Fri 2 Mar 2012
Architecture is perhaps the epitome of human creativity. For thousands of years, it has been one of the most (if not the most) powerful ways of human expression. You can read about Egyptian culture in countless history books, but their culture only comes alive in all its imposing grandiosity when you see those testaments in stone they built. You may have read a thing or two about the power of religion in the Middle Ages, but you only truly experience the meaning of those words inside a cathedral. Even a despicable man as Hitler understood the potency of architecture, making architect Albert Speer one of the most important men in his Reich.
It’s easy to see how architecture has always been an important aspect of human culture, so unless you plan on making a game set in a barren wasteland and/or not featuring human(oid)s, it’s something you’ll need to pay attention to as well. Even if you’re not making a historical game, you’ll be able to find plenty of inspiration in the real world for your fictional universe.
A good example in this case is Grim Fandango, a game set in a fantasy world that nevertheless drew a lot of inspiration from real-world architecture in different eras. If you want to find out more about the specific inspirations for that game, consider reading the treatise I wrote for one of The International House of Mojo’s Secret History features. For this article, let’s just limit ourselves to saying this mishmash of architectural styles made Grim Fandango a damn pretty game.
Architecture does not just serve to display beauty, however. Throughout history, it has also been used to convey certain ideals, whether they be political, religious, or otherwise. Architecture is perhaps the best mass medium to carry out this task: it’s everywhere, often in prominent places, and the message it wants to get across is universally understood, even reaching illiterate people.
If you’re looking to use architecture in your game as a means of distributing a regime’s ideas, it’s worthwhile to take a look at some historical examples. For instance, the arch is an often used motif to symbolize conquest and grandeur. To commemorate Titus’ victory in Jerusalem in the first century AD, an arch was constructed in Rome. Many centuries later, Napoleon copied this idea, ordering construction of the iconic Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Hitler had planned to construct a huge triumphal arch in Berlin, while Kim Il-sung actually succeeded in erecting an impressive arch in Pyongyang.
Elsewhere on the political spectrum, we can point to Eastern European architecture with roots in communism and socialism. Like the movements they’re based in, those buildings are sober and uniform, their only embellishments being an extravagant use of geometrical shapes. At the same time they’re awe-inspiring in their grandiosity, instilling a sense of humility in whomever looks at them. You can see some examples here and here.
If you’re not bothered about the idealistic roots of architecture, and you just want to use it as a nice backdrop for your game, do be aware of one pitfall: monotony. It’s easy to pick a particular architectural style you like (perhaps based on a photograph you’ve seen) and stick with it, without doing further research. Because if you do look into it a bit more, you’ll find that even within architectural movements there are many different branches.
Let’s take Jugendstil (or art nouveau, if you prefer French) as an example. The stylistic movement, with its graceful natural lines and obsession with geometrical shapes, is instantly recognizable. Yet it appears in many forms, varying between countries and even cities – the Barcelona strand is particularly remarkable, in its emulation of nature. So if you’re confining yourself to one single architectural style in your game, there’s no reason to shy away from variation.
There’s another way in which you can make the architecture in your game stand out: think outside the box. Architecture as an art form is preeminently suited to this, as evidenced by its evolution in recent years. A great real-world example, and one that would add a lot of flavour to any game, is that of natural architecture, of which you can view some exemplary pictures here. But really, it’s one of countless real-world examples, and I’m sure a walk through town will reveal many sources of inspiration to you.
Apart from making use of various branches within a particular style, and incorporating unusual elements into the architecture featured in your game, there is yet a third way in which you can combat monotony: add in details! This can mean the difference between a bland world and one that feels rich. Take the Gothic cathedrals, for instance. All those ornaments, each with a symbolic meaning behind it, give those buildings an air of history. If you incorporate such detail into your game world, you will make it feel that much more believable.
Now, before you rush off and start populating your game with architectural structures, there’s one question you need to ask yourself first: does it make sense? What I mean by that is, you’ll need to make sure the buildings you have in mind can be built with the materials at hand. It doesn’t make much sense to have a lot of stone buildings in a jungle, for instance, where wood is a much more logical resource. Don’t worry about this limiting your possibilities though: the ancient Egyptians built some pretty impressive things with simple stones.
If you’ve settled on an architectural look and decided it fits in with the game world, there’s just one more step before you dive into production. It’s an optional step, but it can be enlightening in more ways than one: build models. Yes, it will be time-consuming, but if you’re a DIY type, it’ll be fun! You’ll be able to design buildings and sets to see if their structural integrity holds up, and if they’re as pretty as you’d imagined. And who knows, you might enjoy the process so much that you’ll decide on using those models straight in your game, as backdrops, or even as stop motion sets.
Whatever you’ll decide upon though, architecture is an important and not to be overlooked part of designing a game. You can let yourself be inspired by a visit to a cathedral, a walk through town, or even some old photographs… but by all means, be inspired, and go forth and build!
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