Space & Light & Order05 Dec 2015
I've felt for a long time that videogames have a great deal in common with architecture, a belief shared by a number of people far more educated on both subjects than I am. When it comes to game development, I like to think of myself as more of a carpenter than an architect, but it's nice to know that I'm in good company.
Early this year on Eurogamer, Cara Ellison drew a comparison between the ambiguity of interior/exterior space in Kentucky Route Zero: Act II and philosopher Gaston Bachelard's disdain for binary propositions in The Poetics of Space. Good architecture is experience-driven; it must satisfy the technical requirements of engineering and physics as invisibly as possible, so that the resulting structure appears to serve no other purpose than to fulfill the emotional needs of its inhabitants. It's a kind of problem-solving, in which the "problem" encompasses an entire way of life.
With this as the goal of architecture, the delineation of interior and exterior space becomes academic. It matters little whether we call something a "sunroom" or an "enclosed patio" when it's our lifestyle alone that determines its use.
Videogames used to be, and to an extent still are, rife with arbitrary distinctions. Granted, once upon a time there were sound technical reasons for some of them. When graphical horsepower was more limited, interior and exterior spaces needed their own rendering pipelines that didn't work well together and had to be kept separate - remember having to place zone portals all over your Unreal maps? Cinematic sequences rarely overlapped with the parts of a game you could actually play, because in-engine graphics were thought to be too low-detail to convey narrative ("Feh," says Kentucky Route Zero).
These days we're coming around to architecture's way of thinking, which means we're making more organic, less rigidly structured games, and I love that. It's nice to think of something like Proteus as our Roden Crater.
We're also learning to analyze games as complete artifacts, rather than combinations of discrete components. Things like "systems" and "content" are not so easily separated as we tend to assume. I love that too, because it's more in line with how we think about the rest of culture. A vast stretch of empty desert, for instance, can still shape a player's experience without an abundance of interactive systems.
One of the great joys of open-world games, for me, is when I arrive at a part of the world that exists purely for its own sake. When there are no objectives, no collectibles. Someone decided that place should be there, and dammit there it is. It's nice, in those moments, to have nothing to do but admire the view. That is still game design, just as the spaces between walls are still architecture.
It's also possible that the birth of our ass-backwards genre-policing "that's-not-a-real-game" lunatic fringe is an indication that we're meandering down the same difficult but transformative path through postmodernism that architecture took during the 20th century.
They called Philip Johnson's house "the desecration of the New Canaan countryside" in 1949. Our community's entrenched chorus of reactionary squares who think that progress will take away their favorite toys (it won't) may be more openly aggressive than their predecessors, but in another 65 years I suspect they'll be equally irrelevant.
To me, the beauty of architecture and game design is that they're both ambiguous mixtures of technical and aesthetic practices, with no strict divisions between them. Kentucky Route Zero, its warm countryside atmosphere punctuated by bureaucratic filing systems and televisions badly in need of repair, is a perfect little hologram of that relationship, and now I have to go and replay it again so thanks a lot.