For being totally and utterly at the mercy of the whims of any number of artists and creative types, video games sure can be boring. Or rather, they sure can look boring. Though nothing explicitly ties our little interactive industry to realism, we still adhere to it, and for good reason: it helps keep an already abstract thing relatable. That doesn’t mean that instigating the feel of otherworldliness should be taken off the table, and yet it seems to always be kept out of reach.
There’s a fellow named Jon Brouchoud. He describes himself as a freelance architect and 3D designer and he wrote this thing about architecture in video games. He admits it himself that the post is “disjointed and meander”—as mine sometimes are—but he brings up several good points, most of which are backed up by literature and photographs.
Most structures and buildings and landscapes in games are designed by artists, not architects, which usually means that many fundamental elements are missing. The examples Brouchoud uses include how digital courtyards usually lack a spatial anchoring point like a monument or statue and how buildings almost always go straight into the ground without a plinth (the slab upon which things are built). The first one helps orient people as they wander around, whether in the virtual or the real world, and the second can help convey a subconscious notion of quality. They are small things but pile up enough pebbles and you have a mountain; these details matter.
Then those artists’ renderings have to go through several layers of mashing and bashing by technical artists to make it into the game under memory and level design constraints. That is a problem where technical limitations take precedent over the artistic. Either the console or the engine or something can’t handle the design as the original artist intended or the gameplay itself will suffer for strict adherence to the art. The artistic design is first to go because that is, by and large, not what makes the game go; it not crashing or it being playable is.
The biggest problem, however, that Brouchoud correctly points out is that most video game architecture lacks a sense of place, and that is what architecture is at its very core, at its very essence. Even from the scant few years I spent thinking I wanted to be an architect, one of the first things impressed upon you through teaching and reading is that this is a practice that is hard to define. It is mostly about buildings and how they are built, yes, but it is also about how everything around a building—the trees, the type of brick, how the walkway stones are laid—comes together to induce a very specific feeling.
Frank Lloyd Wright is famous for this. He manages to marry many psychological and artistic concepts together in his designs that many of his pieces are still revered and studied to this day. Many of his buildings have a structure to it that you would find in narratives or music where there is a build and a reveal and climaxes and so on and so on. Wright’s foyers open gradually and layer on spectacle until grandeur hits in a Skrillex-esque drop of awe. Our eyes are drawn along directing lines that make us think or move a certain way and then expectations are simultaneously met, exceeded, and defied.
That is what video games are missing. We are missing that narrative structure in our designs (and, in some cases, our narratives). This is why sewer levels are universally abhorred; they are so one-note. You enter underground and you don’t come up until it’s over. It’s the same as if you were punished with busywork at your 9-to-5 where you keep your head down until it’s quittin’ time.
The underground section in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, for instance, almost single-handedly ruined what was an otherwise excellent game. There was no structure or sense of place down there. Hallways and corridors lead right back into hallways and corridors you just saw and nothing is ever built up in anticipation and nothing is ever resolved. You are simply down in a place with no lights and it kind of sucks. You have nothing to orient yourself with and everything just feels the same.
Contrast that with Dead Space 3. The ice planet is, well, kind of forgettable, but the space bits are most excellent because the design itself of wandering has pacing and beats to hit and feels more than the sum of its parts. You start out in a room that, relative to the rest of the ship, at least has some light. While not a guarantee, we psychologically feel safer in a well-lit environment, and this room provides that. As we open the door and step out, we see a claustrophobic, dark hall, and it instinctively feels dangerous. We are hesitant to even leave the light because the little lizard part of our brain is telling us to stay in the light.
We trudge forward, cautiously, until the inevitable jump scare hits. Tension has been building and building and suddenly there is an immense release of adrenaline to meet the fright of a necromorph trundling and screaming towards you. The battle over and hearts still pounding, we come across another door and open it: relief. It is an airlock and we are sucked into the serenity of a silent space and slow, soothing movements of free-floating debris. Air rushes by you into the vacuum, as does all your tension.
That is a narrative in microcosm. We have build up, climax, and denouement. It is the perfect representation of how the architecture of the ship and feed into the gameplay and reinforce how we feel about the simple act of exploring or playing the game.
This feel trumps many of the things that games otherwise recklessly and heedlessly try. The Syndicate remake from last year, for instance, tried many things in terms of architecture and, for the most part, failed at inciting any sort of sense of place. Things looked futuristic, but that was about it. The light bloom and lens flares all checked the aesthetic points off the list, but the structures were bland and unfortunately normal. Stairs simply led to the second story you can see through the translucent floor, not some unknown room of future tech and tools. Warehouses were floating in the sky, but they sort of felt like normal warehouses with encompassing structure of industry.
The slums, if anything, were where Syndicate succeeded. Everything felt rundown and gross, and the way multiple floors fed into cluttered, broken-windowed hallways only to open up into wide-open but caged courtyards had the perfect mix of fancy and trashy to really give you the sense that these buildings used to be something more than monthly leased coffins and drug dens.
Don’t take it to mean that the actual framework of video game buildings are lackluster because they are not (Mass Effect and Halo have giant planet-humping monoliths for goodness sake). But that doesn’t mean that they are good at giving the player a sense of place, which is what really lies at the core of architecture. Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days actually was one of the best at ginning up that feeling despite being based in the preset, real world. Architecture is more than foundations and beams and roof styles. Architecture is about making you feel like you’ve gone somewhere you’ve never been, the same feeling that video games should be the best at. So why aren’t they?