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Architects and Gaming

We spend a collective 7 billion hours a week playing games. Why? Because gaming fulfills the innate human need to overcome obstacles. I have always wondered why architects are so into gaming. When playing a game we spend 80% of our time failing and facing the fear of loss and death. Sounds a little like a standard workday, yet unlike the real time situation we approach gaming with greater optimism and curiosity; there is a framework of resilience and that we can learn from gaming.

David Fletcher is a landscape architect and urban designer. For the past two years, Fletcher Studio has been designing the virtual island for the video game, Witness, a first-person game of cerebral puzzles. Jonathan Blow, game industry misfit and Witness creator explains, “It’s a game about epiphany, that leap your mind makes when you instantly go from confusion to understanding.” Source. Sound familiar?

Fletcher was brought on board by the game developers Thekla, Inc., along with architect Deanna VanBuren of FOURM Design, to help synthesize what was, at the time, a remote, anonymous island setting without much context. The task was to flesh out the visual and functional details of a site that was essentially a-geographical, a-historical, and a-cultural. For a firm whose practice is embedded in site-specificity, Witness required the landscape architects to reverse engineer a site from ruins to birth. Fletcher determined early on, ‘We cannot design this space.’ Instead, we can design its history and allow entropy to suggest how things might evolve.”

There were architectural ruins scattered throughout the minimalist terrain, which Fletcher knew were somehow connected to the game’s puzzle narrative, though the specifics were not revealed.  Fletcher employed studio designers Nicolaus Wright and Beth Bokulich to help design the history of the terrain, layer it with the rise and fall of civilizations, and determine a pre-human logic to the terrain’s physical formation.

Fletcher’s past conceptual and exhibition work largely deals with alternative futures. In the 2009 project, Infrastructural Armature, Fletcher speculated on the fate of Los Angeles in the year 2125, visualizing a dystopic city confronted with resource scarcity, global warming, sea level rise, and economic destabilization. The narrative was broken down into episodes and then into a list of assumptions about how present-day Los Angeles could have evolved to this state.

Using a similar approach with Witness, Fletcher and VanBuren broke down the island-ruin scenario and asked “How might things have evolved politically or structurally? How did materials evolve? What about food and sustenance? How was water formalized from ponds and ditches to canals and wells to water towers and plumbing?”

The design team amassed a plethora of research about island ecosystems and topography, notably, from knowledge they gleaned about the Portuguese Azores. Collected visuals were compiled in a 2D collage that represented the Witness island in plan, embellished with new geologic and ecological details, and with a greater understanding of the landscape’s underlying mechanics.

Virtual scale presented a challenge.  The island is less than a mile wide, and its microclimates range from rainforest to mangrove, a transition that in reality would cover several hundred, if not thousands of miles. Yet, in the service of the narrative, these microclimates had to be condensed, and the thresholds that separated them into distinct biomes had to be articulated so that the player could roam relatively free. The design team became familiar with various gaming tropes–the unsurpassable chest-high wall, the inaccessible incline–that would help guide the player through the site, ultimately aiding them in solving the puzzles. “It’s a psychogeography of the gameplay, an exploration in the vein of an open world where you can go anywhere you want,” Wright explains, “However, there is an order and a narrative structure to moving through the island.”

As with design in real space and time, site lines were, perhaps, the single most essential tool in organizing the virtual space. Creating focal points that guide the viewer towards other zones, screening the superfluous, establishing a hierarchy of visual characteristics–the choreography of these elements influence the player’s spatial perception, just as it would in reality. The “picturesque” in historic landscape architecture is highly contingent on the treatment of views: the foreground, middle ground, and background are all treated for the utility of specific visual effects–from habitable geometries to the serpentine meander, and eventually diminishing into the untouched wild. From Repton’s Blaise Castle to Olmstead’s Central Park, the picturesque landscape follows a painterly composition, framed, narrative, and perspectival.  The grounds in Witness, by the nature the virtual medium, is an illustrated space, flattened by the screen view and removed from multi-sensory experience. To achieve a spatial understanding of the island (and to generate the narrative), the viewer must be coaxed through visual exploration.

While Fletcher Studio is designing the Witness island for the experience of a single person (the player), the potential reach is far greater. Blow’s previous game, Braid, sold more than 2 million copies. Witness is expected to receive as much, if not more, attention. It will likely be available on mobile devices, as well as its debut on Playstation 4. The puzzles, the narrative, and the island landscape, therefore, could support hundreds of thousands of solitary experiences, all at once. Wright describes the educational value of the game’s landscape:

Its interesting to think that there is a didactic component to introducing people to the potentials of landscape experience and environmental design. We, as landscape designers, think about the theory of the built environment and know it very intimately, immediately able to recognize built natures and artificial ecologies. Most people do not recognize that going to Yosemite is an entirely constructed experience. Witness, which is a total simulacra of nature, is perhaps even more explicit about it’s designed character.



David Fletcher asserts that there is no ultimate “revelatory or ecological agenda” in designing the landscape for Witness.  “The take away for landscape architecture is the notion of time,” he says, “Landscape architects are able to think across scales, about temporal evolution.” In Witness, physical scale is often condensed and the present moment is haunted by the island’s rich, fabricated history. The player is able to explore the landscape in way that feels plausible and intellectually stimulating.  Andrew Lackey, the game’s sound designer elaborates:

We’re not just talking aesthetics…Noticing, is key to discovering solutions and even finding the puzzles themselves. Nothing in the Witness is superfluous. Source

Images provided by Jonathan Blow. I would love to hear your feedback in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!

Discussion

8 comments for “Architects and Gaming”

  • Linda Bennett

    For more info about the architecture in witness head over to FORUM design studio. http://fourm-designbuild.com/section/288487_The_Witness.html

  • http://twitter.com/jeremycabral Jeremy Cabral

    I’m a huge fan of landscapes in gaming. Some of my most memorable games in terms of visualising the architecture & landscapes would be Worms, World of Goo and more recently Assassin’s Creed. Great post!

  • http://www.anodynegame.com/ sean hogan (seagaia)

    It is nice that you talked so much about all the thought that went into architecting the landscapes of The Witness…maybe after playing I will start to notice things in other games (though I’m not entirely sure, I guess that depends if as much thought went into landscape design in other games). The notion of thinking across time is useful as well for world design in general, glad that was brought up. Really looking forward to playing The Witness.

  • grace

    good post!

  • archininja

    I recently came across a hypothetical program where architects could export a model from Revit into an interact environment, allowing the client to move through the building like a game > http://joemedwid.com/pensieve.html

    Joe developed the idea as an architecture student, he now works for the NASA Ames Research Center!

  • Laura Begley

    I am a recent graduate with my BFA in Interior Design. I proposed to design for a hypothetical video game for my senior project… It was denied by the school’s department. FAIL. I ended up designing a funeral home. I wish I could have shared this article with them. What a bunch of n00bs.

  • http://www.monsterhouseplans.com/ Grisel Herrick

    Wow. I never really thought about all the work that goes into making a game. This article certainly puts things in perspective.

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