The Crude Gamespace of Oil Refineries

Thunder Blade (1987)

One of the most fascinating gaming stories of last year was that of SimRefinery as chronicled by Phil Salvador at The Obscuritory. The project, commissioned by Chevron and developed by Maxis’ Business Simulations division in 1992, was thought to be long lost before an in-progress build resurfaced online last June. However it wasn’t until I saw a twitter mutual post the above screenshot of the Sega arcade game Thunder Blade that I had the thought, why aren’t there more oil refinery levels in videogames?

After all as a post-industrial medium built upon electronics, it’s only natural that videogames feature industrial environments. Across genres games are replete with mines, construction sites, sewers, dams, trainyards, factories et cetera. However only a select few feature oil refineries, with the most prominent examples being in the simulation genre, which are not levels per se. In fact, refineries are so scarce that one which came to mind — a racetrack from the game Blur — was actually a power plant from Split/Second upon further research.

Yet the potential appeal of the unique affordances of an oil refinery is clear even from the in-flight action of Thunder Blade, as the player ducks and weaves in pseudo-3D. Oil refineries are densely packed, with a sprawling almost jungle-gym like structure. They have both breadth from their pipelines and multi-tiered verticality from their distilling towers. They appear to randomly spew flames, something videogame levels already tend to do. Lastly their complexity actually makes them something that is relatively easy to fake, as the layperson would be unable to decipher the logic of their layouts (or lack thereof). Perhaps it is this degree of detail which deters 3D modelers and collision programmers from these sorts of spaces. Of course it would be inaccurate to say that oil refinery levels have never appeared in videogames — so let’s run down the series in which they tend to occur with some frequency, and determine not only how they succeed or fail as play spaces, but what morals come from within them.

First though I am going to say that this essay is not going to cover Final Fantasy VII. While the oil refinery comparison can clearly be drawn as Jacob Geller did in a video essay about Midgar in FF7 Remake, the mako reactors also allude to nuclear energy, which is a different beast altogether, especially given the cultural context of Japanese production (though coincidentally Japan is fifth in the world in both oil refining capacity and number of nuclear reactors).

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992)

One of the most famous oil refinery levels in videogame history is without a doubt Oil Ocean Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. While the level’s architecture is made up of mostly garish purple, yellow and green structures, the dominant colour scheme is the background’s rust orange sunset skyline with protruding towers in grey silhouette. Though it relies heavily on generic spikes and cannons which toss the player around, Oil Ocean Zone shows some ingenuity with its theme by including valves as gameplay elements and jets of fire which shoot platforms upwards. For the boss fight Sonic faces Dr. Robotnik in a submarine beneath the surface tension of a nearly black current.

Oil Ocean Zone returned in 2017’s Sonic Mania, and to say it was heightened would be an understatement. Where before it was ambiguous here it is made explicit that the liquid in the level is crude oil — it’s even used as an interactive platforming element. As time passes red fumes fill the screen until Sonic grabs a highlighted pull string which dissipates them somehow. In segments of the level the oil even catches fire and there are fire-based enemies. Overall the zone is much more intense, with the added excitement downplaying the strange serenity of the original.

It’s worth noting there’s another more iconic level in both Sonic 2 and Mania with an industrial/water theme: Chemical Plant Zone. Interestingly though, while an oil refinery and a petrochemical plant in real life bear a striking resemblance, these two levels are quite distinct from one another, with CPZ defined by sleek metal, yellow and black caution stripes, blue pipelines and a nighttime metropolitan city background. In Sonic Mania CPZ is presented as more of a science lab, though the aesthetic shift is not as drastic as OOZ’s. Through the use of colour and the association with marine life via enemies, there is a latent politics in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 that the presence of oil exudes an evilness that expels life. This message is amplified in Mania, where the once abstracted towers in the backdrop now bear Robotnik’s insignia.

Oil Ocean Zone would not be the last seaside industrial level for Sonic to spin through, as 9 years later in 2001 Sonic Adventure 2: Battle gave us Metal Harbor, an above-water military base made up of shipping platforms and aircraft carriers. As it happens the heyday of the Sonic game franchise coincided with an era of relative peace in American history, saddled between the fall of the Soviet Union and end of the Gulf War in 1991 and the inception of the War on Terror in the early aughts; a metaphorical Green Hill Zone that gave us not only SimRefinery but another highly political unreleased game, Socks the Cat Rocks the Hill. Though it may have seemed at the time as though geopolitics was a solved equation, under both the Bush Sr. and Clinton administrations bombings of foreign nations continued unabated and often unremarked upon. When Sonic uses a launched G.U.N. missile as transport in Metal Harbor, we pay no mind as to its target, nor the rationale for the organization’s weapons stockpiling.

Quest for Oil (2013)

Speaking of the ocean, I thought it may be wise to expand my search for oil refinery levels to oil rigs, as they are far more common in videogames. However a distinction must be made, as the term oil rig can actually refer to two different things: oil platforms which are the raised rigs usually found offshore, and land-based oil wells using pumpjacks which are more often associated with desert climates. Oil platforms and oil wells can be seen in first-person survival games like Raft and Rust, open world games like GTA V, Red Dead Redemption 2 and Mad Max, racing games like Cars 2 and Need For Speed: Most Wanted, various first-person shooter maps and the 1990 Sierra game Oil’s Well. One peculiar example is from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, whose Xbox exclusive oil rig level lacks any missions that the series is known for, existing purely as a space to grind rails and perform tricks.

So often it seems oil rigs are used as self-contained locales to dot an otherwise barren landscape, rather than meaningfully designed levels in their own right. In fact it occurred to me that I had actually tangentially written about an oil well within a level before, namely the ice side of Hailfire Peaks from Banjo-Tooie. Remarking upon the interconnectedness of Tooie’s world, I wrote that “Pipelines course through the Isle O’ Hags, carrying oil, water, and occasionally, a Jiggy”. However in the real world I do not believe pipelines symbolize connection, but rather a disconnect with the land. As if her characterization wasn’t problematic enough, the presence of Humba’s wigwam (actually a tipi, by the way) mere meters from the cliff-surrounded pumpjack paints a much more dire ecological picture than intended.

Probably the most in-depth oil rig level out there comes from the Deadpool stage of Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions. However this level masks its functionality through several layers of conceit, with the opening cutscene presenting it as a reality game show called “Pain Factor”. Though the first image we see of the level sports a smokestack spitting flames, one gets the sense that these rigs are out of commission and were merely commandeered by Deadpool for his own purposes. Though the main architectural feature appears to be television monitors, the level makes otherwise good use of elevation, hazards, open spaces for combat and pipelines to guide travel. Another example of an oil rig level, albeit a short one, comes from the original Splinter Cell, which takes more of a bottom-up approach as Sam Fisher makes his way through its undercarriage towards his intel target, even getting inside an oil line at one point.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018)

One series which has both an oil rig and oil refinery among its levels is Tomb Raider, starting with the former in Tomb Raider 2. Offshore Rig is somewhat of an unremarkable level though, starting with a push-block puzzle then transitioning into an airplane hangar swimming sequence, which gives way to a long series of hitting switches to unlock doors. The level also features few theme-specific hazards, giving an overall feel of claustrophobia and malaise. Contrary to this, the Pornevir Oil Fields area from Shadow of the Tomb Raider is mostly a bombastic set-piece. It starts out promising enough, with Lara Croft clambering up a series of towers in a hail of gunfire, however the path forward is entirely predetermined and this sequence lasts for all of one minute before Lara falls down into some water. After this the tempo of the gameplay shifts into a duck-and-cover gun battle until an explosion takes down a helicopter, which in turn destroys the refinery. Lara survives, but the whole situation prompts her to break down in tears.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider isn’t the only game in which a refinery explodes, in fact the Metal Gear series has done it twice. In Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance the refinery on the coast of Abkhazia looks quite intricate as Raiden approaches, however the interior is a somewhat generic industrial space. That is until a boss fight with femme fatale Mistral that sees the two exchanging blows atop pipelines until everything begins to crumble in flames, a prelude to a later detonation by a foe. In Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain it’s the player who does the sabotaging to the Mfinda Oilfield, a space that is more spread out to accommodate the stealth gameplay and thus looks more like a sewage treatment plant than a refinery.

Refineries in games seem to be like a Chekov’s gun waiting to go off — even in SimRefinery an educational value in playing out the worst case scenario is noted by Salvador. Perhaps one could see an ecological bent to this positioning of refineries, however keep in mind that in the real world eco-terrorism is by and large a manufactured issue, and large-scale bombings of industrial sites are next to nonexistent with refineries only being targets in non-eco terrorism such as the 2019 Abqaiq–Khurais drone attack. Instead what series like Tomb Raider, Metal Gear, Splinter Cell and Fallout (whose first sequel Fallout 2 contains both a refinery and an oil rig which have been converted into bases) demonstrate is how these spaces are not seen as operational stations, rather they symbolize the fomentation of the chaos and control of warfare. While these levels don’t spark the imagination of a refinery as a site of play, they do stress oil’s key role in the military industrial complex.

Just Cause 2 (2010)

My main criticism of Just Cause 2 is that the game can never quite decide whether or not it’s a satire. It’s filled with moments straight out of Austin Powers — like a mid-game mission that has the player storm a base whose entrance is shaped like the head of antagonist dictator Baby Panay a la Gruntilda or Wizpig — yet all the while the demeanor of protagonist Rico Rodriguez remains pure James Bond in its seriousness. Though it’s set in the South Pacific, Panay’s homeland of Panau is a clear analog of North Korea, making Just Cause 2 the same sort of assassination wish fulfillment as The Interview and Team America: World Police; a nihilism we’ve come to expect from open world destruct-a-thons that permeates the experience.

Whereas the original Just Cause was a textbook deposition with black-and-white morality and the only irony being its Che Guevara aping cover art, its sequel is a game about intrigue made redundant. Here Rodriguez is not only a double agent but a quadruple agent as he performs missions for three factions warring against the government. Yet the game never asks the player to take a side in this fight — their territories all conveniently separated — and ultimately their differences in ideology are rendered moot since they’re all revealed to be puppets of China, Japan and Russia respectively, who share an interest in Panau’s oil reserves. This comes to a head at the game’s conclusion where Panay launches nuclear missiles at every country involved, leaving Rodriguez to surf them mid-flight and disable them. However the last missile isn’t disabled but rather reprogrammed to obliterate Panau’s oil field (along with Panay) and bring a cease to the conflict, a decision for which there are seemingly no consequences.

It’s here we get the barest glimpse of the game’s actual ethics, where Rodriguez states to his closest allies “The spoils of our little revolution…that fossil sludge…would have started the mother of all wars. [And] I’m not gonna die in no apocalypse just so some fat cat in Washington can drive his SUV to the hill tomorrow[…]It ain’t worth dying over.” However this would-be indictment of U.S. imperialism is immediately undercut when Rico is informed that a pro-American leader has been installed in Panay’s place. Truly the entire scene plays out more like a scenic 4th of July fireworks display, complete with barbeque spit-roast, rather than the horrifying oil spill-plus-nuclear fallout that it ought to be.

Just Cause 2 (2010)

So that’s the story the game’s cutscenes tells us, but what about its level design? There are two oil refineries on Panau, the Emas Hitam refinery and the Pulau Berapi refinery, and while the former is technically more important as it is made into a stronghold by one of the three factions the latter is far more interesting. Just Cause 2 runs the gamut from urban to rural areas, but it’s Panau’s most remote locales that remain its most memorable, and the crescent island of Pulau Berapi is no exception. The refinery is swarming with military personnel, and although Rodriguez is rewarded for destroying many of its structures the mission that takes place on Pulau Berapi is not a raid but a leisurely race. As one studious fan wiki editor points out, Pulau Berapi is the most realistic refinery in the series, drawing a parallel to the real life Pulau Bokom in Singapore. However it’s one uncanny detail that most sets Pulau Berapi apart: its shaped like a human skull when viewed from above.

With its associations with death and piracy, this easy-to-miss detail speaks volumes that the script of Just Cause 2 simply cannot. It’s not that these spaces have been co-opted for evil as in the games I’ve discussed above, but that the act of extraction is an evil unto itself, as embedded as the landscape into the crust of the Earth. Just Cause sequels would move on to other MacGuffins to drive their plots, like a fictional mineral Bavarium and — no joke — a machine that controls the weather, which only makes it all the more unusual that smack dab in the middle of this wildly stupid quote-unquote “campy” game is some real trenchant observation about the state of our climate.

When it comes to fossil fuels in videogames there seems to be an unsavoriness regarding the subject that leads to a logical void; the cars in the otherwise simulacra-obsessed Grand Theft Auto series never run out of gas unless compromised. In fact if it weren’t for indie games like Kentucky Route Zero, Overland and The Last Car I’d say that the last meaningful depiction of a gas station in videogames was the 1982 Game & Watch Oil Panic. However it goes beyond representation and into implementation — how these things are baked into the games industry at the hardware level. From mineral extraction to shipping and freight to plastics use to energy consumption to e-waste production — videogames, oil and our worldwide ecosystems are all deeply imbricated. Frankly the most “radically environmental” thing Sega ever did was get out of the console market.

Thunderbird Strike (2017)

In July 2020 the North Dakota supreme court ruled that Meridian Energy Group may move forward with construction of the first new major oil refinery in the United States since 1977, situated on the Bakken shale, the same oil source accessed by the Dakota Access Pipeline which sparked protests in 2016. The location may seem counterintuitive, being only 13 miles from one of Dakota’s major tourist attractions Theodore Roosevelt National Park — however it was intentionally and hubristically chosen for this specific reason, to demonstrate the supposed cleanliness of a modern facility. And despite the change in administration at the federal level, this refinery is unlikely to be the last, quote: “we’re going to be sort of the serial killers of the refinery industry.” Oil refineries will never be neutral spaces, but I believe being able to virtually confront and explore their paradoxicality — that something so internally thought-out could be so externally thoughtless — has a real power to it.

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David is a writer from Southern Ontario, Canada

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