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Designer's Notebook: The Role of Architecture in Videogames
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Designer's Notebook: The Role of Architecture in Videogames

October 9, 2002 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

The Secondary Function of Architecture in Games

If architecture were only about supporting the gameplay through constraint, concealment and so on, it could all be bare grey concrete. But architecture has a secondary, and still highly valuable role to play: to inform and entertain in its own right. It does this by a variety of means:

Familiarity. Familiar locations offer cues to a place's function and the events that are likely to take place there. If we see a kitchen, we don't expect to find a blacksmith making horseshoes. We rely on players to use common sense about the function of certain kinds of familiar spaces, and it's cheating (a conceptual non-sequitur) to violate their legitimate expectations without any explanation. If you can crawl through the ventilation ducts to get past the security guards, it's not reasonable to meet another security guard inside the ducts -- unless you've made so much noise that one has gone in to investigate.

Figure 3. Gabriel Knight is waiting for the maid to finish cleaning this hotel room.

Allusion. Game architecture can make reference to real buildings or architectural styles to take advantage of the ideas or emotions that they suggest. There's a vast amount of material to borrow from in the real world, from the ruinous spiritual grandeur of Stonehenge to the gruesome expediency of the gas chamber at San Quentin.

Figure 4. Soul Reaver is a game about a vampire that eats souls, so a cathedral has powerful connotations.

New worlds require new architecture. To create a sense of unfamiliarity, create unfamiliar spaces. This has the disadvantage that it robs the player of a frame of reference, and can create confusion rather than emotional resonance. To avoid this problem, you can name the buildings when necessary. Among the buildings in Figure 5 is the Brothel for Slaking Intellectual Lusts, a place where you can pay scholarly prostitutes to talk to you about philosophy and art.

Figure 5. An aerial view in Planescape: Torment. Note the extreme variety the of buildings and the lack of cues as to their function.

Surrealism. I complained about pointless surrealism in my first "Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie!" column, but architectural surrealism does have a point if it's connected to the gameplay. It creates a sense of mystery and more importantly, it warns the player that things are not what they seem. A surreal landscape tells him that the game may require extreme lateral thinking or strange leaps of logic to win.

Figure 6. Myst had a strong surreal element in its architecture.

Atmosphere. To create a game that feels dangerous, make it look dangerous. The city street in The Longest Journey, below, looks like the concrete canyons of Manhattan with their looming high-rises, dim light, and graffiti. The rose window of the cathedral, partially hidden in the background, suggests a place of sanctuary nearby.

Figure 7. The city of Stark, from The Longest Journey.

Comedic effect. Not all game worlds are familiar, dangerous, or weird; some are supposed to be lighthearted and funny. Note the Disneyesque bulging walls and off-kilter windows of Planet Threepwood, below. This isn't so much a building as an architectural joke.

Figure 8. Escape from Monkey Island.

Architectural clichés. Games, like other forms of popular media, often rely on clichés and stereotypes to set a scene and establish player expectations quickly. These are a sort of variant on familiarity, without the benefit of being informed by real-life examples. The scene from Dark Age of Camelot below includes all the necessary elements to suggest a sort of Lego-land medievalism: you have your dragon, your symmetrical castle complete with banners, your Olde Worlde half-timbered building, and even your mystic runes graven in stone. This place may not look like any place in the real world, but thanks to Hollywood and earlier games, we know exactly what's supposed to happen here.

Figure 9. Dark Age of Camelot.


Architecture -- meaning both landscapes and structures -- is what turns the bare grid of the chessboard into the living world of the computer game. Its importance is on a par with character design in creating the player's visual experience. Character design tells you who you are; architecture tells you where you are. But more than that, it also tells you what might happen to you there, and even sometimes what you ought to be doing.

Perhaps there will come a time when student game artists in college routinely study Viollet-le-Duc and Vitruvius, Gaudí and Gropius. I hope so. Our games can only be the better for it.



Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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