Broken Escalators: Washington DC’s Metro System in Tom Clancy’s The Division 2

Video games set in real-world locales often lean on public landmarks to sell the setting. No private entity owns Times Square, for instance, so it’s an easy addition to a game, lending verisimilitude to all the nameless, generic streets running nearby without necessitating rights payments. The soon-to-be-released—and awkwardly named—Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 (Ubisoft, 2019) places its open-world third-person “loot shooter” in contemporary Washington, DC, a city replete with a unique and recognizable street structure and tons of public landmarks to help situate the player.

All the big buildings and monuments you’d expect are there, in a very faithful recreation of the city street grid. Having spent some time with the game’s open beta (a glorified demo, more or less), I was pleasantly surprised when I walked—well, ran, being chased by some post-apocalyptic wanna-be with a mohawk—around a corner and saw Pennsylvania Avenue, properly wide and grand and angled, with a vista towards the Capitol I’d seen hundreds of times in real life. The DC of The Division 2 feels right, with the trademark low skyline and restrained architecture of the Federal core recreated as much in detail as in broad strokes. None of the private buildings were real, of course, with far more parking garages than the city actually has, but the public fixtures, the historical markers, the street signs, hew close enough to the real to provide the illusion of the city.

But then I saw this map:

The DC Metro Map in The Division 2

It’s almost an exact replica of the actual WMATA Metro map (.pdf), with the WMATA website listed, the planned Silver Line extension out towards Dulles, even the rush hour routes. There are a few differences, as it looks like they re-drew the map rather than simply pasting it wholesale, but there’s not a resident of the DC area who wouldn’t recognize the map in a second.

Add to that the very faithfully recreated Metro station mezzanines and, as one of my gaming buddies noted, the all-too-familiar broken escalators, and you’re left with the one of the most realistic depictions of a real-life subway system in a video game to date. Only Persona 5 (Altus, 2016) comes close.

To be fair, Metro's escalators don't really break that often

Oddly, the farecard machines are nothing like the real things, none of the stations seem to have names, and the entrances from the street lack the proper pillar signage. These slight variations from the real feel puzzling, given the otherwise painstaking attention to the details of the actual subway system, and actually pull the gamer back out of the scene if she or he knows what the real system is like. As the beta only provided a limited portion of the game to explore, I’m uncertain what the actual platforms look like, but if they’re shown, I would imagine they’ll likewise be a mostly accurate representation.

Minus the graffiti, a near-exact replica of the real thing

The last game set so firmly in Washington, DC, Fallout 3 (Bethesda, 2008), also featured the Metro system, but it used a highly stylized version of the map that bore little resemblance to the real thing. The station in Georgetown sort of gave it away…

I haven’t been able to discover what, if any, arrangement Ubisoft came to with WMATA for the use of the map and “look and feel” of the subway system. Other city infrastructure and signage comes close to the prototype, but it all stops just short, as with the two stars between bars shown on Washington, DC, flag presented in game; the real thing has three stars atop two bars. Whether Ubisoft feels the Metro system falls sufficiently in the public domain or WMATA granted a license or something in between remains unclear. Given the system’s slightly parlous finances, I do hope there’s at least a bit of a payment involved.

Regardless of how the DC Metro system came to be in The Division 2, I applaud its inclusion. The system’s striking architectural and design aesthetic deserves attention, and this fairly faithful replica honors the real thing. Shame I’m not sold on the gameplay, which feels like yet another open-world Ubisoft game full of map icons to diligently track down, but kudos to the art team at Ubisoft for their sterling efforts here and with the feel of the city as a whole. It’s the rare game world that I can navigate using entirely real-world knowledge.

A Silver Thread: Washington Metro’s New Map

This past Thursday, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority unveiled the new Metrorail map, featuring the first phase of the soon-to-open Silver Line. The map, thankfully, looks very much like the original, only with the Silver Line threaded in between the Orange and Blue Lines, providing a nice contrast and emphasizing that the Silver Line runs on the main East/West core route for much of its run.

Detail of Final Silver Line Map from

While Metro’s map may not be quite as iconic as the London Underground’s map, the relatively clean look of it is unmistakable at a glance. Even video games set in Washington use riffs on the snaking colored lines to conjure up the map without having to get permission to use the real thing, as in Fallout 3.

Fallout 3 Metro Map

Metro brought the original designer, Lance Wyman, back to revise the map, and according to Metro’s blog, PlanItMetro, he and his design team made the following adjustments:

  • Made street abbreviations consistent
  • Improved the geographic accuracy of the stations where possible
  • New icon for stations that are serviced by three rail lines: the traditional station dot with white extenders
  • Made the rail lines 24% thinner to ensure room for the Silver Line
  • Added the Anacostia National Park
  • Added the Metro Transit Police phone number
  • Added a note that the map is not to scale
  • Lightened the Beltway and jurisdiction borders to improve readability

I’m quite pleased with the final result. There’s a high density of information on the map, but it’s not cluttered at all. One perhaps wishes that the station names didn’t overlap the iconography of the monuments, but that’s a small quibble. I look forward to seeing the full-size versions of the new maps on trains and in stations soon.

(Image via PlanItMetro.)

Up and Down in Moscow Town

I’ve always been something of a transit buff. One of my earliest collecting targets was SEPTA timetables—bus, subway, and trolley, if you please. I live in a city with a good, if, at present, troubled, transit system, and there are cities I want to visit for no other reason than to ride their subway systems. Heck, I would buy a poster-sized version of the Singapore subway system map (.pdf) if I could find one—it’s a brilliant synthesis of information and design.

One city I want to visit primarily for the subway system is Moscow, with its glorious stations and sweeping transit lines. Said trip is not in the cards at present, so I was pleased to visit vicariously via a recent Washington Post article on the escalators of Moscow’s subway system by Will Englund (“In Moscow, escalators to carry the city,” December 14, 2010):

There are 643 of them in the Moscow Metro. This is a system, like Washington’s, with deep, deep stations, but, unlike in Washington, passengers here are rarely left to hoof it on their own up or down immobilized stairways. It wouldn’t work, because people don’t walk fast enough. At rush hours fully loaded trains run on 90-second intervals; it’s up to the escalators to get the passengers delivered, but just as important, to whisk them away again before they start bunching up and spilling off the platforms and onto the tracks.

Escadas rolantes intermináveis do metrô em Moscou on by swperman via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-commercial-Share Alike License

The contrast between the subways in these two national capitals could hardly be more striking, as Washington’s Metro has grown notorious for escalator failures. I’ve walked the significant length of a stationary Tenleytown station escalator more than once, in both directions, and that was fifteen years ago. I do empathize with the difficulties facing my local system, though. Tight budgets and an overall infrastructure requiring constant maintenance due to its age (now almost thirty-five years old in the original Red Line corridor) stretch the escalator crews to their limits. Covering the exposed street-to-station escalators was a fine first step.

Washington has a great transit system, and as a resident and a transit fan, I can only hope that they figure out how to fund infrastructure repairs to get more robust escalators in place while simultaneously funding subway expansion. I can’t ride the trains if I can’t reach them.

(Image courtesy of swperman via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-commercial-Share Alike License.)

Sign Me Up: Washington Metro’s Sign Shop

The soul, if you will, of a subway system is in its signage. From the clean lines of the London Underground and its Johnston typeface through the mish-mash of typefaces and styles in New York City’s transit system, signs do more than direct passengers. Subway signs tell a story about the aspirations and history of the system.

Be Smart: Ride Metro by wheelo541 on, via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial license

Today’s Washington Post story by James Hohmann, (“Metro’s Sign Shop Points Riders in the Right Way“, Tuesday, August 25, 2009) details the efforts of the people responsible for keeping the Washington Metro‘s signs updated and functional:

The sign shop provides a glimpse into the aging system that Metro is struggling to maintain 33 years after it opened. The transit system has about 127,000 signs, which need to be repaired or replaced when they become outdated, vandalized or broken. Or when someone asks for them.

“Every time a new initiative comes down the pike, that number is growing,” said sign shop project manager Paul Kram. “We don’t make policy. We make signs.”

Metro’s signs are just as memorable as the station architecture; while perhaps not as grandiose as the vaulting arches of Metro Center, the signage is distinct and legible, even when the station names grow to unwieldy lengths to satisfy various community constituencies (U St/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo might be an accurate description of the stop, but it’s about six words too long for a station name).

Of note is the trend towards electronic signs, with their limited capacity for stylish typefaces. One hopes that technology will improve sufficiently that we aren’t forced to suffer design limited by the lowest-common denominator of the LCD…

(Image courtesy of wheelo541 via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial license.)