What can architects bring to game development?

What can architects bring to game development?

By Nicholas Lister

May 10th 2013 at 9:54AM

Nicholas Lister offers his thoughts on how architectural practices can help give new meaning to games

[Nicholas Lister is an architecture graduate who later turned to indie game development, and is currently working on his first title, memory game Imp Paired for iOS. You can visit his official website here.]

As an architectural graduate turned game developer it is probably unsurprising that one of the subjects I find most interesting is how the fields of architecture and game development intersect.

The further along my game development career I get, the more I realise just how much games and game development have to offer the world of architecture, and what architecture and architects have to offer the world of game development.

Both sides of that exchange have some fairly obvious crossover points and some more nuanced ones. In this article I am going to delve into one of those nuanced areas in order to talk about what I think is one of the most significant things architects can bring to game development.

One of the most interesting things about architecture is that to qualify as more than just a building it has to offer something more than just meeting its functional requirements. The exact nature of that extra something that architecture offers is up for debate, but one of the strongest sentiments I have brought with me from the architectural world is that building becomes architecture when that building becomes meaningful.

So much of that idea of wrapping up a creative endeavour in a quest to produce something meaningful becomes ingrained, at least it has in me, that it carries over into the perspective from which I approach game development.

My own game, Imp Paired (pictured below), for example, is a memory game but what it is really about is coming to terms with work and the power relationships around that work through play. That desire, to deliver something meaningful, whether it's an experience or the game object itself, is one that is surprisingly unusual in game development and one from which I think games could benefit hugely.

Games have never had a functional field comparable to the way that architecture has had construction and engineering, so it's probably unsurprising that the drive to instil meaning in games and to understand the ways in which games can be meaningful has been less vehement than it has been in architecture.

But that is not to say that games are rarely meaningful. Quite the opposite is true. Games have a hard time getting away from meaning. Because they are not functional, because they have to allow the player to interact with them, the very idea of a meaningless game is kind of a nonsense.

But despite this, perhaps even because of it, it seems that game developers are often content to allow what is meaningful about a game to be an incidental aspect of keeping the player in an engaging feedback loop.

One of the things that architects do to give their building designs meaning is to exploit the fact that buildings have a tendency to expose the conditions and means of their own production. Knowing this, architects play with our preconceptions and expectations to suggest fictional geneses.

Think of any piece of modern architecture and the likelihood is that the architect is suggesting its production to have taken place as part of a highly mechanised, highly rationalised process within and for a society that values those qualities. The degree to which that suggestion matches the reality is relevant only to the extent that it provides the user or visitor with contrast.

While games do not seem to have this tendency to expose the means of their own production, that does not necessarily preclude them from doing so. State Of Play's Lume (pictured below), a game in which the visual elements are provided by stop motion papercraft, displays that craft in a very overt way, and games like Anna Anthropy's Dys4ia directly expose their creator's voice to the player.

One game that capitalises on this ability in a way that mirrors the architect's use of artifice is Alexander Bruce's Antichamber. In that game the voice of the designer is literally written on the walls in a way that connects the game's puzzles to small life lessons, but more than that, the games' world appears to have emerged naturally out of the game's own puzzle logic.

This revelation of the genesis of the game and the ways that revelation can be manipulated seems to me to be one of the most significant contributions architecture can make to game development.

It can help provide a sense not just of what the game's world is, but of what the game itself is, where it comes from and why it was made. The potential of that is exciting to me, and I hope it is to you too.

[Interested in contributing your own article for Develop's readers? We're always on the lookout for industry-authored pieces on development-related topics. Email craig.chapple@intentmedia.co.uk for more details.]