Video game architecture is speculative in its nature, transcending conventions of the real and presenting endless artistic possibilities. It creates micro universes—vehicles to sustain alternate ideas of reality, projections and sceneries of simulated, subjective experiences where anything can happen.
The journey into fictional landscapes is a defining element of its design, the very fabric of both gameplay and narrative experience. Recent titles have expanded the frontiers of virtual environment, rendering entire cities and wide-open territories. But more important, games now are about much more than the mere attainment of objectives; they're about full immersion.
This is one of the most interesting components in the development of video games today. Unlike other forms of media, games deliver believable, fictional environments that can be approached experientially, providing new stages for storytelling and conceptual creativity. In this article, we present 10 exciting examples of video gaming landmarks that are both alluring and thought-provoking, virtual places everyone should visit. Consider this the Architect's Guide to Life in Video Games.
Renaissance Italy (Florence, Venice, Rome), Assassin's Creed II (2009), Assassin's Creed Brotherhood (2010).
Assassin's Creed II takes place within several regions throughout late 15th-century Italy such as Venice, Florence, Forli, and the medieval walled town of Monteriggioni. The follow-up, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, expands this excursion into the architectural beauties of Renaissance Italy, presenting a faithful, highly detailed reproduction of Rome in the early 16th century.
The game actually serves as an encyclopedia of the architecture and people of that era—the visual interface cleverly triggers a codex entry every time you stand near relevant landmarks and characters. Needless to say, I've spent much of my time doing nothing more than sightseeing, discovering wonderful churches and temples, enjoying the exquisite sights provided by the city's iconic hills and aqueducts, and stopping every now and then to read the latest codex information. As far as video games go, this is an architect's dream come true.
City 17, Half-Life 2 (2004). Image credits: Emalord.
Half-Life 2 is set in the aftermath of an alien invasion. The surviving humans have been turned into slaves and are gathered in controlled urban areas where any sign of dissidence is confronted with violence and brutality.
Located in Eastern Europe, City 17 is an unsettling metropolitan area, featuring a variety of architecture types, from pre-World War II neoclassicism to post-war revivalism, Soviet modernism, and contemporary design, as well as alien structures. The most disturbing locations, however, appear to be the ones comprising anonymous buildings—collective housing blocks that resonate with the strange nature of this post-apocalyptic world where humans are beginning to lose their memories, unable to remember the past, forgetting even who they are.
Los Angeles, LA Noire (2011).
An authentic depiction of Los Angeles in the year 1947 serves as the backdrop to LA Noire. The game presents an obsessively accurate recreation of the city's built environment with faithful reproductions of buildings, locations, vehicles, and traffic patterns. As you drive through this open-world metropolis you can witness a vibrant period of accelerated urban development, with its majestic downtown and expanding suburbs still under construction.
Rapture, BioShock (2007), BioShock 2 (2010), BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea DLC (2013). Image credits: Digital Frontiers.
Rapture—depicted in the BioShock series—is a massive underwater city created by a fictional business magnate named Andrew Ryan. This utopian metropolis comprises submersed Art Deco-styled buildings, connected by a network of glass tunnels and a Bathysphere system. The city is completely self-sustaining, with its electricity and air purification systems powered by the volcanic vents originated from the bottom of the sea.
More than the action or even the narrative, it's this intriguing megastructure that has madeBioShock such a memorable experience. Lying mysteriously at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, Rapture is the central character of the game, a fantastically speculative world of horror and science fiction, and brilliantly drawn architecturally.
American Old West, Red Dead Redemption (2010).
The sprawling landscape of Red Dead Redemption takes its inspiration from the iconography of the American Old West. The territory is based loosely on the Rio Grande Basin, the frontier region between Texas and Mexico, and contains many settlements, gang hideouts, bridges, a perfectly functional railroad system, and a wide variety of geographical features to discover.
Featuring a dynamic weather system, with smooth transitions between night and day, this continuous environment allows free exploration through thousands of square miles of virtual territory, from populated towns to the hostile wilderness teeming with wild life. The wide-open vistas, with vivid sunsets and sunrises, are a testament to the majesty of video games as a medium to experience a genuine sense of landscape.
Post-apocalyptic America, The Last of Us (2013).
In The Last of Us, martial law is declared after the outbreak of a deadly fungal infection and many American cities are transformed into military-controlled "Quarantine Zones." The remaining, non-infected population is kept safe inside these heavily guarded areas, but lives under a permanent state of absolute rule.
Meanwhile, the world outside is being slowly reclaimed by nature. Taking inspiration from nonfiction books and essays such as The World Without Us and Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl, The Last of Us depicts crumbling buildings, roads, and other man-made structures and wild animals taking over the streets. It's an eerie representation of what would happen to our built environment without the presence of humans.
The deserts of Journey, Journey (2012).
A seemingly endless desert. A large, foreboding mountain in the distance. You set on an expedition toward this massive structure, finding the remains of an ancient civilization scattered in the endless landscape. The setting of Journey, Journey is as abstract as its narrative. Without words, the story unfolds through the movements of a magnificent symphony composed by Austin Wintory. This is a game that reveals itself through the perfect blend of music and poetic imagery.
Los Santos, Grand Theft Auto V (2013).
Los Santos, the setting of the latest Grand Theft Auto installment, is a fictional city portrayed as a generic version of the metropolitan area of Los Angeles and southern California. This sprawling urban environment captures the atmosphere of a real-life metropolis, with its complex system of freeways, interstates, and highways, and commuters driving day and night. Known for its horrible traffic, Los Santos also has its very own public transit network with bus services operating all over the city and a fully functioning light rail system circulating both overground and underground. A full loop of the tram route around the city's five districts is likely to take the player over an hour. With approximately 4 million virtual inhabitants, Los Santos is one of the most convincing urban environments ever created for a video game.
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