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Playing the Architect: Why Video Games and Architecture Need Each Other

As game designers turn to architects to develop their worlds, the suprisingly historic relationship between architecture and computer games is thrown into relief, full of unexplored potential

Architecture, mother of all the arts, and video gaming, the media-mocked, juvenile time-waster – despite their polarised public status the two would seem destined to work together. Video gaming’s most contested battle is the one to be taken seriously – but is architecture the key to winning it? Re.presence, currently showing at Sto Werkstatt, offers a merging of these two worlds in Lawrence Lek’s Shiva’s Dreaming, a virtual exploration of the Crystal Palace ablaze in 1936. While Shiva’s Dreaming has the advantage of being commissioned as art for exhibition, mainstream releases are beginning to exemplify an increasingly productive relationship between the architectural and gaming world.

‘The de facto reference for a video game is a shitty action movie’, came the brazen attack from independent video-game developer Jonathan Blow in a 2012 interview with The Atlantic. Since his windfall success with the 2008 time-bending platformer Braid, Blow has been an outspoken critic of what he considers dull, lazy and profiteering game design, cementing his image as both indie gaming’s messiah and the most pretentious man on Earth.

Shiva Dreaming

Shiva’s Dreaming, a video game by Lawrence Lek, in which the player roams a virtual replica of Crystal Palace on the night of its fire. Experiments with the gaming medium such as this remain isolated and esoteric

For his upcoming adventure game, The Witness, Blow commissioned architects FORUM Design and David Fletcher Studio to give life to the setting – a context-less, imaginary island. As an unnamed character roaming this uninhabited world, the player passes through 10 sections solving maze-like environmental puzzles in order to reach the ultimate goal of a central mountain. To the seasoned gamer the setting and concept are worryingly familiar.

This is not ‘video game architecture’, rather ‘Architecture’ applied to a video game. Divorced from the toxic ethos of cheap thrills and shoot-em-ups, Blow realised architects and spatial composition were the key to creating a richer virtual experience. The Witness’s success will be entirely reliant on this sought-after spatial depth if it is to be more than the simple maze-solving puzzle game that many have predicted it will be, but the involvement of architects risks misunderstanding what the video gaming medium needs. If video games are ever to be considered as art, does a reliance on other disciplines’ expertise risk stunting their growth?

The Witness

The Witness, shown here post-architects; a simple aesthetic disguising a deep spatial experience?

The benchmarks for an immersive, architecturally rich game were raised in 2007. Developer 2K’s BioShock is an example of pushing the most traditional of video-game elements towards greater maturity and awareness. Set in Rapture – a fictional underwater city built upon Ayn Rand’s theory of Objectivism and met by a catastrophic demise – its design conveyed functionality, lavish glamour, optimism and pride in a deeply researched Art Deco style. In a city where technology has been embraced to the point of genetic alteration for an underwater, intelligentsia elite, gilded symmetry and camp ‘30s advertisements speak of this pursuit for perfection, even more so in their flooding, ruined state.

While Blow acknowledges that a professional level designer could give his locations such a sense of place and history, he boldly stands by the belief that architecture designed by architects brings with it a ‘subtle sophistication’, otherwise unachievable. Before and after shots from The Witness in development attempt to show this; some changes are subtle, others more dramatic. The areas appear more considered, with the arrangement of maze-like paths beginning to emerge, but surely subtle sophistication is not tangible through a simple screenshot. If anything these views have forced computer games journalists to assess the changes from a purely visual standpoint, undermining this original intention.


The underwater city of Rapture, the architectural design of which conveys its Objectivist intentions more than any narrative

The Witness

‘The Compound’ from The Witness before (left) and after the involvement of architects and urban designers. A greater structural intelligence is evident, but is it more than a level designer could achieve?

Such a close relationship between gameplay and architecture not only already exists, but is arguably inherent. The Sims started life as an architect simulator in which the virtual inhabitants were only there to evaluate the player’s creations. Over time the game has shaped its very own sense of architecture – its shift into the life simulator that has defined a genre began a wry commentary on the spaces in which we live that continues – with varying degrees of subtlety – across the simulator genre. Whittling down life to a few basic needs and desires, architecture in The Sims is one of direct response, gratification and commodity. Everything from this untangling of your virtual human’s desires to the cut-away plan views now ubiquitous to Revit users lend it a prescient sophistication of its own.

Even when this relationship is not explicit, it has proven that it will emerge. In the online virtual world Second Life, players live in another world through avatars. With none of the boundaries of The Sims and none of the rich visual narrative of BioShock, it has been left to develop its own bizarre sense – or complete lack – of urbanism. It’s easy to forget Second Life’s vast possibilities when surveying the banality of this virtual, perpetual suburbia, littered with house-shaped containers for accessories and clothing. Public monuments where avatars can meet and greet are reached via teleportation, eliminating any need for paths and roads and making a house little more than a symbolic drop-off point. None of the desires catered for in The Sims matter or exist here – with no real sense of programme the virtual inhabitants settle for the vapid.

Second Life

Second Life’s characterless London 2012 decor

Ironically Second Life’s internal creative economy is booming, and ready-built architecture for virtual consumers has developed into a lucrative industry. Player Insky Jedburgh made more money designing virtual castles in Second Life than he did in his real-world sales job; although a single commission only makes around $50, demand proved extremely high. Another user, known as Rem Koolhaas, once advertised clean-cut, prefab ‘ModLife’ homes that attempted to emulate his namesake’s signature style.

With their status so frequently downtrodden, it is easily forgotten how much can be learned from video games. In 2013, the Savannah College of Art and Design launched Disentanglement and Gates, a project that used a gaming environment to teach students about the real-world, professional side of architecture. The concept was simple; to present a variety of problem-solving scenarios representative of an architectural project’s stages of development, distilling professional practice down into puzzles. Besides the obvious benefits of interactivity and countless ‘what-if’ scenarios, the project is hopeful for a changing perception of video games.

Much like architecture, video gaming’s power is in its ability to draw together countless other, well-established art forms; perfecting this amalgamation and its applications is where its own status as art lies. Instead of attempting to add sophistication to a game using architects and ‘real-world’ architecture, the focus should be on how games have borne bizarre, sophisticated and prescient architectures of their very own, and how this burgeoning medium can feed back in to other professions and practice.

Opening Image

The opening image, a screenshot from Heavy Rain, depicts a scene in which the player controls the architect-protagonist as he draws up a scheme.

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