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In a fascinating panel session at Brighton's develop conference, a group of architects and game artists converged to discuss the relationship between place in games and real-world environment design.

Simon Parkin, Contributor

July 15, 2009

5 Min Read

Architecture has much to learn from video games. So said a group of architects and game artists speaking at a panel session at Brighton's Develop conference, where they explained in-depth the fascinating relationship between games and real-world environment design. "Cities like Dubai have been designed explicitly from the ground up as experience locations, their architecture intended to give tourists and visitors a heady journey," said Rory Olcayto, features editor from The Architect’s Journal. "But when you visit Dubai and experience that journey for yourself, it's a very poor experience. Videogames tend to present coherent architecture-led experiences far better than those we build in the real world," he said For that reason, I think city architects have a lot more to learn from games than vice-versa." The panel, which also featured Viktor Antonov, the art director behind Half-Life 2 and The Crossing and Rob Watkins, an architect-trained artist on Fable 2, investigated the ways in which games and architecture influence behavior and emotion, and are used to tell stories. Panel host Alex Wiltshire of Edge magazine took the example London’s Natural History Museum: "It’s a superbly practical place to show off huge skeletons and glass cases filled with stuffed animals to thousands of people a day," he began. "But it also subtly steers its visitors through its spaces, is suitably grand for a national museum and is a physical representation of Darwinian principles – with terra cotta tiling that’s banded to look like stratified rock and featuring carved animals crawling up its columns." He drew comparisons between this function of architecture and multiplayer maps in games like Team Fortress 2 and Halo 3. "Their forms are engineered to be fun killing grounds, designed for specific game types and to facilitate players to flow through their spaces in general patterns," he pointed out. "Their decoration, meanwhile, is designed to extend their host games’ fictions or, in TF2’s case, tell their own." All three men on the panel described how it’s the freedom of form that drew them to video game architecture. Said Olcayto: "I started out working for Hamilton district council, visiting estates and working to replace windows on council houses. It was mundane work, relived only by our lunchtime sessions playing Doom 2. I realized that I preferred living in the type of environment found in that game than working with real architecture, which is actually quite onerous." Watkins’ was also drawn into video game design after graduating with a degree in architecture by the promise of freedom. "The chance to play with building of almost any scale, with true freedom to do really interesting things and none of the drawbacks of having to worry about damp-proofing or RSJ was irresistible," he enthused. "In games, your primary concern is look, feel and impact." However, he was quick to point out that contemporary games also require a level of sober realism to their virtual architecture. "Buildings have to look credible," he said, "and have structure and form with joists, beams and so on. These things are important, so the player doesn’t just think it's a flat world with a texture stuck on it." Antonov agreed, saying that injecting scenes with history as well as realistic coherency is just as important. "For Half Life 2, we wrote three pieces of supplementary narrative for every location in the game, stating what happened there two days ago, two weeks ago and two years ago." "This historical record (which ran longer than the entire story for the game) gave every location in the game a sense of place, history and verisimilitude, something far more nuanced and rich than simply slapping some graffiti on a wall," he added. Wiltshire asked the panel about the differences in function between buildings in games, which are generally there to provide mood or direction for the player, and real-life buildings, which have more utilitarian purposes. Antonov was unsure of the distinction. "The city’s a theatre and a spectacle in itself," he opined. "I don't think the differences are so great; we shouldn’t be snobbish about real architecture’s function. It's there for public fun. After all, you see it first and use it second.” Olcayto agreed that, as with many real-life developments, buildings in games are primarily about creating and framing an atmosphere. The difference is that architecture in games has "a strange dream logic that stems from it being explicitly built for psychological mood creation to serve the narrative." Antonov pointed out that there are three different types of places that exist in architecture: Capitals, Villages and Colonies. "It's important to understand which one you’re working on and why when building a game world," he advised. "Capitals are hub icons of success and prosperity. Villages are often less structured, more freeform and communicate a different ambiance, while colonies have usually been designed in a strict, formatted way." Contrast Paris, he suggested, with its experiential journey from monument to monument with Marrakesh, which is organic and very easy to get disorientated and lost in. Knowing what you are aiming for, and how that relates to he game narrative themes is crucial. Wiltshire concluded by challenging attendees to consider the way both video games and architecture are germinated with a grand idea and a sprinkle of available technology before the practicalities take over. "It’s time to stop thinking so much about the cosmetic similarities between games and film," he argued, "and look to architecture instead."

About the Author(s)

Simon Parkin


Simon Parkin is a freelance writer and journalist from England. He primarily writes about video games, the people who make them and the weird stories that happen in and around them for a variety of specialist and mainstream outlets including The Guardian and the New Yorker.

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