What Does It Mean When a Game Uses Art Deco?
The significance of the design style in video games
The best thing about Arkane Studio’s immersive sim Prey (2017) is Talos I, the space station in which the game is set. More than any of the human characters, the station itself is easily the most memorable thing about the game. The levels have been designed with a great deal of thought given to how people might live and work in those spaces down to the tiniest details, and as a result, they feel alive and immersive. Prey also reintroduced me to the style and helped me fall in love with Art Deco design.
Art Deco is a style of visual art that is associated with linearity, bold colours and geometric shapes, and fine materials and craftsmanship. Famous examples of the Art Deco style are the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and several other skyscrapers in Manhattan. This is because Art Deco was extremely popular when those skyscrapers were being designed and constructed. Since the style required expensive materials and careful craftsmanship, it became associated with wealth, luxury, glamour, and faith in societal and scientific progress.
Art Deco is often used in fiction to underscore the ideas of optimism and modernity that the style embodied in its heyday. For example, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead contrasts the protagonist Howard Roark’s use of the style with the stuffy older architects who adamantly stick to Classical Design. But more often in fiction, Art Deco is used to deconstruct or present a dark side to the glamour, opulence, and luxury that it traditionally represents. This is likely because of the vast inequality of the 1920s, also known as ‘The Gilded Age’, and the Great Depression in the 1930s, which are as emblematic of those times as Art Deco is. So, in fiction, Art Deco is often used to represent the misguided optimism, flawed ideals, and darker aspects of the setting.
The setting of American Horror Story: Hotel is the Hotel Cortez, which was built in the 1920s in typical Art Deco fashion and seems to be to be the picture of opulence. It turns out, however, to be populated by vampires and ghosts, one of whom is the original owner of the hotel who built it in the 1920s, the heyday of the style and who is a serial killer, and the many bodies of his victims lie deep in the heart of the hotel. It’s not very subtle.
Of course, Art Deco isn’t always used in the context of critiquing the era it was popular in or the ideals it represents. Civilization V’s user interface design is Art Deco-influenced and the game itself is in keeping with the rest of the franchise’s broadly optimistic themes of human innovation, perseverance, and ingenuity, and with the positive aspects that ideas that Art Deco itself represents.
One of the most famous video game settings to incorporate this aesthetic is Bioshock’s Rapture. The choice to use this style is no coincidence. Bioshock exists as a rebuttal to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism. Andrew Ryan (whose name sounds an awful lot like Ayn Rand) essentially gives you a crash course in Objectivism as you descend into Rapture. Ayn Rand believed in individualism above all else. In Rapture, the best, brightest and wealthiest would not be constrained by regulations, taxes or any obligations to each other, similar to the premise of Galt’s Gulch in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. The point that Bioshock makes is that in a place like Rapture or Galt’s Gulch, where people are not part of a larger collective, where people do not feel an obligation to look out for each other, is a place where people will end up indirectly or directly hurting each other.
This is why Rapture is designed in Art Deco, a style evoked by Ayn Rand. From the very beginning to the end of the game, the player is treated to scene after scene contrasting faded opulence with decay and despair. Immediately after Andrew Ryan’s grand introduction, and a breathtaking view of the city as you descend into it, the station you disembark at is littered with protest signs made by people begging Andrew Ryan to let them leave. The city is full of splicers, essentially zombified humans, many of whom are implied to have been wealthy, living in squalor, lamenting their fate. The city retains much of its former beauty but is also literally falling apart in many places. Bioshock as a refutation of Randian philosophy would not be the same without the Art Deco design of Rapture.
The Outer Worlds is another game that uses Art Deco in its UI design and certain levels. The game is set in the future, in a distant galaxy that a handful of mega-corporations are in the process of colonizing. The setting is meant to be reminiscent of the 1920s Gilded Era, and especially of the railroad barons of that time. The Art Deco flourishes, in my opinion, do a lot of the heavy lifting in connecting the game’s setting to the Gilded Age. While many of the game’s weapons, items, and spaceships are Art Deco-influenced, the level most heavily designed in this style is Byzantium which is the colonial capital and where the corporations’ operations in this area are headquartered. In designing the wealthiest, most luxurious, and most stable location in the game in Art Deco, The Outer Worlds is able to satirize the inequality and exploitation rampant during that time.
Finally, let’s return to Talos I and Prey. On the surface, it would seem that the use of Art Deco is another symptom of Bioshock’s heavy influence on this game, and is simply being used to critique TranStar’s greed and lack of ethics and foresight in their experiments. However, I think there’s more to it than that. It’s worth noting that when you consider the Space Station as a whole, most of it isn’t designed in the Art Deco style, unlike the majority of Rapture.
The primary areas that heavily feature it are the lobby, the staff quarters and the Arboretum, along with parts of the Hardware Labs. The rest of the station, which is most of it, is much more utilitarian and nondescript. Essentially in Talos I, if the area is “forward-facing”, areas that are accessible to the entire crew and visitors, it is done up in Art Deco. Other areas which house more sensitive operations like the laboratories or cargo-related operations not everyone can access, certainly not visitors, are much more utilitarian and not at all opulent.
Prey is a game about deception. The Mind Game. Prey truly begins when the player character Morgan Yu realizing that they’ve been living the same day for the past three years as a result of being subjected to neuromods, the brain-altering technology that TranStar Industries, the owner of Talos I is working on perfecting. The player literally breaks out of this cycle by smashing through the glass window which reveals that instead of a cityscape, Morgan’s apartment is a set on a soundstage. Through the game, Morgan learns that most of the people they met were lying to them or planning to betray them in one way or another, including Morgan’s own brother and parents. The game’s surprise twist ending, which I won’t exactly spoil here, ties into this theme of deception as well.
Real-world spaces also have customer-facing areas which are much nicer to look at than the backrooms that only staff have access to. But the visuals of Talos I having one look for the general public and another for the functions it actually performs is another instance of this misdirection. In the game’s lore, the experimentation on the Typhon, the game’s alien race, is kept a secret from the general public. This secret experimentation is the source of Transtar’s wondrous brain-altering technology. As with Bioshock, the visuals of alien hordes wandering an opulent, three-story-high lobby immediately puts Prey’s use of Art Deco on the side of critiquing unchecked greed and a lack of ethics. However, by limiting its use of Art Deco on Talos I, Prey is able to also use the style to tie into its theme of deception and misdirection.
Art Deco as a style is immediately evocative. It’s meant to make you think of innovation, luxury, a bright future where anything is possible. It has also become heavily associated with the time period in which it became popular, and has been used to critique the social dynamics of the time period and the dark side of the ideals that Art Deco represents. When used in fiction, it can be used to straightforwardly evoke the ideals Art Deco represents, to underscore critiques of the time period and ideals championed during the time, or as a way to illustrate the work’s themes. I think Art Deco is an aesthetically pleasing, visually distinctive style and when a game can tie this style to its themes and narrative, it’s always a joy to behold.