“The Height of the kick: designing gameplay”

in “This is not architecture”, edited by Kester Rattenbury, Routledge 2002

This is an excerpt of a chapter I wrote about the relationship between architecture and game design…

...It seemed all-too-easy at first, generally computer worlds were disorganized and static, and existed only to provide a complementary colored background to the blood squirting out of the EVIL. ZOMBIE. TYRANT.

Some games were artfully produced slide-shows, 256 glorious shades of Amber, but zero immersion. The technology had simply not yet arrived…

…But the dreams were in place, the evocative promise of enormous online worlds, persistent as hell, immersively sticky, vibrant, noisy, the glorious whiff of ‘life’.

Designers were finding their visions streamlined into a kind of ‘shorthand’, and had to rapidly learn to translate their language into a few pithy syllables.  What developed was less a construction, more a concoction – the basic architectural massing, applied with tromp l’oeil details, was combined with the computer games’ stock-in-trade: movement and characters. The ‘illusion’ of life was created with a pinch of motion sleight-of-hand, overly dramatic ‘actors’ hogging the screen, and the architectural ambience firmly and literally in the background.

Sometimes, the mix worked. Sometimes the dreams were conveyed, in a few words, a mere sketch. Pioneering worlds played to lower expectations with a potent potpourri of magical tricks, implied complexity and outright blatant fakery.

Now, the technology bar has been raised, and there are fewer excuses. No longer need the architecture be a short summary, a precis to the developing plot, now it steps out from the wings and plays a vital role. Let’s just hope the audience hasn’t left yet… 

Players feel comfortable in tangible space. If their perception of a space is clear, it can lead to a confidence in decision making. The ‘minds eye’ can concentrate on other things, like winning. Designers face a constant battle in their manipulation of the player, when to encourage, when to reprimand. When to reward. Players like to feel clever, and the environment plays a part in this.

So the designer works with the player’s perception of the architectural constructs, the problem of creating the illusion of tangible structure and composition of spaces that does not interfere with, but enhances, gameplay. An illusion of space that can be understood by architectural novices - the public - and that can be created with few polygons within a rigid building system. Hence huge trompe l’oeil pyramids and cityscapes carefully faded to black or suggested behind impassible barriers.

image In ‘Tomb Raider: Return to Atlantis”, the central ‘pyramid’ area of the Atlantean city had two additional design requirements (additional to the basic necessity of providing good gameplay, and being interesting visually). These were maximum visibility of what lay ahead, and a logical sequence of built-architecture. The players could see the exact structure through many levels of building, and through many layers of gameplay. This gave the players a chance to ‘feel clever’ by understanding the complexities of the structure and exactly where they had to go; they could make intelligent decisions about the direction they had to go, and get a hint of what they might face – in this case, the placement of a Centaur-like creature in the depths of the structure provide an early view of an enemy who “Couldn’t wait to meet you”, the question was “When?!”

Notwithstanding the fact that players were able to understand a form of architecture alien and unfamiliar to them, the designer must form a series of visual cues that enhance comprehension. By compiling a believable Atlantean Architecture from a synthesis of recognizable elements - the notation of doors and windows, for example, or a familiar succession of spaces - it is possible to enhance the gameplay by using the ‘known’ as a way to delve into the ‘unknown’. Rather than being worried about revealing too much information, obvious foreshadowing, as in the example above, can invigorate and stimulate gameplay response. The ability to clearly divine a possible ‘path’ through the structure, primarily as a result of a certain legibility about the design, can lead to an event anticipated through time, be it a blood-crazed centaur or other such juicy pay-off.

Conversely, gameplay can also be enhanced by making the player feel uncomfortable. Uneasiness created by a succession of spaces or vistas ‘tuned’ architecturally to ‘apocalyptic nightmare’ have a more immediate application in a fabricated world. A sense of discord is rarely seen in reality unless it forms a part of the story the architect is telling. A sense of loss or emptiness as evoked by, for example Liebskind in his Jewish museum, is an everyday requirement of your typical computer game. The game’s manipulative world desperately needs this kind of expertise, a world where the manipulation of space is a primary storytelling device.

At present, we rely too much on blatant wordplay for scene-setting, cold expositionary dialogue that emphatically makes a story ‘told’ rather than ‘lived’. Our advantage, though, is that the emotional impact that can often only be implied by the best architecture can be vividly acted out in a game, with a palpable sense of danger, the threat of ‘real’ death, a life lived at a hyper-reality pace. We can carelessly defy gravity and logic in a place where Escher constructions are not merely visual conundrums; they are traversable and habitable.


The ability of the designer to understand not just the pure form of their architecture, but to comprehend the nature of the ‘journey’ through that architecture, is crucial. The success of the gameplay can often depend, for example, on the designer’s ability to set up the player’s expectations by creating legible space, only to later confound them with a physical change in architectural state. This process, which generally occurs over a period of storytelling ‘time’, can also be invoked simultaneously. An environment that oscillates between a reality-based state and a dream-based state, has no true parallel in the real World. Here is where the true exploitation of the rules of our fantasy-based worlds can distance us from the hard reality of fact. 

Unfortunately, environments are often an afterthought. Gameplay thrives on interaction. The norm seems to be human interaction, mano a mano, and it’s interesting to see where compromise is made first. Currently, the proliferation of Internet-based ‘webisodes’ is starting to feed the demand for easily-consumable, minimal download interactive entertainment…and guess what? There’s nary an environment in sight – it always seems to be a combination of characters emoting against a frozen tableau, a panto-painted backdrop. This is the common sense equation of narrow bandwidth and the lowest common denominator platform. This is probably why most of these ‘webisode’ productions are ultimately unsatisfying, incredibly static and offer a poor excuse for real interaction. The logic has been firmly locked into the ‘campfire’ model for dramatic storytelling and the characters try in vain to propel their story along while floating in amorphous ill-defined ‘narrative space’.

image Accordingly, ANYONE who understands the liquid relationship between man and his environment understands the need for that dimension of stimulation. In my school of half-wit philosophy, I always try to visualise my computer ‘creatures’ moving in a ‘matrix’ of space, so that what makes up the definition of my interaction-charged beings depends on their exact relationship with their immediate surroundings. It’s a very Flann O’Brien way of thinking (the surreal ‘Third Policeman’) but it helps to compose interactive rhythms based on a notion of immediate proximity. Characters truly inhabit their worlds and the synergy between the elements can be complete. So while the primary interaction may still be leaping from lip-synched mouth to mouth in a neat conversation pair, the environment is always rearing its ugly head and tapping the protagonists on their shoulders.

Proximity generates interaction, and thusly gameplay. As is the nature of design, this proximity may be in the form of a beautifully realised piece of built form, or it may be a really deep shadow. Our environments are offering us a context for our interaction.

Memory as a gameplay enhancement can be tweaked by an understanding of the nature of the game environment. As in ‘Waiting for Godot’ (Beckett), something can be ‘not present’ and yet ‘always present’. A hint of architectural expression can generate that whole familiar/not familiar dimension, from the blatant obviousness of a homely fireplace to the half remembered mythology of an ancient and unseen Coliseum (the potency of the combination of an eight-year-olds imagination and an overly fervent Bible Class Monitor is brought to bear…).

As a designer, I feel it is my duty to poke and prod around the memory of my paying customer, searching for resonance, drawing the couch potatoes forward from their recline and into the interactive world I’m invoking. The magic occurs where the poke of a memory fragment prods the user into a memory-related gameplay moment. Score 1-0 to Mr. Tangible…

Proximity and Memory can be seen to contribute to an overall ‘sense of place’. So as my characters are manfully struggling to emote the narrative to its scripted finale, it’s the physical environment itself that ultimately helps the interactive story arrive at its final destiny. The very notion of ‘interactivity’ is that there is some kind of ongoing dialogue between storyteller and audience. It’s a bungee-elastic, malleable journey that stretches out to its ‘side-quest’ limits and then snaps back into place for the dénouement.

Environments are part of the ‘puzzle’ that is either meant to be deciphered, or deliberately obfuscated - both can enhance the gameplay experience; the choice of ‘architectural system’ is usually dependent on factors totally unrelated to architectural ‘desire’ – issues of ‘engine’ technology, latency, and optimal end-user cpu processing power, for example.

What emerges from the idea of making architectural ‘sense’ is usually dictated by the demands of the user technology. Unfortunately, at present, the “Ten Books on Architecture” begat the “Four Books on Architecture” which begat the ‘Rather small Pamphlet on Computer-generated Architecture”. When dealing with ‘real-time’ – and frankly, the only type of computer ‘time’ worth dealing with here – we still have a massive technological problem.

‘Real-time’ is the ability to generate computer images ‘on the fly’, so environments and their contents are processed as they are actually experienced. This is the only form of computer experience that can come close to replicating the freedom of choice allowed in the ‘real’ World. Basically, on arrival in your computer environment, you can go anywhere, look at anything you choose, within the limits of the simulation. This puts an incredible burden on the technology required to generate this, frame-by-frame, at an acceptable speed of movement. Consequently, even the best proprietary engines in the gaming world today must deal with compromise in the architecture they are trying to represent.

Hence the birth of modular systems, the ever-present ‘primitive’, the segmented curves. There are technologists out there spending lifetimes trying to generate a perfect real-time curve – kind of puts things into perspective!

Understanding the limitations of your chosen system at least allows you to determine the nature of your architectural compromise. Most game building tools are based on variations of the generic 3D Studio or AutoCAD type systems. Shapes, vectors, polygons, whatever the material of choice, can be ‘thrown’ at your screen until it can’t take it anymore, and a Fiat test track becomes a slow boat to China.

The tools used to create Tomb Raider ( Core Design and Eidos) are radically different to this norm, and employ a system that warm the cockles of my architectural heart. More Modulor than modular, a unique ‘sculpting’ approach actually turns what appears at first to be completely restrictive into a gameplay enhancing triumph.


The world of Tomb Raider is generated totally around a shorthand of four-sided and three-sided polygons. Anything away from this norm, be it Corinthian capital or geodesic dome, must be generated as a separate, specific object and placed in the setting like a prop. These props are limited in number and complexity per deployment. Architectural ‘conceit’ is limited to this basic recipe, a diet of squares and triangles garnished by an occasional spiral stair, plumbing fixture, or glowing lava ball. The diverse locations confronting Lara Croft, including Modern-day London, ancient Egypt, and Atlantis are approximated in this fashion, and ‘wallpapered’ (textured) accordingly. Obviously, the texture is made to do a lot of the work!

- But here’s the twist: The building blocks of the world are proportional to, and respond to, the actual physical dimensions and moreover the physical limitations of Lara herself. The entire system is justified by the absolute necessity that it is determined by how far Lara can leap, or swing, or jump…By how far she can see. The length of her stride, whether walking casually or running for her life, establishes the physical dimensions of her virtual playground.
Why is this a good thing? Is this worth the sacrifice of several thousand years worth of exquisitely crafted Orders? Is this worth the sacrifice of the Millennium Dome for a…Square?

- One word (or two if you’re being pedantic and old-fashioned) – GAMEPLAY.

Gameplay. The game designers mantra…

In a typical building block system, like AutoCAD, generally the environment is constructed first, and the gameplay is threaded through it’s many apertures, a silver thread of fun. Although the physical representation may be more precise, what tends to happen is that the gameplay thread, the critical path, is the only absolute requirement, resulting in a lot of ‘dead space’. Space-left-over-after-planning appears, design crevasses that open up and suck the player into reboot hell. Remember, critical path gameplay also includes wondrous vistas, inspirational spaces and the like – the visual requirements of an environment are not necessarily neglected. There’s just a lot of non-contributing ‘stuff’ that our character ‘interface’ may, or may not ‘know’ how to deal with.

Building Tomb Raider environments is like sculpting from the inside out. You get inside a solid lump of matter and hollow out the contents. It’s like pressing your hand on one of those pin-boards that leaves an impression long after your tentative flesh has gone. It’s the plasticity of Günther Domenig’s Zentralsparkasse Bank in Vienna…well, almost.

Despite the physical difficulty of architectural representation, the Tomb Raider technology succeeds in its primary objective – that the gameplay creates the environment, and more importantly that the environment creates the gameplay


Here, then, the relationship is more than just casual. The environment, bound by the Modulor-like rules of engagement, can’t help but create gameplay, gameplay that is inextricably tied to the requirements of the player-avatar, Lara Croft… and if Lara is satisfied, then by extension the player is satisfied too, because that’s all she is, folks, a little 3D interface tool expertly manipulated by her player/god.

Whether the gameplay is any good or not, that’s another question. The skill of the designer notwithstanding, all we can demonstrate here is that, in this situation, and with these tools, the environment is forever bonded to the notion of gameplay, and therefore has a profound effect on the interactive quality of the entertainment.

- Maybe this is the secret of Lara Croft’s Worldwide success?…(There are a couple of others…).

Primarily, we’re dipping into our big bag of ‘low architectural conceits’. Now all that elementary Psychology that we enjoyed in Architectural school is rampantly having its day. Having accepted that the major player identifier is the character he/she plays, that’s where we find our starting point. The player-character is undoubtedly the strongest element in a typical game, whether it be a scruffy Private Eye or the Legions of the Roman Empire. Our first foray must involve the reactions and senses of this ‘character’ because it is the direct pipeline to the player beyond. Once the immediate bond is established between player and player-character, be it an environmentally induced sense of loneliness, a fearful throbbing sound or the splendiferous spectacle of erotic dancing, we can now exploit that connection. We have broken the fourth wall, and drawn our audience closer to the screen.

Now, if we are so inclined, we can start to make our architectural conceits work a little harder for us. First the designers ‘vanity play’ has to be taken care of, and if St. Paul’s Cathedral is to be shoehorned into 10,000 polygons, not to mention the plot, then it must be so…

Gameplay now guides our hand, we must be prepared for any eventuality, because good interaction can only evolve from the maximum amount of choice possible. At this point, most architectural conceits may apply. Whether it is the primal unity of environment and gameplay as with Tomb Raider, or a historical setting with gameplay transposed, the designer can call upon his bag of tricks to conjure up the required result. He may be a master planner, an ordered composition and a logical layout that evokes nostalgic memory and an innate sense for the player of ‘what is where’.

He may be an historical copyist, or completist - La Ville Radieuse never looked so…finite. A reference-free Atlantis may be the goal, a new order realised and a tangibly tangy sense of reality. Again, the ‘game’ is multidimensional, the immersive nature of first-person entertainment can equally be used to believably tame a charging unicorn or to perceive an architectural surround in all its glory of scale, iconography and rhythm.

Authenticity is next, believe me. The nature of real-world physics is simulated more precisely every day that passes, and currently you are able to vibrate your way in an old taxi amongst the urban hills of San Francisco and talk directly in five timeless languages to the scholars at the School of Athens. Technology now exists that will allow you to smell your cyberspace buildings, an oft overlooked pleasure, but then you know all about that, don’t you?

Currently all simulated computer worlds have to operate within a pre-ordained ‘system’. It makes no difference whether that world has been fully explored by its creators for its perfection and its imperfection – at present, we are dealing with everything in a known world. No matter that we promise 50 degrees of freedom, ultimately we will have to had considered EVERY possibility, every possible interaction, the physical properties of every object and their relationships to each other. Even our most advanced A.I. driven ‘bots’ need paths and answers for every eventuality.

The introduction of real people into this world, in their massively multiplayer droves, raises the probability bar, but we STILL need to establish a framework for their interaction. The mad scientist in us takes control and watches the ‘perfect’ world play out, pre-ordained Chaos versus pre-calculated Order. As creators of this world, we impose conditions that imply a correct solution, visible only to us. Where is Mandelbrot when you need him most?

The scale of architectural involvement is directly related to the responsibility of it’s role, and it’s necessity in these worlds. The Sims, for example relies on our familiarity not just with the basics of human life, but the iconographic nature of familiar architectural forms. The interaction/environment formula varies wildly from project to project, and the skill is in achieving a balance. What good is an accurate depiction of life in a medieval town if it’s no bloody fun to interact with?

As technology advances, the digital builders among us will simply have a better choice. It’s not a question of having more polygons to play with, or better lighting effects, it’s simply we will be able to choose how we balance our interactive worlds.

Perhaps these ‘interactive games’ that we are playing out are doing more than simply pleasuring us, taking us from Level A to Level Z with a simple bit of computer-generated horseplay. Perhaps, as we slip from screen to widescreen to virtual reality to theme park reality, we are acting upon the true primal nature of wish fulfilment. As our toolkit grows ever more sophisticated, as our simulated realities become more and more immersive and interactive, aren’t we tapping into something fundamental about our continuing lives?

It seems obvious that a honed and perfected digital ‘lifestyle’, coupled with hyper-real levels of communication, must eventually leak out into our ‘real world’ desires. The ease with which we build a digital impression of ourselves, move through our ideal landscapes, face up to and tear down our terrors and inhibitions. The way we find love on the Internet - our idealised notions of ourselves are going to demand more ‘on the outside’...

So, all the movers and shakers, the manipulators, the builders, the shapers of our planet, will find themselves responding to a new set of criteria, a new type of audience demand, a newly interactive public. Ultimately we may see an architecture that acknowledges this new breed, understands the notion of our double lives and finally comes to terms with our heightened perception of what constitutes our existence. Shouldn’t ‘interactive’ and ‘immersive’ be equally applied to our everyday experiences?

For builders of cyberspace everywhere, the technological shackles are slowly slipping off, our powers of creation are becoming manifestly stronger - and with that our responsibility grows. The faceless 2D avatars of the past are transforming into beautiful effigies of real beings, real faces wink and grin, real emotions howl in the dark digital night. We must deal with the transition, transforming the simple online / offline light switch with a delicate touch. Above all, we must be careful that the hopes and dreams, the inspirations and aspirations, the sense of belonging and community that can develop when we play out our fantasies in our ideal online places do not just wither and die in the cold, hard light of reality.

We step out of the vampiric notion of the dark, lonely secret, hidden in cyberspace, sadly traversing an empty landscape right ‘round midnight…

...It’s just not like that any more…

We step into the light, that light of reality bursting with people and places and ‘the things we’ve seen’. Now we wait for the real world to respond…