Game Architecture: 5 Exemplary Works
How environments improve the gaming experience
©2011 Nicholas Capozzoli
Seven years of architecture school taught me that architecture is a tough thing to pin down. It actively resists being fenced in by restrictive definitions, sharing movements with other industries and dabbling in all forms of media.
I’d say that the representation of structure in video games does sit somewhere within the murky boundaries of what architecture “is”.
It’s a designed spatial experience, even if that experience is fundamentally different than the one associated with traditional architecture.
When analyzing the role that architecture plays in video games, one finds that it serves a set of wholly different purposes. While the aesthetic considerations remain largely the same, architecture in video games also exists to further the games’ other intentions, whatever they may be.
Game architecture can succeed by improving gameplay, enhancing atmosphere, or telling a story.
What follows are but a few of the best examples of architecture in gaming that I’ve come across, unsorted and open for expansion.
Eden, Project Eden:
Project Eden (PC, PS2) flew under the radar back when it was released ten years ago. The game was set within the titular city of Eden, a futuristic, dystopian vision where urban sprawl extends upwards, instead of outwards.
In this world, the rich and elite live at the top, while the dregs of society inhabit the dank, dimly-lit slums below, a la Metropolis.
The player(s) assume the role of Urban Protection Agents, the city’s de facto police force. Each member of the team possesses unique traits that make them suitable for particular tasks; tasks which needed to be performed in harmony to solve a large variety of physics and environment-based puzzles.
A mission is laid out to you at the start: investigate the disappearance of some missing technicians at the Real Meat Company. And with that brief introduction, the descent begins, as each new development in the case leads you deeper into the city’s depths.
Eden is intimidating from its onset; the prospect of leaving the open air above for the recesses below filled me with apprehension, especially when it was accompanied with words like “missing”, “dead” and “real meat”.
Spacious open-air malls and gardens have the slick, sterile, high-tech aesthetic of works by futurists like Antonio Sant’Elia. Proceeding deeper, they inevitably give way to claustrophobic slums and factories, but developer Core Design was savvy enough to provide a number of unusual finds.
There are assembly lines and parking garages, but there are also arboretums and a zoo. The game does a great job of convincing you that the city’s depths are a lost world, far removed from the daily lives of those above.
The foundations holding the city up are layered and varied, as well as in constant flux: shifting and collapsing structures make up most of the environmental puzzles in the game. The jerry-rigged constructions found below Eden are surprisingly dynamic.
But then at once, you’re reminded of how far you are from the sun and sky. You look down, into the abyss, and the horrors that await you in the dark depths take the forefront in your mind.
The game’s introduction says it all quite succinctly.
Project Eden Intro
Unnamed City and Time Trial Zones, Mirror’s Edge:
Mirror’s Edge demonstrates a common gaming convention: the use of urban environments for largely exterior, platforming-based gameplay, a la Assassin’s Creed, InFamous, and the like.
It’s a convention that’s seen a lot of use in the industry over the years, so it’s a testament to Mirror’s Edge that it still managed to stand out from the crowd.
The success of the architecture in Mirror’s Edge is twofold. It relies on an aesthetic with strong precedent, but that’s also still rather unique to gaming, and its stylings compliment and advance the themes at play.
Between the restricted palette of primary colors and simple geometric shapes, playing Mirror’s Edge seems more than a bit like running around inside one of Piet Mondrian’s Composition pieces.
Some might criticize the environments for their stripped-down sterility, but to do so would be to miss the game’s aesthetic point.
The bare, corporate look of the surroundings denotes their insignificance.
Individual buildings aren’t supposed to draw attention as anything more than a platform to land on.
Where color is provided, it is done strategically to aid in pathfinding: reds highlight useful objects along your intended heading, while blacks, yellows, and blues draw out horizontals and verticals that help you discern edges within the field of white.
Really, it’s about as straightforward an expression of the Modernist theory in art and architecture as a game can achieve.
The time trial stages take this concept and run with it, breaking up the world into an abstract set of cubes and planes. They’re completely surreal, arcade-style fun.
Mirror’s Edge also borrows Modernism to make an anti-establishment message, one that’s not unlike what we’ve seen in games like Jet Set Radio.
The protagonist here, Faith, defies the rules imposed by her society, not only literally through her battle with the government, but also by eschewing conventional methods of traversing the environment for more creative means.
Mirror’s Edge appropriates this meaning effectively, and the game’s architecture supplements it.
What does it say about the efficiency of all those straight lines, when the quickest path involves a zig-zag, acrobatic display of jumps, twists, and turns?
Mirror’s Edge: Modernistic Masterpiece?
Fisherman’s Horizon, Final Fantasy VIII:
With all the lavish and ethereal cities in the history of the Final Fantasy series, it’s lowly Fisherman’s Horizon that really has a special place in my heart.
I’ve always had an affinity for the architecture of decay, and Fisherman’s Horizon is pretty much made of rust.
The strength of FH (as it’s abbreviated) is in the city’s back story. We learn that FH is a city wrought of salvaged shipping materials by disenchanted master mechanics.
They’re old hippies and the children of old hippies, contenting themselves with a simple life of fishing and repairing old machinery.
When I speak about creating a convincing back story, I don’t just mean through narration. It’s also important to tell that story through visuals as well, something that Squaresoft accomplished perfectly with Fisherman’s Horizon.
The characters, history, events, and aesthetics all come together in a perfect harmony to give you a full picture.
Fisherman’s Horizon, of course, looks like it’s composed of repurposed shipping materials and electronics.
Every part of the city shows those plain mechanical components built up into interesting, unique forms. Though it’s all composed of jerry-rigged steel, somehow the city has a surprising coziness to it.
The peaceful accompanying music certainly helps, too.
Diadem, Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean:
The Baten Kaitos series (GC) helped to fill the void of RPGs on the Nintendo Gamecube. Its world draws from a long fascination that humans have had with floating cities, dating back at least to the ancient Greeks.
They’re a common feature in video games, for certain; a look at the video game subsection of the Floating Island Wikipedia page yields only the sentence “Floating islands and continents are too common an element in video games to be listed separately.”
The examples found in Baten Kaitos, however, were really on another level. That’s not surprising, considering that floating cities are basically the foundation that the game’s lore is built upon. Diadem, “The Land of Clouds”, is perhaps the most impressive of the lot.
The various locales in Baten Kaitos all have a wildly different character, in part due to the type of clouds that surround them.
Diadem’s in particular are spectacular. They’re towering and fluffy, pink pastel and deep purple in hue.
The city’s fishing sector is particularly beautiful, where thick clouds swirl around the buildings and piers. It’s often difficult to tell where the buildings begin and end amidst all the clouds. The aesthetic impression is sublime.
The Picturesque plays a large role in Diadem’s appeal.
It’s otherworldly, and it relies heavily on natural elements like sky and cloud, but the human hand behind it all is still discernable.
Everything is just a bit too perfect to be natural. The clouds frame your views just right, revealing only glimpses of the ornate architecture beneath.
Baten Kaitos: Floating City
Malus, Shadow of the Colossus:
Half the challenge of ascending them is learning when to cling to their fur, and when to use to their stone armor to your advantage. The armor of the colossi is culled from architectural sources, evident in the many water tables and decorative platforms that make climbing them possible.
While practical for gameplay, these features also help to create a truly unique aesthetic, and add to the mystique of the colossi.
I’ll admit that I was tempted to lump all of the colossi in together for this entry. But in the interest of specificity, it’s best just to focus on the most building-like of all of them: Malus, the 16th and last.
As with the rest of the colossi, the actual battle with Malus is the culmination of a larger emotional experience.
Before the fight, there is the approach. First, there is the infamous scene at the collapsing bridge. Then, as you draw closer, the sky darkens, the wind picks up to a driving gale. Rain falls almost sideways, and lightning cracks frequently.
All throughout, one of the greatest tracks in gaming plays; a gothic piece that simultaneously embodies all the varied emotions that the game hits upon. The guilt, the sadness, the desperation, and the determination are all front-and-center.
Malus appears before you as you come up a staircase, towering above and hurling balls of energy that shake your screen.
You dive into underground passages to avoid them, but you can still hear the peal of his attacks above you, shaking loose dust off of the passage roof.
Reach Malus, and the ascent begins. Malus’ lower half resembles a sort of stepped, ziggurat-like structure, a fitting pairing with his deity-like countenance.
Black stone and jagged fencing both contribute to the colossi’s imposing appearance. The long climb to the top can take a while, especially if you fall.
It’s a rather trying experience, and it’s only the appetizer.
At such a height (fittingly, Malus is easily the tallest Colossus) these shakes completely overwhelm the player. You only catch flashes of ground and sky as you swing about.
It’s enough to understand the dire consequence of losing your tenuous grasp, but not enough to abate your disorientation.
Malus: Shadow of the Colossus
©2011 Nicholas Capozzoli
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