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Games = extreme architecture

July 13, 2009 ・ Blog

I’m doing a panel session at Develop on Wednesday about the relationship between architecture and videogames with Viktor Antonov, the art director behind Half-Life 2 and (the unfortunately on-hold) The Crossing, Rob Watkins, an architect-trained artist on Fable 2, and Rory Olcayto, features editor from The Architect’s Journal and an artist at developer Inner Workings in the late 90s. Following are my introductory thoughts on the theme to get my head properly working on it all.

A lot is said about videogames’ closeness to film. But I’d like to suggest that another art form is much closer to videogames than that: architecture.

Just as games do, architecture influences behaviour and emotion, provides for certain needs and can be used to tell stories. It’s non-linear, too – unlike film. An architect I know once told me that he saw videogames as an extreme form of architecture, and I think he was right.

Look at the Natural History Museum, for instance. It’s a superbly practical place to show off huge skeletons and glass cases filled with stuffed animals to thousands of people a day. 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 terracotta tiling that’s banded to look like stratified rock and featuring carved animals crawling up its columns.

Now think about a multiplayer map in Team Fortress 2 or 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. Their decoration, meanwhile, is designed to extend their host games’ fictions or, in TF2’s case, tell their own.

And think about Super Mario 64, whose world is the game. Or Grand Theft Auto, in which a game is placed on top of an entire, credible city. Or Red Faction: Guerrilla, whose buildings have to have structural integrity because of the game’s physics system.

Think also about the way both videogames and architecture are germinated with a grand idea and a sprinkle of available technology before the practicalities take over – of working window seals and regulatory balustrade heights, graphics optimisation techniques and platform certification.

It’s time to stop thinking so much about the cosmetic similarities between games and film and look to architecture instead. [Insert panellists going into more depth with incredible insight and sparkling examples here.]

More themes:

  • The effect of the grim futures depicted in games on the imaginations.
  • Players becoming architects through The Sims and Far Cry 2’s map editor.
  • How to create dread though spatial design.
  • Architects’ jealousy of Halo 3’s heatmaps.
  • How architects can teach game designers how to design a fun game in an open world.