A Realistic City

I am using Inform 7 to design a text adventure game. The majority of the game is set in a large apartment building. However, the player has the ability to leave the apartment to visit other buildings across the street. I didn’t want to make the buildings residential zones because the apartment is already one. It didn’t make sense to me to put something useful like a grocery store across the street because to my knowledge those types of buildings aren’t commonly found next to apartments.

TL;DR I’m looking to put something useful next to my apartment besides houses.

I take it you don’t live in a city yourself? One easy way to find out would be to hit up Google Maps, find an appropriate area and poke around it on street view.

Within a block or two of my apartment building there’s a park, a pizza restaurant, a sushi restaurant, a pasta restaurant, a Subway, approximately a thousand coffee-shops, several hairdressers and a tanning salon, a dry-cleaners, a faux-Irish pub, a place that processes Bavarian sausages for local markets, two corner stores, two furniture stores, a labour temple… but a lot depends on what part of town it is, in which city. (In which era, in which fictional universe…)

I do not live in a city myself. My universe is set in the present day.

Here’s what you could find within a roughly one-block radius from apartments I’ve inhabited (that is, the block containing the apartment or else the next block over):

Downtown in a western US city: an office building, an art museum, the art museum gift shop, Mexican restaurant, sushi restaurant, sorta-locavore restaurant, multiple bars (both the ‘dive-like’ and the ‘wine bar’ varieties; a luxury hotel, a chocolate shop, a store selling art paper, multiple furniture stores, an antiques/vintage store that also sells coffee (cutesily called “Antique Grounds”), a small bakery, two nail salons, a hair salon; a “deli” that in addition to sandwiches also sold a wide variety of groceries. (No produce section as such, and not a lot of fresh meat other than the deli meats, but most other things, especially things you might need suddenly at an odd hour and not want to walk some distance to the next grocery store to get.)

Kind of hippie urban neighborhood in a western US city: an Italian restaurant, a sort of Mediterranean fusion restaurant, a laundromat, a Brazilian jiujitsu studio, a belly dancing studio, a yoga studio, a cookbook shop, a deli, a bus stop, lots more apartment buildings and houses.

Cheaper neighborhood in a western US city: park, lots more apartments, apartment parking, freeways, drug store, grocery store, mediocre Chinese restaurant, “Joe’s Bar and Grill,” McDonalds, high school, donut shop, vacant lot.

Other urban neighborhood in a midwestern US city: if you went out your door one direction: mixture of apartments and houses, multiple antique shops, health-food cafe, “lighting” shop selling a variety of unusual lamps, tea shop. If you went the other direction: condemned building, White Castle, payday loan place, dollar store, blood bank where you could sell plasma. I was living kind of at the edge between a gentrified area and a not-so-gentrified one.

Small midwestern town: a retirement complex, more apartments; fields belonging to an adjacent college.

Athens: more apartment buildings, library associated with the institution I was visiting, gyro restaurant, small grocery store on two floors; kiosk selling chocolates and cigarettes and telephone cards. (This was a few years ago, so I don’t know whether they still use the prepaid phone card system.)

Paris: Picard shop selling every kind of frozen food; more apartments; French restaurants; sushi restaurant; coffee shops; chocolate shop, multiple bakeries, shop just for fancy baked desserts, stationery shop, jazz bar, shop selling exotic teas, multiple bistros, exceptionally touristy coffee shop that everyone learned not to go into because it sucked, multiple historic buildings whose current purpose I don’t know, intriguing doorways into half-seen courtyards, place that sold oysters, place that sold best gelato ever, bits of stone wall left over from the twelfth century or so, Metro stop, cinema, pharmacy with a green cross over the door. Writing this list I’m having difficulty remembering why I’m not still there.

In none of those places would a grocery store have been implausible, though – they might not be as sprawling as suburban supermarkets, and they probably don’t have an enormous parking lot, but city grocery stores exist because people who live in the city need to eat too. And ones who live really downtown are actually less likely to have their own transport with which to get out of town for shopping, so it needs to be local. But you can also pick details that will signal things about the socioeconomic class of the area, whether it’s a place that gets lots of tourists or just serves locals, whether it’s a relatively new city or an older one, and so on.

Another thing to note is that the more downtown the location is, the more likely it is to have lots and lots and lots of different things on the same block – heavily built-up areas manage to pack in an incredible density of services in a small area.

Anyway, if you have a particular area in mind, Google maps and street view can give you a pretty exact idea of what might be there.

There’s also the discussion of food deserts, as in areas where they may be fast food joints but nowhere you can actually buy groceries. But then this only highlights that the default is that you should be able to buy food where you live.

And it also highlights that there’s really no such thing as a Generic City, or even a Generic US City.

I think this is a good point – there’s really no restriction on what you can place next to an apartment. The more unusual, the more character your city or neighborhood will evince; but barring the completely fantastical, just about anything can be justified easily enough.

I love Google Street View. I have used it to:

Look for stores and landmarks in a place I was planning to visit.
Determine that the “natural” turkey I bought came from a factory farm.
Get a look at a place I read about in a nonfiction book.
Show my old haunts to my spouse.

and get a better picture of the Death Valley area for writing room descriptions in A Killer Headache.