Architecture in video games: How real-world designers are helping to build virtual worlds

 
Steve Dinneen
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An area in The Witness

In the real world, architects are bound by many things: gravity, cost, materials, space. In the world of video games, however, these problems largely melt away. Within the constraints of time and processing power, you can build just about anything.

Award-winning Japanese games developer Fumito Ueda is famous for creating vast environments filled with vertiginous, crumbling towers. In The Last Guardian, for instance, physics-defying stone bridges span dizzying gulfs, while spindly towers rise like fingers towards the sun. But look closer and you can spot familiar architectural features like Romanesque windows and Byzantine domes, real-world points of reference that act as a foundation for the more fantastical elements.

As technology improves, the ability to create worlds like Ueda’s comes within the grasp of more and more games developers. These worlds are in turn demanded by a generation of players who have grown up with immersive virtual environments. In the multi-billion dollar franchise Destiny, for instance, players will spend weeks – literal, real-world weeks – hanging out in so-called “social spaces”, kicking virtual footballs and buying virtual tat from virtual vendors. To maintain the illusion of place, these spaces need to feel real.

“Video games don’t need buildings that actually stand up,” explains developer Jonathan Blow, “But you need the details that make a building seem like a building, otherwise you lose the coherence of the space.”

Blow is one of the video games industry’s most recognisable names, renowned for his intelligent, difficult titles and his meticulous attention to detail; his projects take years to complete. His most recent game, 2016’s open-world puzzler The Witness (the long-awaited follow-up to 2008’s Braid), features a series of puzzles on a mysterious island that reflect and utilise the environment in which they sit; the branches of a nearby tree may provide the solution to a seemingly unrelated line puzzle, for instance.

The Finch household from What Remains of Edith Finch

After starting to build the island on which the challenges are located, however, he found the traditional method of design – find references, draw concepts, create models – wasn’t working.

“The concepts we came up with weren’t right,” he says. “They didn’t ground the game, they didn’t make it feel serious. I’d say I wanted a compound surrounded by a fence, or a really long dock, but those are complex structures, and if you have someone working on them who isn’t educated in designing those things, it will just be a random person’s idea of what they should look like. And that’s what we were getting.”

This was a problem, he says, because The Witness requires the player to really scrutinise the environment, to study its structures, to see between the cracks, so these structures needed to feel plausible to maintain the feeling of immersion. “If you’re poking around in all these corners and they’re not very well put together, then you’re seeing behind the curtain, and it won’t be very good. So I wanted the rivets to be in the right places on buildings to show I paid attention to that, even if it’s not of gameplay importance.”

Blow’s solution was to hire an architect, Deanna Van Buren, who worked with him on the project for five years. When he approached her, the game was still in its formative stages; together they broke the island down to different zones – a desert, a factory, a Buddhist temple – and began to build it from the ground up.

“It all had to make sense in context,” she says. “You couldn’t just have stuff from Home Depot on the island. The goal of a video game is usually to create an immersive experience, where you leave your reality and go into a new one – but that world has to have rules, an internal logic. If you start doing things that don’t make sense within your world, you’re breaking that immersion.”

Once they cracked the logic of their world, she says designing the game’s architecture was surprisingly similar to making real buildings: there was a demanding client with a vague idea of how things should look, there were redesigns and re-redesigns, creative conflicts, stresses, triumphs and sleepless nights. But there was also a freedom that came from not having to worry about things like whether the church ceiling was going to collapse: “At least there were no building codes or fire marshals, or consultants going on about structural safety.”

The Tower from Destiny

Working for a renowned perfectionist like Blow posed another, less familiar problem: most games will only be completed by a fraction of players; a game as complex as The Witness will be finished by fewer than a quarter of those who boot it up. Major game developers mitigate against this unfortunate fact by ploughing their resources into the opening sections of a game, but Blow insisted that some of the best environments be reserved for those who persevere to the end: “They’re the ones who didn’t drop out,” he says, “So it was important to have things that were special for them, challenges that are hidden behind so many secret doors that most players will never even know they exist.”

For an architect, this means spending weeks or months designing parts of a world that most people will never see, akin to making a fantastic broom cupboard for a hotel instead of improving the lobby. That must be frustrating, I suggest: “I just trusted that Jonathan knew what he was doing,” replies Van Buren.

In 1979, Brooklyn artists Arthur and Cynthia Wood bought a traditional Brooklyn redbrick tenement, which they named Broken Angel. Over the next 25 years they continually extended and rebuilt it, creating a fantastical, ramshackle structure that seemed to defy the very laws of physics. Its upper regions – you can hardly call them floors – were made up of impossible angles, with rooms jutting out into thin air, threatening to bring the entire building tumbling down.

In a sad end for the incredible project, the local council deemed it unsafe and ordered it to be demolished, arresting the occupants when they refused to leave. It was bulldozed in 2009. But it lives on in this year’s hit indie title What Remains of Edith Finch.

The game sees the titular Edith returning to her abandoned family home, hoping to discover why members of her extended family have a habit of dying young or disappearing. It takes the form of a series of surreal vignettes – flashbacks to working in a fish factory, lucid dreams of turning into an animal – with a large, ramshackle house tying them all together.


A Gaudi-inspired building from Myst

“The Finch house was very inspired by Broken Angel,” says Ian Dallas, the game’s director. “We loved how the windows have these asymmetrical elements, the way it’s not a contiguous space. We wanted something that had a gradient, a fairly standard house that grows into something organic and unsettling the higher you get.”

Dallas didn’t go as far as hiring an architect, but his design process chimes with what Van Buren describes. “Architecture is a natural way of expressing theme and tone. We needed to make the house believable, because we had all of these surreal, ethereal stories we wanted to tell and we felt the living space should be almost mundane by comparison. Take the secret passages you can find: we wanted them to feel larger than life, but also real, like you could go to the hardware store and buy all the tools to make them if you had the time and the inclination.”

He says designing the house was like designing a real building, only instead of a team of architects, they had a pair of excitable 12-year-olds: “One of us would be like ‘Wow, what if the house had this?’ and instead of saying ‘Oh, no, that’s actually a load-bearing wall,’ the other person would be like: ‘Yeeeeah!’”

That real-world architecture is inspiring and improving its digital equivalent is perhaps not all that surprising. But Van Buren believes that video games may have something to offer bricks and mortar, too.

“If people are spending lots of time in built video game environments, with their increasingly impressive and realistic structures, they may start to question the world around them a bit more. In Europe there’s a higher level of visual literacy, people expect more of their built environment, but in the US people just accept the strip malls and big box stores, even though they have little or no architectural merit. It’s my hope that video games could improve visual literacy, make people demand more of their surroundings.”

So, for the sake of architecture, go home and boot up a video game; it might help change the world.

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