The Inevitability Of Prophecy Among Models Of New York

[Image: From Prototype, courtesy of Activision].

[Note: This is a guest post by Jim Rossignol].

The parallels and disparities between videogames and movies are endlessly debated, but there’s one certainty: they both return, routinely, to the architecture of New York City. The most frequently filmed city in the world is also the most frequently modeled.

The canyons of New York are as useful for game designers as they are for film directors. If the decision is arbitrary, then New York represents a kind of go-to alpha city: the logical choice if you need a city at all. For film directors it’s a grand and familiar backdrop, and the same bold geometry is relatively straightforward for game technologies to render. The grid-like topology, an added bonus, is easy for gamers to understand and navigate, too.

Models of the city exist, at many different levels of fidelity, for many different gaming scenarios. From the crude polygonal outlines of early iterations of Microsoft Flight Sim, to the normal-mapped biomorphic horrors of last year’s ultraviolent brawler, Prototype, Manhattan’s skyline and the districts beyond are etched into virtuality, over and over. These models exist on countless DVDs and hard-discs across the world, in ten of thousands of memory-states within the architecture of game consoles and PCs that are modeling the city right now, in real time. It might be impossible to say how many different (or identical) instances of New York are stored, digitally, within the city itself. It seems likely that a model of New York sits just an arm-length away from every Xbox-inhabited TV stand in the greater metropolitan area.

[Image: From True Crime: New York City, courtesy of Activision].

There have been dozens of instances of New York remade for the escape-hatch sub-realities of gaming in studios around the world. In just the past decade we could name Alone In The Dark, True Crime, The Hulk, World In Conflict, Forza 2, Project Gotham, 50 Cent, Max Payne 1 & 2, Gran Turismo 3, and Def Jam Vendetta. This number spills into scores more across the previous decades, and it’s a figure which becomes hazier still when mods, expansions, analogues, and cancelled or lost projects are counted in the mix.

[Image: From Max Payne, courtesy of Rockstar Games].

This reliance on New York isn’t simply about providing a visually interesting backdrop, of course, because it has also provided some of the strongest connections to character. When the noir ultraviolence of Max Payne was moved to Sao Paulo for Max Payne 3, there was uproar. If you took Max out of the tenements of New York, was he really Max at all? What was the New York cop without his delirious nightmare of New York’s criminal innards? Similarly, when it was announced that Crysis 2 would be moving from its technologically impressive jungle-island home to the exploding streets of Manhattan, no one really thought to comment. Of course it would be set in New York. Indeed, if they really wanted to see/destroy it all, where else would the aliens want to go next?

[Image: From Crysis 2, courtesy of Electronic Arts].

Crysis 2‘s ash-hazed avenues are impeccably damaged, while surly pedestrians in any sandbox city are happy to pick a fight if you don’t look where you’re going. These models new look increasingly like New York City, and more often behave like it, too. As the complexity of games increases, it seems that we are speeding towards a completionist model of the city—one that whirs and hums and yells like the real thing. As the models made by game studios march toward reality, they march towards Manhattan.

Yet realism is not a goal that games should really be striving for. Leave that to the CAD programs and the satellite maps. Instead games should explore the aspects of Manhattan that make less sense, like its dreams, or the models of the city that represent it not as it is, but as we are able to explore it, thanks to the mutational potentials of digital simulation. Examine those aspects of the city and perhaps the issue becomes less about New York as a fabulous piece of set design, and more about New York as a vital raw material for the business of fantasy.

This is a relationship that has moved on from simply being a straightforward practical connection to something that is embroiled in deeper meaning. New York city has become gaming’s ideal and idealized urban environment, and it has done so by becoming refictionalized and reimagined. The finest example of a city yet given to gaming, that of Grand Theft Auto IV, isn’t really New York at all, and yet it is more like New York than ever before. It’s the essence of New York—a distillation that is only possible thanks to the unique way in which games are able to make the figurative and the abstract resonate with us even more profoundly than the infinite detail of the everyday.

[Image: From Grand Theft Auto IV, courtesy of Rockstar Games].

It’s worth noting that the superficial New Yorkness of other, real cities often counts in their favor when it comes to making movies. At the end of American Psycho, for instance, Toronto’s TD Centre convincingly stands in for the fictional Patrick Bateman’s office in the real-world Seagram Building—both buildings by Mies van der Rohe, but the latter is in Manhattan. The TD Centre thus becomes an architectural stunt double—or perhaps a sinewy body double helping the real New York look good. Not only that, but Pinewood Toronto Studios recently announced that they will be investing further in their home city to create lived-in, urban areas that look like residences in New York, Chicago and London—real districts of a city that are permanently and deliberately cast as a “living movie set.”

[Image: From Deus Ex, courtesy of Eidos Interactive].

Where games are concerned, New York, and the modeling thereof, is a primary conduit for things that cannot happen, or things that need to happen over and over in a slightly different way each time. Not just a conveniently located backdrop, but a thing that can be toyed with digitally, again and again, first by the game developers and then by the gamers themselves. Occasionally, even, the simulations might accidentally model things that have yet to happen. Conspiratorial cyber-fantasy Deus Ex was awash with its own ideas about the sinister possibilities of our politico-military techno-future, but what was the meaning behind the twin towers missing from its future skyline? A year before the towers were destroyed? The silent bells of paranoia began to ring.

In truth the skyline had been cheaply mirrored to reduce the game’s memory footprint, and the Twin Towers portion had simply been left out to make the game run more smoothly. It was nothing more than a technical conceit of the kind games are riddled with, one of the limiting factors of memory or processing that makes the computerized cities so much less than their real counterparts. But it was also a manifestation of something that became inevitable as New York was modeled over and over—as speculation mingled with outright fantasy—the inevitability that games could become a form of architectural prophecy.

• • •

Jim Rossignol is a games critic, blogger, occasional guest writer on BLDGBLOG, and author of the excellent This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities, published by the University of Michigan Press. He is @jimrossignol on Twitter.

Ghosts Of The Future: Borrowing Architecture From The Zone Of Alienation

[Image: From Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky].

[Note: This is a guest post by Jim Rossignol].

During the period in which 3D videogames began to use textures imported from photography, rather than hand-drawn pixel tiles, it became common to hear game developers discuss their photo references.

Drew Markham, director of Return To Castle Wolfenstein, spent the 2001 pre-release press tour for his game talking about the time he had spent in Europe, sourcing textures from “real” locations that had played host to the war. Crumbling French flagstones, Teutonic concretes, and other useful built surfaces: these details would add a certain level of authenticity that other games lacked. When the Wolfenstein sequel finally arrived, British gaming journalists were amused to see the ubiquitous British “H” fire hydrant signs scattered deep within the occult bunkers of Himmler’s SS Paranormal Division.

[Image: Photo by Jim Rossignol].

A few years later, another photo-reference tour was being cited for the gaming press, only this time it was not a cheery holiday in Europe, but a trip to the Zone Of Alienation. This 30km area of Ukraine and Belarus remains poisoned and largely off-limits to mankind, thanks to the radioactive caesium that dusted it after the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986.

While it has remained quarantined and closed to (legal) habitation, it hasn’t kept out sight-seers. The production team at GSC Gameworld, a games studio based in nearby Kiev, intended to use the derelict zone as the basis for environments in their action shooter, STALKER: Shadow Of Chernobyl. The team went into the zone and photographed urban dereliction: a snapshot of an abandoned Soviet Union. They would go on to fill their game world with the zone’s rusting fences and collapsing grain silos, but that was not all that came with the material: the landscape and its decaying architecture was already charged with mythology—with narrative.

Creative director Anton Bolshakov explained this in an interview in 2007: “The Soviet system was sealed, many facts were kept secret. Even the most harmless objectives or events generated unbelievable rumours and legends.” One example, he says, is

an existing gigantic antenna located within the Chernobyl exclusion zone. On some of our photos taken during the trip to Chernobyl the body of the antenna is seen on the horizon spanning several hundred meters across. So some unofficial sources claim, the waves emitted by the antenna were psychoactive. The antenna was directed onto Western Europe and preoccupied with a long-lasting military experiment on psychotropic influence onto human psyche.

[Images: The “steel giant” near Chernobyl; all photos via English Russia].

The antenna wall—actually an early-warning radar system developed for Cold War defense, which has been preserved thanks to being inside the zone—made it into the game as “the brain scorcher,” a device that must be shut down before the player can progress into the abandoned city of Pripyat. The environment of Chernobyl not only provided the game with an authentic atmosphere, it was also to influence the events that players could experience.

[Image: The “brain scorcher,” via Jim Rossignol].

However, the zone as an idea already existed before the explosion in 1986. It appeared, for instance, in a 1972 science fiction novel called Roadside Picnic. A mysterious, contaminated pocket of landscape, quarantined from the outside world, was the main theme of that book, which was written by two brothers, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.

In the Strugatsky’s book, an alien visitation to the earth—an extra-terrestrial “roadside picnic”—has left dangerous and incomprehensible materials strewn across a zone of Northern Canada. Although sealed off for scientific research, this zone is raided by “Stalkers” who sell the unnatural trinkets for black-market cash. To do so, they brave bizarre dangers, because the zone has been transformed into a place that is utterly at odds with our own world. The alien is never seen or even described, and all the characters encounter is its terrible remainder: landscape made alien. Pools of jelly that will cripple a man lurk in basements, extra-terrestrial cobwebs that can stop a heart beating are strung across doorways, and gravitational mantraps will crush anyone who passes over the wrong patch of mud.

The zone of Roadside Picnic was seen by many as an allegory for the entire Soviet experiment: not simply in the literal sense of the poisoned landscapes created by the industrial excesses of the region, but the entire social order that was created by the Communist government. Polluted expanses, continually washed by acid rain, became shorthand for describing the bizarre political situation of a country in which Communism had failed, and yet robotically continued.

Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky shot a movie, called Stalker, which told a story based on that of Roadside Picnic. A glacially slow, almost event-free film about landscape and longing, it’s a work that lingers for long minutes over broken wastelands of abandoned industry. It encapsulates Tarkovsky’s style, as well as his interest in dereliction and decay—themes that would be revisited by the STALKER videogame, thirty years on.

[Image: From Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky].

Tarkovsky’s film manages to imbue derelict industrial landscapes with a terrible sense of threat. Largely unable to realize the alien properties of artifacts in Roadside Picnic, Tarkovsky projected the danger into the architecture itself. Passive landscapes that could swallow a man. Tunnels which tear them to shreds. These effects were never demonstrated, but also never doubted, thanks to the tentative way the actors explored their surroundings.

In much the same way that the images of the real Chernobyl zone seem like lush vegetative scenes, despite being formidably radioactive, so Tarkovsky’s zone is calm and invisibly dangerous.

Cinematic legend had it that the power station shown in the final background scenes of the film was in fact Chernobyl NPP, although the truth is the entire film was shot in Estonia. That’s not to say that Stalker was without poisonous consequences of its own, however. The first version of the movie was shot entirely on corrupted film, which was unsalvageable when Tarkovsky’s production team returned to their Russian studios. Worse, the second shooting took place down stream from a poorly regulated chemical works. The effluent from the plant was responsible for many of the astonishing visuals in the river scenes from the movie, but team members came to suffer serious side-effects from this exposure, including cancer. They had, it seems, suffered side-effects from their time in the zone: just like the fate of the fictional Stalkers in the Strugatsky books. It was as if the fiction and reality were blurring back through each other. As if—to quote Alan Moore—the written page was too fragile a boundary.

Or perhaps, as Steven Shaviro suggests in his book Connected, Roadside Picnic, like all science fiction, actually exists to cast a shadow over the present. “It shows us how profoundly haunted we are by what has not yet happened,” says Shaviro of science fiction writing. In the specific case of Roadside Picnic and Tarkovsky’s film, what had not happened yet was the Chernobyl disaster.

After 1986, however, there were others for whom the ideas of Roadside Picnic were to be immediately accessible and useful in describing the world that they faced. People going into the Chernobyl exclusion zone, to loot buildings or show tourists around, began to call themselves “Stalkers.” For them, the zone of the Strugatsky’s vision was immediate and first-hand, a kind of fictional reference for the reality they were facing. They were living it—and it was strangely convenient to have the Stalker nomenclature to hand.

[Images: STALKER game images from this very extensive Flickr set].

As for Bolshakov and his creative team, borrowing from both the Strugatskys and the real world has proven fruitful. Real world ruins seem to connect with players far more readily than their fantasy counterparts. No one has been able to come away from STALKER without talking about the architectural waste that GSC borrowed from the zone. The game has now reached three iterations and supports an energetic fan community.

Bolshakov suggests that there is more to this than simply commerce or escapism, however: “The motif behind STALKER was to create a game which would remind people of the Chernobyl accident and at the same time warn mankind against any possible fatal mistakes in the future.” The warning seems likely to go unheard, but perhaps it has another message: to tell game developers that the architecture of the real world comes prefixed with meaning. Even now, when cities can be raised procedurally from the blank canvas of a game engine, perhaps it’s worth taking a look at the real world and the mythology that has been strewn around it. If borrowing architecture from the zone proves anything, it’s that simulation should not exist in a vacuum.

• • •

Jim Rossignol is a games critic, blogger, occasional guest writer on BLDGBLOG, and author of the excellent This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities, published by the University of Michigan Press. He is @jimrossignol on Twitter.

Procedural Destruction and the Algorithmic Fiction of the City

[Image: From Procedural Modeling of Cities by Yoav Parish and Pascal Müller].

Note: This is a guest post by Jim Rossignol.

In 2001 Yoav Parish and Pascal Müller spoke at the SIGGRAPH conference in Los Angeles, California, to present a mathematical city. Their presentation contained an algorithmic approach for modeling city-like topologies. The results were remarkably realistic, and were one among a host of city-like generative systems to appear at the start of the decade.

Another, Jared Tarbell’s Substrate (pictured) remains a fantastic example of how a mathematical approach to generating apparently urban patterns can also be artful.

[Image: From Jared Tarbell’s Substrate].

But it was looking at the work of Parish and Müller that inspired game designer Chris Delay to develop his most recent project: the cryptic (and as-yet-unexplained) Subversion, of which little is known, other than it relies on large, procedurally generated cities for the backbone of its game world.

Having already been burned by the problems of creating content “by hand,” Delay set out to let algorithms do the work of building buildings in his new game. Not only that, but he was determined to create an artistically interesting experience without artists.

[Images: From Chris Delay’s Subversion].

Of course, videogames have long been the home of procedurally generated landscapes where numbers and mathematical equations played the role of the visual designer. Early paranoid classic The Sentinel made use of these techniques to create an astonishingly atmospheric 10,000 levels in simple vector graphics, from just a few kilobytes of data. Other games have used similar techniques as a shortcut to creating solar systems and vast fractal landscapes.

But when it came to cities, well, it took a long time for anyone to take up the challenge.

[Image: From The Sentinel by Geoff Crammond].

Rather than opt for procedural techniques, game designers usually elect to build their cities by hand, often with startling results. The re-imagined contemporary New York that features in last year’s Grand Theft Auto 4 required a small army of well-paid artists and designers to hand-craft the entire world. Their accomplishment is unmatched, but the cost to the company behind the project is in the tens—and perhaps hundreds—of millions of dollars. To build up a living city from blank polygons is one of the most expensive possible projects in game design.

Delay, whose project is being undertaken with a tiny budget and by just a handful of staff based in Cambridge, UK, does not have the luxury of vast content teams. His vector-drawn city is far less realistic than Rockstar‘s textured, heaving metropolis, but there’s nevertheless a beauty to it. It’s a kind of mathematical map of the essential urban environment: there are roads, sidewalks, and a no-man’s land of corporate moats around great skyscrapers…

Identify the key equation that define urban patterns, and you, too, can summon a city into existence.

Delay has begun to show off how his cities emerge from the ground up in a series of videos, and he spoke to me about the process.

“I started out with road layouts, and then began to modify the parameters,” he explained. “Sometimes you’ll get lovely radial, spiral patterns, or you can tell it to create a really rigid Manhattan-style grid.” One set of numbers delivers the block logic of American cities, another is rather more like the spirals of Medieval European sprawls. The two merge to create something even more believable. “Every subsequent layer builds on the previous layer,” Delay points out, “so the very next layer looks for the spaces between layers, and makes judgments about ‘is this likely to be a skyscraper, or to be a house?’ Then you zoom in, and carry on. You do another procedural generation process for each layer of detail, filling in that world.”

[Image: From Chris Delay’s Subversion].

A few weeks after speaking with Delay I attended Thrilling Wonder Stories—a seminar at the Architectural Association in London, curated by Liam Young and BLDGBLOG—where I watched conceptual designer Viktor Antonov explain how he had created a science-fictionalized Paris (for a now-cancelled videogame called The Crossing).

Antonov approached the problem by altering just a few parameters in the standard architectural model. For instance, Antonov had noticed a few fundamental details about how the mid-nineteenth century neo-classical core of Paris had been constructed: big street-level floors, smaller attic spaces, complex chimney stacks. By increasing the emphasis on the lower floors, and stretching them out—and by emphasizing the height and complexity of the chimneys—Antonov was able to create a thematically consistent science fiction Paris.

Simply by altering a few basic architectural parameters, he said, you were able to fictionalize the city, whilst at the same time retaining its fundamental identity. His designs were still recognizably—even mathematically—Parisian, in other words, but they were also otherworldly.

[Image: By Viktor Antonov].

This idea instantly connected back to Delay’s project: what parameters would we need in order both to understand and create a science fiction Edinburgh, or Sao Paulo, or Vancouver? Identify the necessary fantasy logic within a procedural city-building system and you could recreate cities with their alternate identity in an instant. An accelerated future Moscow, or a retropunk Venice, instantly sprawling out of the monitor.

And perhaps this is not such an outlandish thing to aim for—especially when you consider the speed at which procedural city projects have been appearing across the tech landscape. Could one of these cities potentially be refitted to allow for this type of radical tweak?

Projects like Shamus Young’s impressive PixelCity, or Marco Corbetta‘s Structure seem ripe for such strange fictions. Corbetta’s system is particularly impressive in its verisimilitude: he aims to create a basic engine for rapidly generating the kinds of cities that games like Grand Theft Auto 4 require, and consequently doing so for much cheaper.

Could Corbetta’s engine come with a Paris or a Barcelona preload, which could then be put through Photoshop-style filters for alternate reality logic in its architecture? A stronger skyline, weirder street furniture.

[Image: From Marco Corbetta’s Structure].

More exciting, at least for the thrill-seeking gamer in me, is the fact that Corbetta is aiming one notch higher than any of his peers: he’s aiming to make these cities procedurally destructible. His site contains a demonstration video of neatly arrange office interiors and a domestic library being blown to pieces with a machine-gun. What good is an imaginary city if you can’t go inside the buildings? What good is a virtual downtown if you can’t go crazy with a bazooka? Corbetta’s work preempts these questions.

Further, it conjures visions of massive demolition exercises in parallel worlds—entering an Antonov-algorithm for neo-Rome, where gladiatorial escapades see us going through the walls of the coliseum and into the randomly generated plazas beyond.

That, perhaps, is the greatest promise of procedural cities: that soon they’ll be real enough that their destruction will seem like tragedy.

[Jim Rossignol is a games critic for Offworld, an editor at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and the author of the fantastic This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities. A full-length interview with Rossignol appeared on BLDGBLOG in May, and he has written a previous guest post, Evil Lair: On the Architecture of the Enemy in Videogame Worlds].

This Gaming Life: An Interview with Jim Rossignol

[Image: Jim Rossignol’s This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities].

Jim Rossignol is a games critic, blogger, and the author of This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities, published by the University of Michigan Press. Rossignol’s book is “a wonderfully literate look at gaming cultures,” according to The New Yorker‘s John Seabrook; Chris Baker of Wired magazine says that “we need more writers like Jim Rossignol,” writers who can intelligently explore “the deeper significance of games.”
My own familiarity with Rossignol’s work came through blogging: we first crossed paths online a few years ago; I read his book; we managed to meet up at the Barbican last winter; and we soon decided to have a much longer conversation about our mutual interests and books.
The following interview is an edited transcript of that discussion, focusing on Rossignol’s book, but also covering my own interests in gaming and architecture, Rossignol’s travels to Seoul and Reykjavik for games research, the plug-in avant-gardism of Archigram and others, the psychological effect of historic preservation in the UK, and the rewards of speculative thinking in the design of both physical and virtual worlds.
I’ve often wondered, for instance, how the process of playing a game might compare to the experience of using a building, and if these must necessarily be different ways of engaging with another person’s created space. Further, if the same software packages and other digital effects can be used to design a building and a new videogame, might this imply that there are deeper structural similarities between games and architecture—or is this merely a sharing of aesthetics and tools?
Such a conversation could go in any number of directions, of course; this interview merely helps kick things off.
Rossignol and I spoke by phone.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: First, what was the origin of your book?
Jim Rossignol: This Gaming Life came out of an essay I wrote about the Korean gaming scene, which is fairly unusual for gaming cultures around the world. There was a series of circumstances in Korea that led to something quite strange in the way Koreans approach gaming—via massive social gaming through internet cafes, but particularly their E-Sports, which focus on professional players playing games like Starcraft. I went out and looked at that for PC GAMER magazine—which, at the time, was doing very progressive games journalism. So I wrote a piece on that and it was very popular, and people became interested in the cultural angle of gaming. The University of Michigan, which does a collection of technology writing each year, put that into their 2007 anthology. Afterwards, UMICH came back to me and asked if there was any similar material that I had written, and we eventually decided it would be a good idea to sit down and put together a longer work—and that’s what became This Gaming Life.
I actually found it very difficult initially to come up with a cogent theme for the book! It developed quite a lot along the way, particularly in its focus on three cities. The structure of the book is broken up between London, Seoul, and Reykjavik, the London part being the most autobiographical. It’s me explaining my particular angle on gaming; moving into Seoul to talk about gaming cultures worldwide, particularly the differences between the west and Korea. Then the third section is Reykjavik, which I suppose is more personal once again, because it’s expressing some ideas and angles on a particular game—EVE Online, which was developed in Reykjavik by a company called CCP. I think there are some very interesting lessons and ideas in that game model. EVE, being a massively multi-player game, is never a static, fixed thing, as games have been in the past, and I think it points to the way games are going to work more as social systems, involving both the gamers and the developers. It creates a sort of symbiotic process where the developers are developing for and reacting to the way that gamers are using and doing the game. That stuff fascinates me.
[Image: A scene from EVE Online, taken from Robin Burkinshaw‘s massive EVE Online Flickr set].

BLDGBLOG: Your section about Seoul almost seems to imply that there’s less of a cultural difference between the gaming cultures of London and Seoul, and more of a recreational drug difference. What I mean is that everybody goes out drinking in London—it’s a social culture built very much around alcohol—but, when you go out in Korea, it sounds more like an all-night caffeine binge. That creates a very different urban and social reality.
Rossignol: I may be wrong in my impression of Seoul, of course! But wandering round the city myself, I didn’t tend to stumble across many bars—whereas it’s impossible not to stumble across a bar in any British town. There’s a lot of social eating, as well, in Seoul. It’s hard to really gauge how dominant gaming is there, and how much this is a factor of caffeine consumption; but, on the surface, the gaming is very obvious. It’s well-promoted and it takes place in public.
I was thinking the other night, though, about what prohibition would do to England. The disabling aspect of alcohol certainly changes motor tasks—but gaming does appear in bar culture here. There’s darts and pool, and so on. And there are slot machines, which are sort of prototypical video games. Gaming itself is so ubiquitous in British culture that you perhaps don’t even notice all the aspects of it and where they appear.
BLDGBLOG: In that sense, you suggest, gaming pops up everywhere. There’s a lot of stigmatism around the idea that you might sit at home alone playing a computer game—or blogging—or that you might go out to an internet café and play a game with your friends, as if there’s something socially wrong with you; but if you go down to the pub for a game of pool, that’s the height of sociability. That’s the right kind of gaming. So only specific types of games are stigmatized, and only specific types of play have been rewarded.
Rossignol: I wonder whether there will be a massive generational shift over the next 40 years, so that electronic gaming will just be everywhere. People will be so familiar with it. Kids who are growing up now are so used to the idea of a digital interface that they will expect to find one everywhere. When I was in Vegas a few years ago, I sat at a bar and there was a little betting machine panel in the bar top—a touch-screen betting system. But I was thinking: I would have happily sat at that bar longer if it had been a touch-screen Tetris.
BLDGBLOG: I can easily see games being embedded in different social environments—even instead of hold music, when you call the bank, you get a short text game.
Rossignol: Or a sound-based game. There are apparently a number of games which are based just on sound response, for blind people—sound-structure games. There’s no reason you couldn’t play a pure audio game while you’re just holding on the phone, by responding to sound cues.
BLDGBLOG: Something else you mention in the book, and that has been getting more and more attention in popular media, is the idea that games aren’t just a frivolous way to waste time; they’re almost a form of job training. You can learn to be a better brain surgeon and so on. Do you think games are a kind of pedagogical device like that, or even an emerging neurological frontier?
Rossignol: The U.S. military did, I think, say gamers were ideal helicopter pilots, due to the spatial awareness and coordination required. But games have other roles: like that Tactical Iraqi thing—that was actually a role-playing game: you go into a village, and you have a bunch of text trees, and you explore how you should approach the situation, and how you should talk to the locals. I thought that was interesting because the immediate thought is always the helicopter fighter-pilot angle—the classic “games make you have better reactions” angle—but games as social teaching devices I think is quite interesting. Perhaps crucial, from a military angle.
One of the things about games journalism, though, is that it’s dominated by business, and by products and product marketing, so a lot of the writing is preview/review cycle stuff. The other end of the scale is very academic material that tends to be theory-based. But there’s not a lot of practical study of the fundamentals of gaming, which I find very interesting.
It’s also one of those areas where I almost don’t want to make too much comment, because I feel like all I really want to say is, “For God’s sake, scientists! Spend some time with the subject and really use your methodology to see how people react to games. Do that kind of deep research that’s been done on so many other subjects.” It increasingly comes up. Just the other week there was an article called “Your Brain on Games,” where researchers had used an MRI scanner to look at someone’s brain while they were gaming, and talked about the effects and so on—but that still seems like a trivial treatment of the subject.
I think the University of Rochester in NY is doing some research on this, and I hope they continue to. One of the things they’re looking at is, as you were saying, the effect on the brain long-term. Which is a completely new frontier for neuroscience research. What they have shown is that visual processing is increased—so that gamers are much better at figuring out what’s happening in a particularly busy visual field—and it’s a very quick change, as well. People only have to play games for a few hours to see a distinct difference. What I think is interesting about that is that we don’t yet have any real handle on what’s going to happen to an entire generation of people who have spent years and years increasing their visual processing. Will we have this sort of super-visual human whose abilities to pick things out and understand things on a visual basis are going to be massively accelerated beyond what we’ve had in the past? I can’t even really see what sort of ramifications that would have—other than that we might be short-sighted as well, from being sat looking at the screen for so long. [laughs]
I read in a recent story about texting—I think it was in New Scientist—that texting actually improves your general literacy. That was the headline. I think the actual content of the article was that people who were more literate were better at texting, and better at reducing words down to a shorter form. There are graphical forms finding their way into text—obviously, the smileys and emoticons—and people have started doing other ones, like an o with a slash—a little man waving hello—and stuff like that. That kind of pictorial thing—this truncation that you’re getting from text-speak—is rapid visual processing.
BLDGBLOG: That reminds me of something else about your book—it has no images. However, I think that actually helps to demonstrate what your book is talking about—which is that you can have a literate, intelligent, and articulate approach to gaming, and it doesn’t require pyrotechnic visuals for people to be interested.
Rossignol: Yeah, we quickly dismissed the idea of using pictures at all. I wanted to make it pure text, which I’m quite pleased with. Even if we’d had color plates, I think that would have distracted from the themes I was talking about. I think a lot of the material isn’t easily illustratable—you can’t really illustrate interactions or game development, or indeed a lot of the cultural or theoretical stuff I was going to talk about. Having a picture of Mario would have been redundant.
Something I wanted to ask you about was how being speculative seems to be rewarded in architecture writing—which is almost the opposite condition that we have with games. Critics and writers are heavily dissuaded from being speculative when talking about games, and I think this is because there’s a tendency for gamers to be backseat designers. There’s a strong tendency for people to dismiss journalists who write speculatively about games or who talk about games’ futures or the possibilities of game design the way that you do with architecture. I wonder if that’s different with architecture because there are so few backseat architects, so to speak.
[Image: From Pixel City by Shamus Young].

BLDGBLOG: That’s interesting. I’d say that one of the ways that blogging is doing this—leading to more speculation in today’s architecture writing—is that blogging has tapped into a massive class of unprofessional writers who, nonetheless, have strong opinions about the built environment. After all, they’re surrounded by it at all times. It’s not just Harvard graduates now who have the microphone, so to speak; even some kid in the suburbs—playing videogames—can offer an opinion about architecture, and it almost definitely will not involve references to Mies van der Rohe. It will be about shopping malls, or the suburbs themselves, or the ruined cities you see in movies like Terminator Salvation. It will be about the architecture of videogame worlds.
In any case, I think as people start to realize that they can have an opinion about architecture, in the same way that they can have an opinion about the food they order in a restaurant, or an opinion about a book they’ve just read, then they will also realize that they can ask questions about the buildings they see all around them. You know: why am I surrounded by buildings that look like this? Or: why on earth is there a road in the middle of that children’s park downtown? Or why can’t the world look like this—or this, or this? Very soon, you start speculating about how the world could really be.
But I’d also say that one of the reasons this is the case—why I can speculate freely about a Rem Koolhaas building, or about the future of London in an era of rising sea levels—is that there’s almost no risk that someone is going to take my ideas and realize them in built form. No one’s going to build an alternative version of London, with 80-foot seawalls, because they read about it on BLDGBLOG! But if I outline an amazing idea for a new videogame, then there’s every chance in the world that someone might take that idea and run with it.
I think I even saw something like this on Warren Ellis’s blog, where he says that, if you email him, don’t mention any new ideas for future stories or comics—because, at least in my interpretation of that, if he then puts that idea into a comic strip five years later, he’s probably going to be sued. It’s unlikely, on the other hand, that Zaha Hadid will read on my blog about some great new room she should design someday—and then actually go and add that exact thing to a new museum of hers in Potsdam.

In other words, there’s quite a large barrier to entry to becoming an architect. The idea that I would actually build the next Olympic Stadium is absurd, whereas—and I don’t mean to make it sound easier than it is—I think I could presumably become a games designer much faster than I could design the next Los Angeles airport. You’re less of a competitor as an architecture critic than you would be as a video game critic.
Rossignol: At the last game developers conference in San Francisco, one of my colleagues said to me that perhaps what was most interesting were all the ideas that were walking around inside the heads of the developers—the ideas that they wouldn’t talk about, or stuff they kept secret because it was too good and too commercially important for their companies. It did make me wonder whether the fact that games are so commercial stunts their futurology—after all, if game developers were given free rein to be pure creatives, I think there would be a massive exchange of ideas. This kind of accelerated avalanche of development could come out of there being no limits on sharing ideas. It makes it very difficult for game designers to get the ideas they need to make games better—because they’re going to be protected, or hidden, or otherwise held back by commercial concern.
BLDGBLOG: In a way, though, this brings us back to EVE Online—to the idea that there is a feedback loop between the players and developers. You do seem to be able to influence the future structure of a game, and it’s precisely through playing it in a certain way or demonstrating a certain behavior. That sort of thing doesn’t happen very often in architecture—it’s way too expensive to redesign buildings every two years based on how people have actually been using the space.

Or—actually, here’s a random example. When I lived in London seven or eight years ago, I worked at Norman Foster’s office in Battersea. I’m not an architect; I was just an admin person. One day, though, my task was to go through this huge cupboard full of old VHS tapes, many of which were unlabeled. I actually had to put them into the VCR, watch them for a few minutes, take notes, and figure out what they were—then label them and stick them back in the cupboard, in an organized way, based on chronology.
At one point, I found a bunch of tapes that were nothing but surveillance footage taken inside Wembley Stadium. It was unlabeled, black and white footage of people milling about outside the bathrooms, near the ticket gate, and so on—and my initial thought was actually that some sort of crime must have taken place. There had been a stabbing, or a riot—and, I thought, maybe even someone here at Foster & Partners had been involved. That’s why we had the tapes. Then again, that’s how it always is with surveillance tapes: you’re always waiting for something to happen on them. All CCTV footage of road traffic, for instance, looks like CCTV footage taken right before an accident.
In any case, nothing happened: there was no crime. What those tapes were actually used for was a kind of spatial research project: the office had pulled a bunch of surveillance tapes from the stadium so that they could watch how people actually used the space: where they congregated, what needed to be better designed, how things really, on a social level, worked. They could then figure out how to design the next Wembley Stadium.
My point is that that was an example of user-research coming to influence the spatial future of a building project—but it’s very rare, I think. Most people just design buildings based on whether or not it fits into their own stylistic development, regardless of whether anyone else will like what results. They just put up a new building—and you have to adapt to it, not the other way around.
Having said all that, I’m wondering if you could talk about how, in the specific case of EVE Online, the players’ interaction with the game affects how that game might be developed in the future.
[Images: Scenes from EVE Online, taken from Robin Burkinshaw‘s EVE Online Flickr set].

Rossignol: The thing about EVE, which is distinct from other online games, is that it’s a single galaxy—a single space. Most games aren’t like that. Even massively multiplayer games, like World of Warcraft, are broken up into “shards”—so that, if you’re playing Warcraft, you’ll be on a shard with maybe two or three thousand other people. In EVE, everyone is in the same galaxy together. It’s never been switched off or restarted, although there’s a brief downtime everyday, so there’s been this continuous etching-in of detail since the game was first launched.
To create the actual structure of the galaxy, they used some crystal-forming algorithms—the maths that explain how crystals grow—and then a bunch of random generation to architect the solar systems (which creates some weird anomalies in places). It’s the system that they’ve laid down on top of that, and the detail that’s gone in subsequently, that often reflects how the players started using the world itself.
The two best examples of this occurred quite early on. One was this phenomenon called “can mining.” It may even have been in the beta version, but certainly in the early weeks of the game, when players realized that the asteroid belts could be mined for resources, and that that was the best way of making money. That’s no longer true, but it was true when it started. The logistical problem of getting minerals back to the space station hadn’t really been considered. There was no model for it, although there were these industrial hauler ships that could take large amounts.
What players realized early on is that they could eject a cargo container from their ship, a container which had vastly more cargo space than a mining ship, and they developed this process where they would mine into their own cargo hold and then move the minerals over to a canister; the industrial ships would hurry back and forth over to the can to take minerals back to the space station, where they could then be used to build stuff. I don’t think that CCP initially thought that their economic system would definitely work from the ground up like that, or that they would have people wanting to put together the most basic resources in the game; but once players discovered this cargo canister loophole, mining became very important to them. Subsequently there’s a huge section of the game, and the updates that followed, just based around mining. That perhaps goes counter to the designers’ expectations, because designers come in looking at gamers wanting to shoot things, wanting to blow things up, wanting to do combat and exciting stuff like that.
Another, bigger, example is the alliance system. Quite early on in the game, CCP introduced the alliance management systems. They expected players to band together in alliances to fight each other, but they didn’t quite know how it was going to work. They wanted players to be able to capture space, and very early on, pretty much from day one, players banded together in these sort of feudal tribes to do that. Initially it was done purely by the players saying, “Right, anyone in this corporation or in this small group of corporations which are all friendly with each other can use this space. Anyone else that comes in, we’ll just blow them up.” CCP waited to see what tools players would need to make this work before they implemented them.
But this created a kind of “piled up” evolution of game structures. The Something Awful GoonSwarm war against Band of Brothers—those are the two main alliances within the game as it is now—demonstrated how CCP had laid down layer after layer of game functionality in a sort of house of cards manner. They pulled down one part of that and the system collapsed drastically. Vital defensive systems were based on the alliance tools—not in any logical way, just in a kind of design legacy way—so when a Goon Swarm defector shut down the Band Of Brothers alliance, many of their entrenched defensive systems shut down, too. It handed the keys to the fortress over to the enemy—and it was a loophole created by the evolving design of this single galaxy.
That kind of ongoing development is pretty much unique to EVE. It’s come about because CCP’s philosophy is essentially that the game needs to be purely about human interaction. There is non-player interaction in the game, and there are non-player ships that populate various areas—and you can go blow them up, and you can do missions against them and so on. But the crucial step for CCP has been the idea that what fuels the game is interactions by players with each other, and that interaction is either through combat or through trade.
The economics of it are really interesting. I’ve had people say, “I can just stay in my space station and trade, or just play on the stock market, and not really interact with any other players”—but, of course, when it’s a purely player-based in economy, when players are mining to get the minerals that produce the materials that are sold in the market, any economic interaction is still interaction with other people. That in itself is unique within EVE. There are elements of it within lots of other games—Second Life, for example—but I think EVE’s game-like structure is what makes it so interesting.
Although it might not always be to its advantage: I’ve recently written an article about whether this dependence on interaction could actually be the downfall of EVE, because there is always the danger that the game will run into an evolutionary dead end—that the way the players behave within the systems that these people have created simply won’t continue functioning. A lot of people are speculating now, after this recent Band of Brothers/GoonSwarm conflict, that the big game—the alliance game—will be over, because everyone will be essentially allied with each other, and there won’t be enough war to make it worth playing. This would bring the whole game grinding to a halt, because once there isn’t any war and there aren’t any losses, then there’s no reason for a massive economy to turn out spaceships to get destroyed.
BLDGBLOG: It’s funny, though: listening to that as an outsider, or as a non-player, it sounds a lot like the end of the Cold War, when people like Francis Fukuyama were predicting that we were now at the “end of history.” If there was no more USSR vs. the USA—if there was no more good vs. evil—then everything would come to a halt and we could all go shopping. That would be the end of history. But, as we’ve seen, all it takes is these much smaller minor conflicts, and maybe one or two ambitious groups, like an Al-Qaeda—or, for that matter, an internal economic collapse—to step on stage and kick-start the engines of history again. If part of EVE is watching for these emergent, unexpected, angular behaviors, then there’s no telling what might happen next.
Rossignol: Absolutely.
BLDGBLOG: To go back to can mining briefly: your description made me wonder whether you might ever be playing a game that requires a certain behavior to win, but that behavior has absolutely no interest for you. It’s boring. But what if that game is Chinese, say, and the winning behavior for that game is something highly valued in Chinese culture—even though it leaves you basically wondering when the shooting begins. It’s incomprehensible that someone would actually want to do this. So it’s a kind of anthropological exchange through the embedded goals of gaming.
Rossignol: There is an element of that. Korean MMOs are seen as what’s called “grind-heavy,” in that they tend just to be about killing 50 floating eyeballs—and then you go off and kill 200 more, and then you move on to bats, or evil horses or something. It’s deeply repetitious, and there’s very little story. Some Korean MMOs—I think RF Online and ArchLord are probably the best examples—have stumped Western audiences, who have said, “Why are they so grind-heavy? Why are they so repetitious?”
I think there’s just a different philosophy for Korean developers. They want to create those games because they know that the players will spend time doing that. The high-end castle sieges and stuff have been invested in very heavily, long-term, by Korean players—it comes out of what Lineage did: huge castle sieges where you’d get hundreds of people, all fighting. I wonder whether that’s born out of their different gaming culture, where all 40 people who were fighting online in the castle siege would probably have been together in the same internet café. Whereas, in the West, it’s a much more solitary, single-player experience—like what you find in World of Warcraft, where it’s much more about the solo player’s experience.
[Image: A scene from Love by Eskil Steenberg].

BLDGBLOG: So if the sorts of user-generated structures you were describing are unique, at least for now, to EVE Online, do you think it’s something other people might start incorporating into their own games?
Rossignol: It’s a tough one. I think one of the main problems—and one of the reasons I’ve written so much about EVE—is that a lot of game designers who are making these games haven’t played EVE and they don’t understand the systems. It’s that traffic of ideas thing again: I think most people just don’t get it. They don’t understand why it works. It’s much easier to copy, say, World of Warcraft, which has quite a prescribed level structure—sort of “go and kill X number of monsters for X reward in money or experience points to continue to the next level up.” Game designers understand that a lot better.
EVE has been such an esoteric project anyway. The EVE computer cluster is one of the world’s supercomputers, and they’ve had to build this up over time to cope with the sheer number of people who are logging into a single world. The single galaxy model is such a big deal for them. I don’t think anything other than Second Life does the same thing. Any big commercial launch that tried to do the same thing would need to aim higher for more people to try to make more money, and, right now, that’s just not happening. I think where it’s most likely to come from is, in fact, going to be someone independent, starting very small like CCP did, and then slowly building it up over time.
There’s one developer operating at the moment who just programs things on his own—this guy called Eskil Steenberg. He’s sort of a graphical programming savant who used to be a tools programmer, and he’s now building his own tools to make his own world. He takes some similar ideas from EVE—it’s not quite the same, but his concept is basically city-building. It has a similar ethos, in that he wants players to build a lot of the content. They’ll be creating the architecture, creating the game world by being able to interact physically with the terrain. So he’s going to procedurally generate the landscapes, and then the players will have to build cities into them and then go out on quests to find stuff in the world, and bring that back to furnish the cities that they’ve built. It has a similar reliance on player productivity to make the game function.
I think that realizing that players want to work and want to invest in these things, and that they will put a lot of effort in over time, is probably the lesson that EVE has given to other game designers.
Have you seen LittleBigPlanet on the Playstation 3? The idea behind that is essentially that players can build their own levels. There are very simple tools—it allows you to cut-and-paste a world, and to import assets such as photos and so on. They’re relying on player creativity there to create game content.
[Image: Plug-In City by Archigram; meanwhile, check out The BLDGBLOG Book for an interesting, and previously unpublished, interview with Archigram’s Sir Peter Cook].

BLDGBLOG: One of the things I was doing while reading your book was trying to read the word “building” wherever you wrote “game.” In other words, every time you referred to user-generated content for a game, I was trying to imagine: could you do the same thing for a building? Could a building also have a built-in quest or goal? Could you have player-generated rooms and levels?
What’s interesting, though, is that once you start asking those questions you’ve basically just rediscovered the avant-gardes of the 1960s and 70s—where you had people like Archigram proposing plug-in architecture. You know, you’d show up in London with your own room and you would just plug it into an existing anchorage point on a building core near the Thames—it’d be a kind of user-generated utopia of temporary levels and rooms. That was the Archigramian vision of the city: I could bring my building, level, or room anywhere in the world and just plug it in to everyone else’s before eventually moving on. But what if I wanted to add a floor to the Empire State Building?
Anyway, what would user-generated content be in architecture? The most immediate thing that comes to mind is when you do things like geo-tagging, or immersive gaming, like cellphone gaming, where you chase someone through the Louvre based on cellphone signals—things like that. It seems, though, that user-generated content for architecture only exists through the digital world: you can have a temporary Google Maps mash-up that allows you to see who else is in Trafalgar Square with you—but that’s about as deep as it gets. Compare that, for instance, to showing up in London with your own Trafalgar Square. What might be called a gamer’s approach to architecture still has unrealized structural possibilities that might even allow that sort of thing to happen.
Rossignol: I think that’s born of the extent that architecture is often about preservation in urban environments. Isn’t that sort of the great frustration of architecture—that you can only ever put down small layers and make small changes? There can’t be a blank canvas—unless you’re building in the middle of the desert, on billions of dollars of oil money.
BLDGBLOG: That’s definitely part of the imaginative allure of cities like Dubai, Shanghai, and Beijing, even after the bust. There was, and perhaps still is, a real jealousy amongst architects, in the sense that China gets to do this but “we” don’t. You know, why is all this happening in Dubai and not Berlin?
Rossignol: That’s always been an interesting aspect to living in the UK, particularly where I live—Bath—which has an incredibly strict architectural theme. It’s all sandstone. Even modern buildings—they’re building a huge new shopping complex in the center of town—are built with sandstone in the Georgian style. Preservation lends a weird sort of museum air to a lot of the UK. Even where I live, outside of Bath, there are no new buildings—it’s all stone cottages and so on. But it can be quite complex: I love the fact that Bath is like that, and it’s very beautiful—but I’m also such a neophile. I like to see new buildings. I find the obsession towards heritage, and sustaining this mummified England, quite terrifying.
I can’t think whether it was an essay or a short story by the writer Will Self, but Self wrote about England as controlled by the National Trust. The National Trust is our core heritage organization that looks after stately homes and parks and so on. Self reimagines the UK as this fascist state where brown-shirted Heritage Police—the National Trust uniform is a brown shirt—are controlling the UK and not allowing any kind of change. I think that’s a splendid satirical image, and very telling about what it’s like to live here.
It’s also one reason why I love modern videogames: they are really heavy on architectural fantasies. They’re probably the best place to feel out a lot of that stuff. Sim City is obviously an amazing example of that.
BLDGBLOG: Yeah—there’s a funny gap between what people actually enjoy and what they feel is theoretically appropriate for their output as a designer. I’m referring to architects when I say that. I think that many students today, in order to be rigorous to the legacy of Le Corbusier, or to be rigorous to algorithmic design philosophies as laid down through a rereading of Gilles Deleuze in the mid-1990s, feel like they have to produce a certain kind of design—but then they go home and play a videogame, or watch a movie, or even read a fantasy novel or whatever, and they see these vast tree-cities, or old castles on cliffs, or Japanese pagodas the size of whole planets, or derelict mining spaceships, and they actually like that kind of architecture. But it’s exactly what they do not design in the studio. Of course, part of that is the fact that the physical realization of those sorts of ideas very quickly crosses over into kitsch, into the realm of the theme park: that’s Euro Disney or Busch Gardens. Or, for that matter, it’s Dubai.
But I do wonder about this. At the same time that it’d be ridiculous if San Francisco was rebuilt as a mock European village, I also wonder why I think that. Is there not a way to adapt fantasy architectures to the real-world without taking on the air of a kind of Walt Disney postmodernism?
There seems to be a very real sense that you have to design certain things, in a certain style, in order to demonstrate your seriousness as an architect—to the point that it might actually be that you’re out of touch with what you, yourself, desire and what you would actually want to build. I often wonder: do architects really enjoy these sprawling, biomorphic, 21st-century algorithmic buildings that look like huge webs of kudzu—or would they rather, just for kicks, design Dracula’s castle? It’s a question that doesn’t seem to be asked very often in architecture school.

dracula[Image: A geological rethinking of Dracula’s castle, by a designer named Audit; from a recent Environment of the Week thread on].
Rossignol: I’d love to see figures for trained architects going into the videogame industry. I wonder how many of them actually are building castles and cities and so on.
BLDGBLOG: I’d love to see that number, too.
However, I’d like to reverse what I just said. Instead of asking: “Why aren’t architecture students designing the real world to look like a videogame?” It might be interesting if videogames started to use what are precisely not fantasy environments. For instance, at what point might architects stop putting out $100 coffee-table books that are only bought by libraries, and instead commission someone to design a game environment that features all of their buildings? It’d be a new kind of monograph. You buy the new Grand Theft Auto—but all the buildings are designed by Richard Rogers. It seems like you’ve got incredibly imaginative and very passionate people playing those games, so why not present your buildings to that audience? It seems like a missed opportunity.
Rossignol: I don’t know if you’ve seen Mirror’s Edge? That’s the one game recently that really made me think: wow, that’s a studio that’s paying attention and trying to use a specific architectural theme. The game is this perfect, controlled utopia, with whole cities full of pure white concrete skyscrapers. You also have these beautiful monochrome interiors, where everything is green or everything is orange. It’s a unique visual theme.
I’m hoping that kind of experimentation might push designers to create something that is more wholesale environment design, rather than lifting stuff either from the real world—or just trying to do Aliens again.

[Image: The architecture of Mirror’s Edge by Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment (DICE), from an article by Charlotte West published last month in Varoom. “What distances Mirror’s Edge from the murky visuals often associated with gaming is its sharper, more intricate imagery,” West suggests].

• • •

Thanks again to Jim Rossignol for taking part in the conversation!
For more, check out Rossignol’s This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities; his ongoing reviews at Rock, Paper, Shotgun are also always worth a look.
Thanks, as well, to Nicola Twilley for transcribing this interview.

Evil Lair: On the Architecture of the Enemy in Videogame Worlds

[Note: This is a guest post by Jim Rossignol].

Game developers are unconstrained in their designs for the enemy. Such designers will be punished with poor sales, not death in the gulag, if their designs for the overlord are unpopular. They could go anywhere with the homes of evildoers: halls of electric fluorescence, palaces carved from corduroy, suburban back yards.

And yet, in spite of this freedom, most videogame designers choose to make a definite connection to familiar – or real-world – architecture. Perhaps they think that the evil lair must emanate evil. There’s surely no room for ambiguity with videogame evildoers: the gamer needs to know that it’s okay to aim for hi-score vengeance.

[Image: From World of Warcraft].

Conveniently, evil already has a visual language. Put another way: I have seen the face of evil, and it is a caricature of gothic construction. There’s barely a necromancer in existence whose dark citadel doesn’t in some way reflect real-world Romanian landmarks, such as Hunyad or Bran Castle. The visual theme of these games is so heavily dependent on previously pillaged artistic ideas from Dungeons & Dragons and Tolkien that evil ambiance is delivered by shorthand. (Of course, World of Warcraft‘s Lich King gets a Stone UFO to fly around in – but it’s still the same old prefab pseudo-Medieval schtick inside). Where the enemy is extra-terrestrial, HR Giger‘s influence is probably going to be felt instead.

[Images: (top) Bran Castle, (bottom) Hunyad Castle, all via Wikipedia].

But, I suspect, these signposts – or the ways in which game designers architecturally represent evil – are becoming too much a part of our everyday imaginative discourse to remain affecting. They’ve begun to lose their danger. The connection with the inhumanity that makes the enemy so thrilling has started to fade via over-familiarity.

Where the evil lair becomes a little more interesting is when its nature is ambiguous – but nevertheless disturbing. Half-Life 2‘s Citadel is an example of this. The brutal gunmetal skyscraper that looms over a nameless Eastern European city, below, appears deeply threatening. But, like everything else in the Half-Life 2 universe, it is unexplained. It does not seem inherently evil. The structure moves and groans; it is a machine of some kind. It is something constructed and mechanical, rather than the clear manifestation or emanation of an evil force. The Citadel is not a fire-rimmed portal to hell, nor a windswept ruin. Nor is it a volcano base. It could even be somehow utilitarian. In fact, it’s reminiscent of the real Moscow’s own television tower.

It is, perhaps, even incidental to the scourge that Half-Life‘s denizens face: alien infrastructure. It is only later, as the plot uncoils the inner architecture of the Citadel, that you come to realise that it is the enemy: the lair of an alien force that must, ultimately, be destroyed.

[Image: From Half-Life 2].

Where the lair is itself the enemy, games are able to excel.

This is the case in both System Shock and System Shock 2, the finest of SF horror games. Both are set aboard spacecraft, but these spacecraft are also the “bodies” of the enemy: SHODAN, a malevolent Artificial Intelligence that controls each vessel.

In a provocative climax of virtuality-within-virtuality, the final act of System Shock 2 is to enter into the cyberspace realm of the AI and defeat SHODAN inside the graphical representation of her own programming. The evil lair is within the mind of the enemy – a motif repeated even more literally in Psychonauts, a game about exploring the physically manifested psyches of various bizarre characters.

[Image: From System Shock 2].

More interesting visually, and far more ambiguous in its delivery of the evil lair, is the underwater city of Rapture, in Bioshock. The designers of this game (some of whom also worked on the System Shock series) poured the early part of the twentieth century into their designs, creating opulent, decaying, Art Deco corridors down which the genetically-enhanced super-human player goes thundering, searching for the enemy.

The ostentation of the city’s innards suggests that the city’s objectivist overseer, Andrew Ryan, must be the enemy we seek. He has, after all, created himself an entire city with a single, over-arching theme: a trademark act of the all-powerful videogame nemesis. Yet, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that, although you will inevitably kill Ryan, his architecture tells you nothing about the nature of the enemy you face. Indeed, the true enemy has nothing to do with the stylised nature of this lair at all.

[Image: Channeling Ayn Rand, Andrew Ryan’s city banner announces “No Gods or Kings. Only Man.” From Bioshock].

But perhaps the most extraordinary and unearthly of evil videogame architectures are the wandering colossi of Shadow of the Colossus. Great, living structures, lonely behemoths, that stride magnificently across the game world. These sad, shaggy giants of stone and moss must be climbed and slain by the hero, often via use of the surrounding environment of ancient ruins and meticulously designed geological formations. Lairs within lairs.

[Image: From Shadow of the Colossus].

Of course, monsters are presumably evil, but the reality of the colossi remains ambiguous for much of the game. When the game is up, the player-character suffers a terrible price for destroying these strange, animate monuments. It is one of the few videogames in which the protagonist dies – horribly and permanently – when the game is over. It is a game where destroying the evil lair might well have been the wrong thing to do. And yet it is all you can do.

Such is the inexorable, linear fate of the videogame avatar.

[Jim Rossignol is a games critic for Offworld, an editor at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and the author of the fantastic This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities. A full-length interview with Rossignol will appear on BLDGBLOG next week].