Dating Video Game Architecture

It’s just you and a Gothic Revival church, alone in a musky bar. Heh – no, dating as in telling when it’s from. One of the things about cities is that the buildings in it are from a bunch of different periods. If your city was built in the 1850s, like mine, there will be stuff that dates all along that line – there’s some stuff from the 19th century, and a bunch of 20th century stuff, and ooh just a little dash of 21st century magic. But there’s a spread, right.

This is quite a simple way to think about it, but we can conceptualise the city architecture as a series of layers. In 1848, a whole bunch of people built a whole bunch of early buildings. That’s the first layer – well, no, that’s a bit racist. We had Maori settlements before that. Let’s just talk about it in terms of the European settlement, for now. 1848, layer one. 1849, layer two – a whole bunch of new buildings get built, some of the buildings from the previous year fall over, a couple burn down, some get upgraded or demolished or rebuilt – so there’s a second layer of heritage. Fast forward over a hundred and fifty years, and now you’ve got a hundred and fifty layers of renovation, rebuilding, restoration, all of it. It’s kinda hodge-podge – just this real scramble of different sorts of buildings from different eras. And that’s part of what makes a city. Thing is, you don’t really see that sort of aging process in video games. If there are houses, they’re all built as if they’re from the same period. There’s no dating of the different styles of building – it’s all just plonked down as if everything was built that year.


Some games have excuses for this oversight. Sometimes you’ll be on a space station, say in Alien: Isolation, and it’s one space station built by one company all in one go. You’d be more willing to forgive a singularity of architecture in that environment. You could sort of argue the same thing for games set in recently settled areas – I’m thinking Assassin’s Creed III, which is partly set in that frontier sort of environment. But really it’s not about pointing the finger and saying ‘X games are justified, Y games are not’ – I mean, we could do that if we wanted, but it’s boring. I just want to point out that this is a thing, and note that in all likelihood, basically nobody’s put much thought into it.


You do get some games that divide urban environments by class, and that’s kinda interesting. Compare the slums or the whale yards in Dishonored to the high-ass fancy palace areas. The architecture in those places are obviously different, and that’s cool. It’s picking up on this idea that physical environments often collect certain lifestyles or types of people. Poor people get dumped in shitty houses because they can’t afford the nice ones. Rich areas function by excluding as many people as possible, so that anyone who can make it in is probably loaded. So yes, there’s a cultural difference between those locations, and it’s marked in the architecture, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s dating going on. I haven’t looked closely at the game, but I’ll bet most of the architecture looks like it could’ve been built in the same five-year period. If there’s a singular style within the poor quarter, say, then there’s no dating. Same goes for anywhere else.


Now in a sense, none of this dating really matters. It doesn’t impact gameplay, necessarily – in fact, when it does it might even be explicitly unhelpful, say in games like Assassin’s Creed. Those sorts of games where you have to navigate the environment build to some extent on a familiarity of scenery. If you see one of those carts with the white cloths, you know that you’re allowed to run up it, and you expect that it’ll lead to running over awnings or something similar. There’s a particular function that’s signposted by the architecture – and if you date your buildings, there’s going to be a more diverse range of signifiers that the audience has to learn. That is, there’ll be more sorts of building parts that you have to encounter and recognise. And sure, there’s nothing wrong with broadening that field of knowledge that the player has to have, but it would potentially slow things down. I wonder if Mirror’s Edge might be raised as an example of that issue – there are things that you can run on/through/against, sure, but as the environment changes so drastically for each level, and the actual objects that you’re encountering change, I wonder if there begin to be questions for the player as to which objects do what.

Can you grab those air con machines on the left? Who knows!

The other thing to consider is that video game cities aren’t real cities (duh). Real cities are dated in the way that they are because that’s just sort of how chronology works. You have to have all these layers, because time passes and suddenly they’re just there. By contrast, video game cities aren’t real. They don’t have to abide by the rules that normal cities do: they just have to take the idea of the city and represent it. That’s why you get these repeating objects as in Assassin’s Creed – you wouldn’t find those in a real city, those identical copy/pasted prompts. The game isn’t designed to be read as a piece of realism. It might seem like it, what with the whole ‘actually going back into your ancestor’s memories’ thing, but it’s not. It’s a simulation – yes, the Animus is essentially a massive simulator on a narrative level, but also the cities you visit are false cities. They aren’t dated like normal cities, and the things that’re in them don’t make sense. They’re signifiers, or signs, free of any of the requirements that exist in this physical world. The pillars don’t have to support real buildings, the physics doesn’t have to be consistent or logical, and the city’s architecture can be five minutes old. Doesn’t matter.


Also, off-topic – you can tell I took the Alien screenshot on my new computer because the image dimensions are totally different.

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