Eleven Essential Books that will help shape your Game City
Designing an imaginary city is not an easy thing to do. Even less so when it’s a videogame city, the construction of which will also have to take a myriad of technical and cost constraints into consideration. Still, one has to start somewhere. Especially when aiming to build an urban environment that is believable, functional, and thus also immersive, in which case I do suggest one starts by taking the time and reading the books I’m about to suggest.
A word of warning though: It would be wise to keep in mind that, what with cities being the incredibly complex and dynamic entities they are, eleven books could never hope to cover everything you’d need to know. Every game city project I’ve worked on (you can have a look at some of them here), for example, did indeed require quite a lot of extra research, and I have been studying cities since the late ‘90s.
On to the books:
The City In History by Lewis Mumford. 650 pages of exquisitely written history that go beyond merely presenting readers with the exciting story of urbanism from the neolithic to the modern era, and actually attempt to define the essence of the city. To identify its core and understand its function, while presenting readers with an amazing journey through human evolution, philosophy, architecture, planning, politics and art. If one ever hopes to truly understand any urban environment, one simply has to have read Mumford’s classic, definitive work.
Good City Form by Kevin Lynch is, despite its narrower scope, another classic that has defined contemporary urban thought. It may not be as all encompassing and grand in its ambition, but it does focus on the visual aspects of the city, and is thus crucial when it comes to the mostly visual medium of videogames. Good City Form examines and reviews the physical forms of the city, its image, its planning, its design, and its structure, and is a very handy tool for every designer of places both imaginary and real. Its approach to creating easy-to-navigate cities can be incredibly useful too.
Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson. A recently released and rather brilliant book that, you’ll be happy to know, is not aimed at planners and/or architects. It’s a book that effortlessly moves from Cavafy’s barbarians and Wright’s unrealized projects to revolutionary Hungary, post-revolutionary Russia and the wildest sci-fi urbanism, only to return to Bruno Taut, the pirate utopia of Libertatia and the mad Great War heroics of Gropius. A book that will definitely inspire, and get you both thinking and imagining.
City of Quartz by Mike Davis. Often described as the work that predicted the Rodney King riots, the City of Quartz impressively does what it says on the cover: it excavates the future in Los Angeles by exploring an immensely intriguing and very existing contemporary dystopia, along with its brief but brutal history of breakneck evolution. What’s more, the book manages to showcase just how complex, dynamic and vibrant every city is, while simultaneously telling a story involving Chandler, Brecht and some absolutely classic jazz.
Key Concepts in Urban Studies by M. Gottdiener and Leslie Budd. Back when I was actively teaching people about cities, geography, and planning this was the book I had used the most in order to provide students with a spherical knowledge of the field. It’s a small, excellently researched, and up to date work that swiftly covers an impressive variety of subjects from housing and gentrification to the models of urban growth and suburbanization.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Though far from a technical handbook, this rather famous work of literature is the darling of each and every urbanist, planner, and/or city geographer I have ever met. It follows Marco Polo as he explores dozens of fantastical, whimsical, and terrifyingly imaginative cities, and describes them to the ageing Kublai Khan. Each city is fundamentally different to the other ones, and over the two or so pages that are dedicated to it, it explores a different idea. One city might look like a ship from the desert and a camel from the sea, whereas another one might be hanging over the abyss, or be sitting atop a huge necropolis mirroring it and encompassing its past. Each of said cities could obviously help inspire an entire game world by itself, or even allow us glimpses at the reality of the human condition or, at the very least, its built expressions.
A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh wasn’t what I expected it to be, and though it really does help with providing a vastly different approach to viewing the urban environment — as a burglar and thus as someone not constrained by doors and the accepted use of urban space — it isn’t as thorough and methodical in its approach as I would have liked it to be. Still, the Burglar’s Guide is a fine source of inspiration, and, unexpectedly, a very handy tool when it comes to actually approaching level design on the city level. The fact that it made me think of other alternate approaches to the use of urban space — say by a beggar, a dissident, or a prostitute, to name a few — can only be considered a good thing.
If you are working on a dystopic setting though, what you simply need to read is Evil Paradises (edited by Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk). It is a provocative, varied, and thoughtful collection of texts, focusing on the horrible utopias unchecked capitalism has created for itself in cities, deserts, and even the oceans. It is a multi-faceted examination of how the (impressively innovative) utopia of the rich is bound to become the dystopia of the poor, as the book covers places from Dubai and Orange County, to Kabul and Beijing. Evil Paradises features the words of urbanists, geographers, architects, planners, historians, and even China Miéville.
The Spotter’s Guide To Urban Engineering was suggested to me by former PC Gamer US editor Logan Decker, and, despite trusting the man’s taste and knowledge, I frankly didn’t quite know what to expect. Happily, I ran into an excellent book covering everything regarding the foundations of the modern city. Everything I was taught when studying to become an engineer has been condensed, illustrated, and presented in a way that will make sense to all sorts of creative and not-so-creative people. Infrastructure, materials, technology, roads, nuclear plants, communication networks, sewage systems, and all sorts of other mostly ignored crucial bits of the urban tissue get presented in a useful, and, most importantly, implementable way.
Cities of the World — A History In Maps by Peter Whitehead. A beautiful book that manages to cram centuries of global urban history, and cartography into its couple hundred lush 9"x12.2" pages. Major cities across all continents and eras are showcased, and unique insights into their history as well as the whole of the history of cities are provided. As for the 16th century map of Venice by Ignazio Danti you’ll find in this book, well, it really is a masterpiece.
The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding edited by Janna Silverstein. This collection of articles is not about building cities per se, but it does contain invaluable ideas for actually doing so. Cities, you see, are the creations of societies and are set in worlds; they (usually) do not float around in abstract space. This particular Kobold Guide then is all about helping you create a believable setting for your city complete with its geography, technology, religion, cultures, cults, history, geography, and even nations. Some map-making advice is also provided.
[In the off chance you are fluent in Greek, I’d suggest you also read my PhD thesis. It’s freely available online here, and it will cover most of your metropolitan and theoretical needs. Also, I have a site that’s all about Game Cities.]