful place, but one that carries the scars of its past. It was once a hub for Britain's steel industry, but now large parts of it are derelict. You’ll often be walking down a bustling high street, turn a corner, and find yourself facing down a crumbling leviathan made of brick and steel. Neglected, and left to time.
Turns out having to constantly meet such ugliness on a daily basis can be a real catalyst for artistic expression, as evidenced by the amazing street art that gradually built up in these run-down parts of town (you can head here to check out an awesome site that collects the street art of Sheffield). The people breathe colour and life into the walls they cover with their art, giving the old factories and warehouses a new function: outdoor exhibitions that start to lure people out of the more built-up areas of the city.
Concrete Genie’s protagonist serves a similar function, as they paint the ruined town of Denska with a magic brush that creates genies to help them climb, open new areas and more. Painting Denska involves using your controller as a brush; the PlayStation’s excellent motion control functionality comes into play here. Glowing mushrooms, swelling planets and jagged trees are just a small part of the young artist’s repertoire, which grows as you collect new sketchbook pages.
You’ll find newspapers that plot the steady demise of Denska, and it’s a depressingly familiar story. Oil companies bled it dry, all the while the town’s council chose to focus on petty crimes like graffiti. Letting the big businesses run riot has turned a once charming town into a husk, covered with darkness that blocks you from progressing. Denska’s already dead, but filling it with the genies you’ve created transforms it into something new. You’re given control over designing each genie you make, which makes it all the more lovely as they follow you across rooftops and down into storm drains.
It’s not just the colourful genie characters following you across Denska however, as there’s also a roving pack of bullies looking to ruin your fun. At first, they’re your classic 80’s bullies, calling you names and throwing your stuff into the river. Through the magic of the brush, however, you’re given a peek into their memories, with each bully revealing the traumas that turned them into what they are. It’s a clever study of why kids like this choose to bully others, and there’s a really heartfelt message of the friendships that can be forged once a mutual understanding is established between foes.
Concrete Genie saves its best parts for last. You’re given full reign with your brush, even earning the ability to paint-skate, opening up new freedom of movement. I won’t spoil too much here, but honestly, Concrete Genie might just be one of the best superhero origin stories I’ve seen in a game.
Given how homogenous Sony’s output has been of late, dominated by big-budget open worlds and sad dads galore, it’s refreshing to see such a creative project like Concrete Genie get so much support from the publisher. The lingering message is an important one here: don’t spend all your effort looking down at the street, penalising graffiti artists and wayward kids. Instead, take a look at the big businesses that you’ve given carte blanche to bleed the city dry because once they’ve got what they needed, you’ll certainly miss the colour and vibrancy that those young artists once brought to the streets you walk every day.