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Gama Network Presents:

The Role of Architecture in Video Games
By Ernest Adams
October 9, 2002

This month's column began life as a lecture I gave to the Ars Electronica  festival of electronic and computerized art, in Linz, Austria. They requested  the topic, and although it sounded a bit odd at first, the more research I did,  the more interesting it got. This month's column is a short version of that  lecture. My audience was mostly artists and a good fourth of them had never  played a videogame in their lives, so I had to include a lot of background  material about game design that isn't included here.

Why Humans Construct Buildings

The most popular PC game of all time, The Sims, was influenced and  partly inspired by the work of an architect, Christopher Alexander's book A  Pattern Language. It has more to offer us than perhaps we realize.  As I began thinking about the role of architecture in games, I started off by  making a list of reasons that humans construct buildings in the first place:

  • To protect people, goods, and animals from the weather.
  • To organize human activity efficiently (factories, theaters, offices,  sports arenas)
  • To conceal and protect goods and animals from theft (warehouses, barns,  shops, storage facilities).
  • To offer personal privacy (toilets and private houses).
  • To protect people from other people (fortifications, military  installations, prisons).
  • To impress, commemorate or simply decorate (civic monuments and religious  buildings).

If we look at these functions with respect to games, however, some are  meaningful and some are not. Weather, the primary reason for constructing most  of the buildings in the world, is irrelevant. If it exists in games at all, it's  usually cosmetic. Privacy, too, is normally immaterial -- most games don't let  you take your clothes off anyway.

It is useful to organize human activity in games, but buildings aren't the  most efficient way to do it. There's no real need to visit a building called the  "Town Hall" in an online game when you could just send email to whoever works  there; but the building provides a convenient metaphor for the functions that  the Town Hall provides. Theft, likewise, may or may not be possible in games; if  it is possible, a building provides a convenient metaphor for concealment and  protection -- a way of indicating that an item is inaccessible to thieves. In  Age of Empires, once a resource is placed in the storage pit, it's protected  from theft. The storage pit is really a magic place that converts resources from  being vulnerable and unusable, to invulnerable and available for consumption.  The game could call it anything it likes, but it calls it a building. It's not  much like a real building, though: it never fills up, and if you burn it down  you don't lose the contents. The Treasury in Dungeon Keeper was more like  a real treasury: it could get full, and people could steal money out of it if it  wasn't guarded.

Two functions that do translate over directly are military activity and  general decoration. Just about all wargames make use of constructed edifices as  a means of concealment and protection for troops, and any game that tries to  create a sense of place uses architecture to define how that place feels to be.  In short, buildings in games mimic the real world when necessary or  aesthetically desirable, but this is not always the case. There are no buildings  in chess.

Games do have a problem portraying outdoor spaces. Because of the limitations  of looking at a monitor, we can't create sweeping vistas or panoramas that feel  like the real thing. If you've ever tried to photograph the emptiness of a  desert or the Great Plains, you'll know what I mean: an essential part of the  experience is the sense of being surrounded by vast open space. Players sitting  in a room, looking at a CRT, never feel that way. Another part of that sensation  comes from the sheer length of time it takes to get anywhere. Most games allow  you to move pretty fast -- no more than a few minutes to walk from one side of  the world to the other so, the sense of scale is diminished. And of course  aerial perspectives reduce the impressiveness of everything: the Great Pyramid  is no big deal from 5000 feet up.
We're not very good at natural objects,  either. In 3D games, straight lines are cheap and curves are expensive, so we  tend to avoid curves. But look at an oak leaf: it's nothing but curves. With  thousands of leaves per tree and thousands of trees in a forest, there's a good  reason why we leave forests alone. As a result, most 3D games tend to feel  rather sparse and sterile. Bauhaus, yes; botanical gardens, no.

The Primary Function of Architecture in Games

The primary function of architecture in games is to support the gameplay.  Buildings in games are not analogous to buildings in the real world, because  most of the time their real-world functions are either irrelevant -- the  real-world activity that the building serves isn't meaningful in the game -- or  purely metaphorical. Rather, buildings in games are analogous to movie sets:  incomplete, false fronts whose function is to support the narrative of the  movie. Movie sets create context and support suspension of disbelief. They also  diverge from the real world for narrative purposes. Consider New York as seen in  a movie by Woody Allen, who loves the place, versus New York as seen in Taxi  Driver. Sets are part of the story; they can make a place seem more (or less)  beautiful, dangerous, tacky, etc. than it really is.
Gameplay (in non-social  games) consists of challenges and actions taken to overcome them; architecture  supports the gameplay by helping to define the challenges. There are four major  ways in which this happens: constraint, concealment, obstacles or tests of  skill, and exploration.

Constraint: In board games like chess and checkers, there are no  boundaries except for the edge of the board. The challenge of the game is  created by the rather arbitrary rules governing how the pieces may move. In  representational games, we want units to move the way they would in real life,  not according to some artificial rule; but most of the time we don't want them  moving anywhere they like. Architecture establishes boundaries that limit the  freedom of movement of avatars or units. It also establishes constraints on the  influence of weapons. As a general rule, projectiles do not pass through walls  (no matter how flimsy) nor do explosions knock them down, nor fires burn through  them.

Concealment: Few computer games are games of perfect information, in  which the player knows everything there is to know about the state of the game.  Architecture is used to hide valuable (and sometimes dangerous) objects from the  player; it's also used to conceal the players from one another, or from their  enemies.

Obstacles and tests of skill: Chasms to jump across, cliffs to climb,  trapdoors to avoid -- all these are part of the peculiar landscape architecture  of computer games. Some of them can be surmounted by observation and logic,  others by hand-eye coordination.

Exploration: Not quite the same as overcoming obstacles, exploration  challenges the player to understand the shape of the space he's moving through,  to know what leads to where. Mazes are of course one of the oldest examples of  such a challenge. If the game doesn't give the player a map, he may have to rely  on his memory to learn his way around. In recent years we have started making  better use of subtle clues: sunlight coming through a window means that we're  near the outside; a differently-shaded patch of wall indicates a secret  door.

Persistent worlds like Everquest use buildings for a variety of social  functions as well, of course, but as those are largely obvious and symbolic, I  won't address them here.

Some time ago I came across the website of Canadian game designer Peter Lok  ( Included on his site was a  sketch of a long ventilation shaft leading from the roof of a building straight  down into an equipment room on the ground floor. The sketch included the  following notation:

Shutters that open and close. Must jump down when open and fan is  on. When closed you plummet and shutters are electrified. Have 2 sets of  fan/shutter. Must land on ledge above fan. Blades will kill  you.
Equipment room with ducts and access doors to  labs.

Considered as real-world architecture, this is isn't very sensible. The fans  must blow out rather than in (that's why you don't plummet if you jump in while  they're on). You might need two fans in order to move a given volume of air, but  why would you need two sets of shutters? And why in the world are the shutters  electrified? Above all, the remainder of the building is undefined. Like a movie  set, it's just a false front, a container for the ventilation shaft and the  equipment room below.

As game design, however, it's perfectly functional, though not entirely  obvious to the inexperienced gamer. It supplies constraint (the player starts on  the roof and must go down the ventilation shaft to get to the equipment room);  an obstacle challenge (the fan blades and electrified shutters which, reading  between the lines, we can tell must go on and off at intervals ); and an  exploration challenge (the player doesn't know what's at the bottom of the shaft  until she gets there).

Here's another example of how game design diverges from reasonable  architecture. Notice the strange and wasteful design of this building complex  from Quake. This building is designed to be explored, not used.

Figure 1. A map of a building in Quake.

Or consider this oddly-shaped valley from the Militia level in Counter-Strike. The building at the end is fairly rational, but the shape  of the valley itself is optimized to create combat challenges through constraint  and concealment. It's designed with lots of things to hide behind, allowing  small numbers of snipers to cover the whole valley -- in both directions.

Figure 2. The Militia map in Counter-Strike.

All these things are examples of the environment supporting the gameplay,  even if they're rather peculiar in real-world terms.

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.

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