The Art of Video Game Architecture

Aoife Gleeson
4 min readApr 27, 2017

Architects and video game designers are more similar than you think. You might be wondering why. Well, both use similar tools to conceptualise virtual buildings with a user centric approach in mind — except of course, one has the intention for it to be actually built in real life. For both architects and game designers, the commonality can be quite beneficial.

Games for Social Change

Consider the UN-Habitat’s ‘Block by Block’ programme. When creating public spaces in poor and developing communities, UN-Habitat wanted to gather the perspective and ideas of the people that would be using it the most. To do this, they gave Minecraft to members of the community, giving them real input into the design of their public spaces. Using Minecraft, they created the kind of spaces and structures that they would like to see in their community which the team then considered when designing the new public spaces. This flourishing programme has resulted in great projects all over the world which you can check out at their website.

Another example is “Block’hood”, a neighbourhood planning simulator that asks the player to consider ecological, social and economic factors while building. By creating a game where the player must balance the energy inputs and outputs of the building (buildings are made up of block with special requirements, failing them can lead to decay, entropy and abandonment) the creator, Jose Sanchez, seeks to educate people on the complexity of city building and the global challenges of modern architecture.

‘The Fall’ by Beauty and the Bit for Bekerman’s Blog

An increasingly permeable connection between architecture and video game design can also be seen in architectural visualisation. One of the industry’s best, Ronen Bekerman’s Architectural Visualisation blog, showcases gorgeous concepts both for the real world and video game designs, with the increasing photorealism of the latter making them almost indistinguishable from reality. Through competitions he runs, Bekerman sometimes asks readers to combine the two fields by creating architectural visualisations using video game engines like Unreal 4. The results function not just as a showcase for a building but mood pieces in their own right which could easily be the opening of a film or game. The winner of one competition, the visualisation for the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, shows this well. Tools ostensibly for video game creation can be fantastic tools for architects to create interactive 3D models, complementing the current trend of using VR to show clients potential spaces.

The winner of ‘The Museum’ Visualisation Challenge

Building your Game Correctly

Of course, it goes both ways: the expertise of an architect can also be invaluable in developing video games. Historically, games would have been designed as separate levels, or hub worlds, with loading times between each area. This meant each area could have significantly different designs without it feeling jarring. Now, games in which the whole world is open to you, with little to no load times in between, are becoming increasingly common. These worlds need to function as a cohesive whole: with enough variety for the player to experience different environments while maintaining a consistent style and a natural transition in environment. Architects and landscape artists can be invaluable in achieving this.

A good case study is “The Witness”. The Witness is a game where the player finds themselves on a deserted island, populated only by derelict buildings and gorgeous scenery. While exploring the island, the player has to solve abstract puzzles linked to the environment and architecture around them. It’s a quiet, pensive game, brought to life by the detail inserted into every area of the island.

To achieve this, director Jonathan Blow enlisted architects and landscape architects from outside the video game industry to give a unique perspective, not blinkered by the usual assumptions of video game design. Designing the game required creating distinct buildings for each area of the island, each inspired by the style of different eras and civilizations, a job best done by an architect. Many of the puzzles require the manipulation of light or perfectly aligning your view of a building to find the solution. The flora also plays a vital role, not just for puzzle design: there is no dialogue in the game and music is sparse, meaning the beauty of the island is an important part of keeping the player engaged. Deanna Van Buren, architect and FOURM design studio founder, had never worked in video games before and now advocates the inclusion of architects in the video game development process. In interviews, Van Buren talks about her experience working on games and how she no longer had to consider some constraints (the position of the sun never moves in The Witness) while having to consider new ones (how the player navigates the space).

As shown in the Witness, incorporating real world architecture into games can make them feel more authentic. Take, for another example, Gone Home, a game about a girl returning to her family home from college to find her family missing. The player explores the house, looking for clues and uncovering deeper details on her family’s identities and relationships. In that game the house is the only place the player goes, making its authenticity paramount to the player’s immersion.

Evidently, both architects and video game designers could benefit from the expertise and tools of the other’s profession. Now and the in future, even more interesting ideas will come about from these two collaborating using tools like Autodesk, VRay, Blender and Unreal Engine.

Aoife Gleeson