Video Games and Architecture

One of the tricky things about studying video games is that because they’re so new, we don’t really know how to properly talk about them yet. We don’t have a stable set of tools with which to dissect the blasted things. If you think about film, you can talk about cinematography and editing and sound and lighting and pacing and character – and many of these things turn up in other media, in one form or another. However, because video games have this un-theorised element of play, we’re still figuring out what to do with them. We might, for instance, say that a game has a particular type of cinematography in its cutscenes, but until we figure out how to theorise play, we can’t fully comment on whether that cinematography suits the big picture – because we don’t properly understand the big picture. We don’t have a full framework of meaning to interpret by. In terms of video game studies, people are just sort of chipping away at little different bits and pieces, hoping that eventually the information will coalesce to form a working toolkit. It will, of course, but it’s a work in progress.

I’ve started reading about architecture, because I find it interesting, and, lo and behold, it’s yielding interesting thoughts about video games. When architects are designing a building, they need to cater to a dual purpose: that of aesthetics, and that of functional usage. There’s no point having a pretty bathroom if the toilet doesn’t flush. I wonder if there’s any use in studying the way architecture is theorised. Perhaps there’s some clues in the way people fuse together use and aesthetic – maybe there’s some framework that we could borrow for video games. The difference would be that in video games you want to merge aesthetic and play.

Of course, architecture also has a more immediate use in terms of content. Video games are often about the organisation of virtual space – even more so now, with the upcoming arrival of these various VR headsets. There’s even examples of VR being used to help with architectural planning – that really just proves the point! The more we understand how architects design space, the more we can improve on how game designers design space. There’s differences, in that video game environments are not restricted according to the same laws of physics, but there’s also enough points of similarity to make the exercise a useful one. There are questions to be asked about how you make space direct the player – cities are designed to structure and govern our movement and use of space, and video games need that too – perhaps even more so! There’s nothing worse than a game with terrible level design – I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about. You know those games where you play for half an hour, get turned around in a labyrinth, and suddenly you’re locked into tedium and poorly rendered wall hangings.

Among other options, one solution has been to simplify the player’s pathway through the game – this is where the shooting corridors of Call of Duty et al come into the picture. Other options include the ever-clunky waypoint on the HUD – although it’s not that the waypoint has no aesthetic use, it just seems inelegant to me. If you could direct the player simply through the design of the level – that would be amazing. There are piles of articles about how the Half-Life series does this, and piles more about other games that I know little to nothing about.

Mirror’s Edge would probably be a go-to case study, I reckon, because they direct you through the use of colour. Certain colours represent certain levels of difficulty, and when it’s all red there’s gonna be violence. Mirror’s Edge is actually particularly interesting, because it’s about flow – momentum and so on, slipping from one obstacle to the next without stopping to muck around. It could be cool to have that sort of focus in other video games, but it’s also relatively limited, in that it doesn’t encourage exploration. It’s not that every game needs to encourage that, but the type of negotiation you create for a game-space will impact the overall themes and feel of the game.

That’s probably the other aspect to talk about – if you’re bringing in all this architectural stuff, there’s going to be new questions raised about what this space means. Why are you on an island? Why are you in the city? In Mirror’s Edge, there’s lots of stuff about femininity, with ‘the flow’ being a key symbol – so the process of negotiating space has a symbolic function too. There’s a couple of horror games that have figured out that dirty environment can symbolise dirty state of mind – I’m thinking of Silent Hill 2, in particular, and all its little imitators. If you haven’t played Silent Hill 2 (actually I haven’t either), there’s purgatorial themes in the horror, and the idea that the protagonist is punishing himself for something – possibly the murder of his wife.

Of course, I’m not convinced that such obvious metaphors are always the best approach. The purgatorial theme has a shelf life, and it gets shorter every time there’s a tacky imitation. There are probably more subtle atmospheric things we can go for. The lush forest represents life, nature, growth, while the inner-city suburb is industry and commerce. Walter Benjamin once said that architecture is all background, in the sense that it should work on the senses in a more subtle way than something like the spoken word. Most games are pretty good at this background environment thing, at picking a setting and developing it out, but they’re not so good at addressing the underlying themes that come along with that environment.

Imagine you’re in a forest – themes of growth and nature. Okay, well, so what? Where’s the drama? Where’s the development, the change, the threat and resolution? What is being said about the forest, other than ‘It’s a forest’? That’s what I mean by asking what the space means. What’s being said about growth, about nature? In other words, why are we in this space? What makes this space better for your story? I’m aware that my focus is on story-telling in games, and I’m aware that not every game is about telling stories, but dammit if the ones that are don’t need to do a better job of it.

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