Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The Architecture of Fantasy Worlds: Designing Immersive Environments in Video Games

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This is another guest piece by writer Amanda Winstead

Video games have drawn inspiration from real-life architectural principles since the advent of joysticks and open worlds. Even classic titles like the 1986 Legend of Zelda utilized ideas like scale, light, and balance to create 2D villages and forests that felt immersive and engaging. However, unlike real-world architects, video game designers get to bend the rules of reality. Using powerful physics engines, level designers mesh mathematics and their imagination to create visually stunning environments that captivate players and draw you deeper into their world. This blend of fundamental architectural principles with elements of fantasy is popular with gamers and is part of what makes good games great. Seven of the last ten Game of the Year award winners drew inspiration from the fantasy genre, as titles like God of War, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and Elden Ring have captured the imagination of judges and gamers alike. Peeling back a layer reveals that immersive environments are influenced by natural architecture, too. This is why game studios like Bethesda now use impressive algorithms to create procedurally generated wild landscapes that are true to life and feature dense vegetation and realistic rock formations. 

The Philosophy of Architecture

Blackreach represented a departure from standard fantasy settings for many reasons

Most level designers probably don’t have a copy of Frank Lloyd Wright’s biography at hand when creating witches’ huts and wizard’s towers. However, they do abide by well-established architectural principles when creating the landscapes and locations that we know and love. Abiding by architectural principles is crucial, as architects specialize in the art of making places feel “right”. This concept is exemplified by British-American urban architect Christopher W. Alexander who, in “A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction”, writes that good architecture is about understanding that “no pattern is an isolated entity,” and that “each pattern can exist in the world, only to the extent that is supported by other patterns”. This concept of recurring, supportive patterns is a fundamental principle of good game design, too. Titles like The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt and Skyrim go to great lengths to ensure that the smallest elements of the environment (like plant life and watercourses) make sense within the larger environment. This makes iconic areas like Skelliga and Blackreach feel real, even though they push the limits of the fantasy genre. 

Algorithmic Architecture

Immersive level design makes games feel as real as the world outside the window. However, not every element of every game needs to be generated manually. In fact, games like No Man’s Sky already use procedural generation to mesh human ingenuity with data-crunching capabilities of computer algorithms to create worlds that are both random and unique, while also being engaging and immersive. This approach can create worlds of unfathomable scale, too. No Man’s Sky features 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 worlds that are filled with flora, fauna, and fantastical beasts. This same approach has been utilized by gaming giants like Bethesda in their recently released Starfield, too. Expect to see more algorithms and AI in the architecture of fantasy worlds in years to come. While generative AI is still in its infancy, the future of AI looks strong. Evolving technologies will enhance the capabilities of creative AI and improve the efficacy of automated machine learning algorithms. Advancements in search development could improve in-game relationships, too, as future NPCs will be able to analyze PC behavior and change their response based on historical data.  

Element of Surprise

Surprising settings and scenes have been at the core of architecture since the classical era. The scale and grandeur of Rome’s Pantheon still catch tourists by surprise when they enter from the city streets and the Tōdaiji in Nara, Japan delights pilgrims who find their way through a dark interior to a massive Buddha statue. These principles are put to work in games like Elden Ring, too. Game studio FromSoftware is a master of subversion and has built a reputation for surprising gamers with hidden levels and easily missed maps. Nowhere is this more evident than in the underground city of Nokron. Nokron, which is an entirely optional subregion, is a huge, sprawling city that players will only discover if they take a non-linear route to progression and exploration. By featuring environments like Nokron in Elden Ring, FromSoftware incentivizes players to explore their maps fully. This makes the world of The Lands Between feel that much more real and immerses players in a world that is rich with lore and history. FromSoftware routinely rewards players who do decide to jump off the beaten path by hiding bosses and magic items in hard-to-reach, seemingly empty locations. 

AR and VR

AR gaming like Monster Hunter Now represent a unique challenge for game architects

The video game world is largely dominated by single-player titles on consoles or computers. However, as technology improves, we may see more games leaning on augmented reality and virtual reality tech during the design phase. This is something that architects are already doing. AR is being used in architecture to help designers “see” the structural and mechanical systems behind a building or structure. This empowers architects during the design phase by helping them collate relevant building data and identifying potential errors before they break ground on upcoming projects. These same principles can be used by game designers, too. Designers who want to draw inspiration from existing buildings and locations can overlay computer-generated models of their level design onto the real world. This improves the immersion that players experience in fantasy AR games like Monster Hunter Now and Pokemon: GO. Put simply, AR gives designers a better understanding of real-world urban planning and architecture, meaning they can create more seamless gaming experiences for users. 

Conclusion 

Fantasy worlds prove that video games are an art as well as a science. They are architectural marvels in their own right and exemplify the core components of good design. Principles like unity, proportion, and patterns are put to good use in visually stunning games like CyberPunk: 2077 and help designers create more engaging levels in games like Elden Ring. Like architecture, gaming is tech-driven, too. While it’s impossible to guess how gaming will change in the next decade, it seems likely that generative AI and algorithms will play a major role in designing the virtual worlds of tomorrow.

Images via respective owners

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