Inthought – Seven – Memories of Midgar: Digital design and architecture – Jack Tasker

Over the last twenty years we’ve witnessed the rise of the video game from fringe realm of the geek, to mainstream entertainment. Its unstoppable growth has seen it become one of the dominant market sectors within the media world, allowing it to ride through current, turbulent economic times. A whole culture has risen around gaming, full of memes and memory. The stories of these games are poised to become the fables of future generations.

Game or building design? Associated Architects BIM work on BCU

Where does architecture fit into this?

Every story worth its salt takes place in an environment, from the fantasy worlds Middle Earth and Narnia, down to the grittiness of Rand’s Objectivist New York or Rankin’s Edinburgh. Naturally these environments are full of buildings.

In video games, buildings can be used to convey a sense of place. The ramshackle run down cities of Fallout and Half Life are there as a reminder that the world has been taken to the very edge of its limits, through nuclear and scientific intervention, whereas the towering castles of Zelda evoke the classical romanticism of Western fairy tales.

But are these buildings possible? And who’s designing them? I appreciate that this article is speaking to a specific crowd, but bear with me, we’re getting somewhere.

In the early to mid-nineties, when computer games began to shake off their bulky, 80’s cartridge image, one game set a precedence for setting, design and place, Final Fantasy VII. The game offered a huge world for the gamer to explore, filled with strange cities and characters. The architecture of this world was incredibly diverse.

Shinra HQ – Squaresoft CGI circa early nineties.

The most prominent image is the Shinra HQ, a heavy spear of metal standing ominous on the horizon, surrounded by eerie glowing generators, with huge feeder cables that span the length of the city. Logistically the building would be a complete nightmare. The exposed power cabling would be susceptible to constant weather damage and tampering from people. The generators, pumping huge amounts of sickly coloured energy into the sky, wouldn’t be vying for Breeam excellent status. However, this is the world of video game architecture where the rules don’t apply.

Ancient City – impossible architecture?

The City of the Ancients is another example of unrealistic but fantastically conceived architecture. The buildings and structures are all composed of a kind of hard wearing coral, a substance that seems easy enough to shape and control, yet so sturdy people have built homes from it. In the video game world designers can create structures and buildings from unrealistic materials, with properties that don’t exist. It’s a sandbox for developers.

Maybe some of the technical exercise building designs that get touted across the web, ones which never make it to brick, should be housed in the digital realm, where millions of people are able to explore and enjoy them. Perhaps, as the computer gaming industry expands we’ll find whole architectural practices dedicating themselves to the design and construction of buildings within games.

CGI of Associated Architect’s SPACE building in Worcester – a building that is in construction. But what happens to hypothetical designs? Could they end up as the digital playgrounds of tomorrow?

If a designer becomes unhappy with their building, all it takes is a quick tap of the keys and then the building can be completely re constructed, then released to the public via a patch, over riding the previous design. No huge construction costs and awkward tail between the leg moments, just simple redesign and adjustment. The only negative of this is that the quality control might become incredibly low. If designers know that a digital eraser is only ever an inch away, they might not take as much care getting it right the first time round.

Away from the world of fantasy and escapism is the world of realist designs. Games such as Assassin’s Creed and GTA rely on accurate depictions of the location to succeed. For AC it’s quite a tough one. How do you honestly depict the architecture of historical settings (Crusader’s Middle East, renaissance Italy or frontiers America) without falling onto turgid clichés? It takes research and study, which in turn involves historians and heritage workers, on top of the visualizers, designers and coders.

a painting of San Marc’s square by Canaletto. Do pictures like this influence digital design?

Accuracy in games, with a historical setting, is a funny one. How can we really know what is accurate, when the historians themselves are constantly having to readdress their prior theories on the architecture and building plans of older civilisations? It’s down to the discretion of the designer and their team, factors like time and money will of course affect the amount of hours spent on making a city accurate to how it probably looked eight hundred years ago.

In a way, games designers and architects are facing the same constraints, both are being pushed by trends and styles to create sleek, sexy and contemporary buildings. However, there’s a very short life span on something so achingly chic that it’s pretty much necking the zeitgeist.


Jack Tasker is marketing manager and writer at Associated Architects, he previously edited ITR10 for LJMU. His interests are the built-environment, music and writing, any point where these three meet is pure gold to him.

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