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From Backdrop to Spotlight: The Significance of Architecture in Video Game Design

From Backdrop to Spotlight: The Significance of Architecture in Video Game Design

We’ve asked our ArchDaily readers about which video game has impressed them most in terms of architectural visualization, and why. Hundreds of various answers later, it became evident that there isn’t one element that makes a video game stand out, but the virtually-built environment is almost always a key factor in how the game is experienced.

In video games, architecture plays a much bigger role than just being a backdrop of a virtual city or an authentic render of an existing one, it is, in fact, a fundamental component of transcending gamers into a virtual world that feels just as authentic as the real world does, but with extra adrenaline.

(WARNING: the videos and images featured in this article may potentially trigger seizures for people with photosensitive epilepsy)

© Thiago Klafke
© Thiago Klafke

When asked about the importance of architecture in video games, Thiago Klafke, senior environment artist at Blizzard Entertainment, shared his insights exclusively with ArchDaily:

TK: I believe the work of an environment artist is to temporarily transport the viewer to another reality. A well-constructed environment has the power to transmit very subtle things, such as emotions, feelings and sensations. That immersion can be accomplished by the artist expertly using a combination of techniques that are not very obvious to the untrained eye. Because in games, we are usually constructing fictitious worlds, we have total freedom to design our spaces in a way that amplifies the needs of the narrative. We can shift things around, design impossible buildings and materials, and composite the scenes in a way that doesn't necessarily make sense, but that conveys what we want to express. This is a fine line to walk. If you make spaces that look TOO crazy, the spell will be broken.

© Thiago Klafke
© Thiago Klafke

TK: For most times however, players pay more attention to the environment when they are looking for guidance on where to go next. Sometimes it could be a lone spotlight on a dark corner, other times it’s an imposing structure in the background. Nothing is more annoying in a game than not knowing where to go next! The other times a player really stops to focus on an environment is when they are taken by the beauty of the environment. For a second, all disbelief is suspended, and the player finds themselves immersed in another world, purely contemplating its beauty. This can happen to anyone who plays a great game for long enough, and for me, it’s always magical to watch when it happens to other people.

© Thiago Klafke
© Thiago Klafke

From a definitive standpoint, games are more or less architectural, since they are “built environments”. Similar to any architecture project, games are “constructed” and treated with material and textures. The added value, however, is not how accurate the city is or the HD quality of the graphics - although to be fair, they do elevate the gaming experience in phenomenal ways - it is in fact the story-telling: the journey and experience of going from point A to point B and interacting with the environment built by the designers. It is building momentum through one’s engagement with the gamified urban composition.

© You+Pea
© You+Pea

With today’s technologies and cutting edge software, designers are experimenting with representations and reformulating what we define as architecture. In gaming design, architecture is used to convey a certain mood or setting. According to ArchDaily’s back-end developer and former video game designer, Benjamin Cordero, virtual architecture comes from a mix between what is real, what could be real, and what is imaginary. There is a big difference between physical and virtual presence, and the problem lies in how to use architecture as a design experience that enhances this difference, and how to let it guide or inform the user without interrupting the experience itself. The aim is to immerse the player as much as possible by stimulating as many senses as possible and by doing so, reducing the gap between what someone may feel in real life, and how it feels in the virtual space.

Concept art for Assassin's Creed II. Image © Ubisoft Montreal
Concept art for Assassin's Creed II. Image © Ubisoft Montreal

How can architecture help game designers attain their intended mood and make individual spaces worthwhile?
One way to do so is to observe the typologies of cities (space, circulation, visual consideration, and physical comfort) and how people act in them. In abstraction, city typologies are positive and negative spaces - buildings being the positive elements and roads being the negative ones. Empty roads are just as important as buildings, especially if the designer is trying to convey a mood of “mystery” or “ambiguity”. Take for example a suburban scene in the Walking Dead or Assassin’s Creed: Renaissance; the designers want the players to feel a sense of uncertainty as to where they want to go next, so they give equal importance to the roads and urban layout, and let gamers explore. On the other hand, direction is also equally important, and so designers manipulate the circulation or add elements of intrigue through architecture. For example, designers would narrow down the roads’ width or add otherworldly details that spark interest, inviting players towards a specific direction.

Tokyo Drawing. Image © You+Pea
Tokyo Drawing. Image © You+Pea

In almost all video games, details are used to do environmental storytelling. Material characteristics such as weight, texture, and finishes all play a role in how gamers perceive spaces. If you want to have a sense of heaviness, you surround the player with “chunky” structures, if you want to make an element stand out and give it more value, you contrast it from its surroundings. This is where interior design comes into play (pun intended). Because designers are dealing with 3D compositions instead of 2D graphics, interior design principles help understand the space and how people circulate in it; order (orientation / spatial definition; arranging the elements so that the player understands where he is in the space), enrichment (complexity / manipulation of form; elevating the core idea of being inside the space), and expression (communication/narrative; the suggestion of the mood, story, or narrative towards the space) All of these principles must connect together to make the environment work.

© You+Pea
© You+Pea

Thiago Klafke: You don’t need a degree in architecture to be a 3D Environment Artist, but if you do, it is a huge advantage! With 3D, you have total freedom to create any kind of structures your mind can think of, without having to worry about gravity, material costs, labor, etc… You can quickly prototype ideas, walk around your spaces and demonstrate them to others. Combine that with VR, and the possibilities are endless! I really see this as a complementary skill for any architect. It will really unleash your imagination. If you want to get started in this world, there are many resources available on the internet, but it can be confusing if you don’t know where to start. Thinking about this, I created a tutorial, “ Make an Office Environment in Unreal 4”. I recorded my entire process, every single click, so anyone can follow along. I teach concepts such as modularity, lighting, and how to create convincing materials in Photoshop. I’m extending a 10% discount to all ArchDaily readers on this link: https://gumroad.com/l/McyDX/archdaily

Video games turned into explorative mediums for radical architects. Drawing inspiration from unrealised projects in the past, designers looked at how these projects used space in avant-garde ways, and exploited them in virtual reality projects. After having done some research on the role of architecture in games, Sandra Youkhana and Luke Caspar Pearson of You+Pea architectural design studio found that even the most realistic-looking game “reshapes reality around a very specific way of seeing and engaging with space, in a sense that they are very tightly programmed pieces of virtual architecture, even when they are trying to look naturalistic or non-architectural. The question of user agency, time, and the ‘way of being’ within a space is called into question very directly, we see games as a way of designing new worlds with playable systems that we might use to critique our physical cities and challenge their power structures”. The studio launched a one-year master’s program titled “Videogame Urbanism”, which uses gaming technologies to conceptualize and realize urban design projects.

© You+Pea
© You+Pea
Game World Overview. Image © You+Pea
Game World Overview. Image © You+Pea

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Cite: Dima Stouhi. "From Backdrop to Spotlight: The Significance of Architecture in Video Game Design" 29 Apr 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/938307/from-backdrop-to-spotlight-the-significance-of-architecture-in-video-game-design/> ISSN 0719-8884
Screenshot of Assassin's Creed . Image © Newgamenetwork

从幕后到台前:建筑在游戏设计中的意义

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