The following piece on video games and architecture appeared at the recent Now Play This festival of games at Somerset House, London. They’ve kindly allowed me to share it here. It’s partly abridged from a two hour talk I’ve been giving, which I’m keen to expand on in time, if any games publications are reading. Enjoy.
When the Map Invades the Territory.
The worlds within and outside video games have a symbiotic relationship even though it is often assumed that games developed in their own sealed environment. Nintendo was founded as a playing card manufacturer in 1889, in the weeks between Van Gogh finishing Starry Night and the Moulin Rouge opening. In the years before developing Periscope, Sega made jukeboxes. It was of some satisfaction to learn, having grown up blasting Nazis in the Wolfenstein series, that computers partly developed from code-breaking machines that helped defeat the Third Reich.
Architects and game designers have faced the same problem; how to recreate the three dimensional world in a two dimensional medium. They responded to the challenge in remarkably similar and interconnecting ways. Pacman eats his way essentially around a ghost-haunted floor-plan. So closely do the perspectives in games like Head Over Heels resemble the isometric projections of the Bauhaus and the Russian Constructivists that they make the likes of Herbert Bayer and El Lissitzky seem pioneers of computer games before there were even computers. It is of little surprise that generations of city-building games like SimCity have adopted this god’s eye view.
The development of games has been a process of increasingly mimicking the real world, in the hope of surpassing it. There is a problem however. Games are restrained by technical limitations. The flat-land perspective may have evolved into the isometric illusion of depth but it was still boxed in. As yet unable to offer a world in which the gamer could freely roam, designers ingeniously turned this disadvantage into an advantage. Again, they followed architectural examples. They transformed a prison of successive rooms and corridors into a labyrinth, and every labyrinth needs a minotaur. In 1981, the scientist Malcolm Evans designed a maze on his Sinclair ZX to test the power of the computer and was persuaded to turn it into a game. He did so by adding the unlikely presence of a pursuing Tyrannosaurus Rex. The result was 3D Monster Maze. The labyrinth model was fortuitous; it became known as the dungeon crawl, exploiting the considerable overlap between early gamers and Dungeons and Dragons roleplayers. It advanced again inspired by real life architecture; namely subterranean systems from Nazi bunkers in Wolfenstein 3D to scientific research facilities in the likes of Half-Life.
As hardware developed, games began to break through to the surface. In shoot-em ups like After Burner and Space Harrier, and later racers like Wipeout and F-Zero, the foreground cascades towards the viewer giving the illusion of travelling into the distance. The very motion of Star Fox was inspired by walking through the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. Since the backgrounds are never entirely reached or explored, game designers could indulge their artistic and prophetic sides, constructing all manner of futuristic cities. This was an old technique popular in Northern Renaissance painting where the likes of Bosch (Adoration of the Magi, 1485) and Jan van Eyck (Road to Calvary, 1530) smuggled architectural experiments and Ideal Cities into religious allegories. It was a method then employed in theatrical backdrops and into the age of cinema; the travellers in The Wizard of Oz dance their towards a perspective-trick painting of the Emerald City. It is, in essence, the tantalising Utopia on the horizon, powered by our own imaginations.
As the cities in games became more representative of real cities, they began to ask questions that architects and urban planners had long pondered. Space could be used to reflect and perhaps accelerate supposed moral decay. In a spate of beat-em ups beginning with Renegade, vigilantes would clean up the streets by beating petty hoodlums to a pulp, battles sustained by eating roast dinners lying on the pavement. Reflecting a gamut of puritanical thought, including zero tolerance, prohibition and the broken windows theory, these games were an implicit condemnation of decadent cities. Even the structure of these games originated in religious historiography and histrionics, echoing The Pilgrim’s Progress with its proto-end of level bosses and moral journey as much as the hierarchies of criminal gangs. With Streets of Rage rocket-launcher toting police or Final Fight’s ‘roid rage mayor, you have a genre satirising itself, intentionally or otherwise.
Architecture is, in part, an expression of authority; who has power and who has not. The oppressive use of space can come actively with zones of exclusion (demonstrated in stealth games like Metal Gear Solid) or passively as liminal areas (as shown in GoldenEye). The subversive aspects of urban exploration and parkour have informed games like Mirror’s Edge, where dissent and freedom is articulated by a reclaiming of forbidden space. Where there is power, as Foucault pointed out, there is resistance.
The future will be old and it will contain the wreckage of the present and the past. The most visionary games have embraced this from the retrofuture Russian architecture of Strider to the Hermann Finsterlin-echoing blobism of Balamb Garden in Final Fantasy, the Escher-inspired structures of Monument Valley to the expressionistic shadow puppetry of Limbo. Bloodborne absorbs memories of mist-shrouded Edinburgh and Prague; Dishonoured adds the spectral light of Victorian London. Anor Londo in Dark Souls was directly inspired by Milan Cathedral while the designers of Devil May Cry visited Gaudi’s buildings for inspiration. BioShock is an Ayn Rand-mocking Art Deco Atlantis. Its follow-up BioShock Infinite recalls World’s Fairs via Krutikov and Jonathan Swift’s flying cities. It is even tempting to see architects like Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright playing games with their grand plans (Radiant and Broadacre City respectively), suggesting that architecture has always had an aspect of the virtual. Amidst the young people playing Minecraft today are the architects of tomorrow.
“Everyone should be able to build” Friedensreich Hundertwasser has claimed “and as long as this freedom does not exist, the present-day planned architecture cannot be considered art.” With anticipated advances in augmented reality, 3D printing and nanotechnology, this gap may well be narrowing, just as it is between cyberspace and physical space. With technology catching up with our imaginations, we could well see impossibilities (the physics-defying spaces of Gravity Rush and Portal for example) become possible. This will create new perils and resistances as much as wonders. The question we must pose, is whether we will be the beneficiaries of change or the victims, the gamer controlling their own world or a character in someone else’s game?