What is the first step in designing a building? Start by thinking about how the space will be used. Do you need space for people to gather in the entryway? Should the balcony doors open inwards or outwards? Where is the perfect outdoor space to stage an alien arachnid ambush? There are, admittedly, a few differences between real-world architecture and game environment design. But each year, the two disciplines draw closer than ever.
Both architecture and game design are concerned with the built environment, with predicting how an end-user will navigate a space. While real-world buildings provide human necessities such as privacy or shelter from weather, gaming architecture is generally an aesthetic proposition intended to immerse players or a series of functional forms to be traversed. It exists to ornament, to constrain, to conceal, to challenge our reflexes and wits.
Early game environments operated as metaphors, abbreviating digital space due to technical limitations. Approach a castle a few pixels wide in an old role-playing game, and it opens, Tardis-like, to reveal a sprawling interior. Game worlds were split into levels linked by a central hub, and the progression could be as simple as fire world, ice world, boss fight.
As game engines improved, environment design grew more sophisticated. Today players dive into sprawling, coherent worlds with thousands of buildings. In these enormous spaces, developers employ architectural techniques for “wayfinding”, guiding gamers through the space. They play with scale, colour-code the environment, or tweak light sources to show the player where to go, mimicking the work of real architects, who use narrow tunnels to encourage people to keep moving or open spaces to suggest we slow down and explore.
Of course, game developers are liberated from many architectural constraints. Gravity, physical labour and material costs are not a concern. The most evocative games capture players’ hearts with architecture as pure blast of imagination. The submerged splendour of Zora’s Domain in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild leaves a lasting impression with its cool hues and drowned light, while the manor district of Ald’ruhn in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is memorably housed inside the shell of an ancient Emperor land-crab. These environments have stories to tell: the parallel stairways of differing heights in Dark Souls’ Anor Londo nod to a history where giants walked among humans, while learning to read the gravity-defying architecture left by the alien Nomai in Outer Wilds is the key to solving the game’s mysteries.
Several game designers enter into dialogue with real-world architectural visionaries. Fumito Ueda constructed magnificent, melancholy castles in Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, inspired by the work of French illustrator Gérard Trignac. The art deco Atlantis of Rapture in Bioshock draws from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, while Halo’s alien architecture synthesises Brutalism, Italian Futurism, and the impossible geometries of visionary architect Etienne-Louis Boullée.
Puzzle games provide some of the most elegant examples of gaming architecture. Smartphone sensation Monument Valley asks players to navigate intricate, Escher-esque buildings adorned with delicate parapets and minarets, all bathed in Instagram-baiting pastel hues. Each level is its own building, as in the spare, delicate Echochrome, or Manifold Garden, an ingenious puzzle game inspired by the stark lines of architect Tadao Ando.
There are also games that empower players to become architects themselves. The sandbox-style construction of The Sims and SimCity has long attracted those who want their gameplay to scratch a creative itch. The work of developer Plethora Project engages with architectural ideas more explicitly, tasking players with rebuilding a community following an economic crash in Common’hood, or constructing a neighbourhood while balancing the costs of energy and resources in Block’hood.
Meanwhile, architects are beginning to embrace gaming innovations. Clients are shown around prospective buildings in virtual reality, while several architecture studios use game design software to simulate weather patterns, security risks, or human circulation around a space. The prestigious Bartlett School of Architecture in London includes videogame urbanism in its postgraduate urban design course.
No marriage of gaming and architecture has scaled the heights of Minecraft, the block-building sandbox which has sold more copies than any other game in history. Today its influence reaches beyond the digital world: the UN’s “Block by Block” initiative gives the game to people in developing countries and asks them to digitally design new public spaces for their neighbourhoods. Their creations have influenced the construction of real playgrounds in Johannesburg, public squares in Kosovo and safer streets for teenage girls in Hanoi. After years of game developers learning from architects, today they are finally giving back.
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