White Noise
Made in White City

The Architecture of Video Games

To render a city is no longer enough; capturing its soul has become one of gaming’s biggest obsessions.

Here are six games that changed the landscape of gaming.

WORDS - Martin Gaston
20.08.2017

I moved to London in 2011, but I’ve been at home in digital cities for much longer. Take, for instance, Saints Row. A game created in 2006, its sole purpose was grabbing a slice of Grand Theft Auto’s lucrative sales at the checkout, a pound-shop version of its more iconic inspiration. In its city of Stilwater, a clip of submachine gun ammunition was $5. A burger, on the other hand, cost $150. Little wonder the residents of this city were so quick to turn to crime.

Over the years, Saints Row carved out an identity for itself: riding the heady rainbow of memes. The last game in the series, released in 2015, had long vacated attempts to create a sense of legitimate place and had you flying around an open-world version of Hell firing a gun that shoots cake batter, the series now fully retreated into the safety of its niche in order to avoid the stiff competition of its modern contemporaries. 

To render a city is no longer enough. Capturing its soul has become one of gaming’s biggest obsessions. 

Deus Ex and Grand Theft Auto IV: New York, New York

When Deus Ex was released in 2000, the twin towers of World Trade Center were absent from its New York skyline. Itself a game steeped in conspiratorial cyber-future, the game’s narrative waves it away as a result of terrorist attacks, plausible enough in a context where you’d only notice this skyline while attempting to scale the innards of a disembodied Statue of Liberty. But message boards began to rumble: just how had Deus Ex managed to uncannily predict the events of 2001?

deus ex new york video games

In truth, the towers were removed from Deus Ex’s skyline due to memory limitations; a canny little technical conceit ensured that half of the city skyline was simply mirrored. And with so many digital recreations of this city in a medium that’s often all too obsessed with world-altering destruction, evil conspiracies and hectic plots, it was only a matter of time before one of these chaotic prophecies came true.

"I also always saw New York as a symbol of nature," game director Cevat Yerli told Kotaku in 2010. "It is an icon. People know the Statue of Liberty. People know New York. There's so much to it, and, for me, it's the pride of mankind. Then if I want to save some city, which one would it be that symbolises the strong will of mankind, if you will?”

No city has been digitised and digested in games as much as New York. Its streets, buildings and landmarks have been made and remade time and time again by digital architects and developers, the world’s most recognisable city becoming a kaleidoscope for multiple narratives that, largely due to the nature of medium, frequently involve some part of it getting blown up. Right now, countless versions of New York’s iconic metropolitan areas are probably being rendered exploding on the screens of countless games consoles, tablets and PCs.

grand theft auto video games new york

“New York is a great example of both a national and international city,” says Juan De La Mora, model shop director at Chicago’s Studio Gang Architects. “It takes many architects to build a city, but it also takes many architects from many places and cultures to build a city like New York, to give it character.” The knock-on effect in gaming is that many developers, often working in teams of hundreds, are now crafting multiple perceptions of the city.

Gaming’s marquee version of New York City turns out to not be New York City at all: Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City reimagines itself into a thick, syrupy cordial of pure New York, a digital manifestation of feeling alongside outright facsimile. While Star Junction replaces Times Square and Middle Park takes Central Park’s place, GTA IV manages to capture and pronounce the near-infinite stimuli of actually feeling like you’re in New York. The game was a commercial success of enough significance in 2008 to send a ripple effect through the medium that’s still felt today.

Alongside the city’s sheer recognisability, and its broad commercial appeal, New York screams out to developers forced to walk the challenging tightrope between high-quality visuals and strict technical limitations. It’s one of the main reasons our digital cities are often feeble cross-sections of their real-world counterparts. NYC’s grid-based system ensures it’s easy to model and to navigate. Sky-high buildings make natural curtains for machines to render detailed streets without stuttering to a frustrating crawl. Even its island boundaries ensure players can’t stop and wonder why they’re unable to roam outside of their defined boundaries. London, on the other hand, with its giant, central sprawl and rolling skyline, would still manage to turn most modern computers into a wheezing wreck, unless the entirety of the game took place inside Canary Wharf. But who’d want to play that?

Destiny and Dishonored: Homesick for Digital Places

Grand Theft Auto V, first released in 2013, moved the series to Los Angeles and was recently announced as the best-selling game of 2017 in the UK so far; imagine if Frozen had taken more at the box office this year than Wonder Woman. Whereas developers once sought to emulate the success of Call of Duty, now they look to replicate Grand Theft Auto. The ‘open-world’ city has become the pinnacle of commercial success in a hit-driven industry. The motivation might be business but, for those playing in these cities, having them manifest in our imaginations also creates a genuine connection to their real-world equivalents. The effect is of the digital postcard variety, but one with the power to intermingle with our actual holidays, commutes and nights out. With GTA V, I found myself uncannily and immediately acclimated due to a handful of previous trips to the City of Angels.

But developers are also starting to take the concept of the city as an evolving space, creating digital architecture to house years of in-game memories and weave their own narratives. As art imitates life, designers incorporate more city planning into their digital worlds. “You have to take account of the needs of the individual and all groups to ensure that shelter, amenity and all other aspects of the urban area work to create an environment within which people want to spend time,” says Adam Murray, director at Coda Planning. He’s overseen residential and commercial projects in Salford, Watford and Sheffield. “You have to protect the historic environment, but also progress and not fight change,” he adds, “[providing] for differentiation and changing environments, a variety our brains crave.”

The influence of certain cities has also served as a launchpad for ideas. BioShock Infinite warped 20th-century Americana and the Chicago World’s Fair to provide a cautionary, fascistic vision of American exceptionalism with an inseparable church and state. Dishonored (below) and its sequel incorporates London’s Industrial Revolution, contrasting slippery cobbled streets, mouldy brickwork and rampant disease bound together with gilded aristocrats and the upheaval of steel. The game unashamedly mimicks Samuel Johnson, to great effect, when it says, “when a man is tired of Dunwall, he is tired of life.”

dishonored video games

Games are also looking to incorporate the core foundation of any city, a shared space, into their own worlds. One of the biggest games of recent years, Destiny, saw its players spend three years to-ing and fro-ing around the Tower (below), an interactive balcony under the panoramic skyline of the hovering Traveler, developer Bungie’s contemporary interpretation of a classic sci-fi totem. Much of Destiny’s rhythm focused on cooperative play and so regularly returned groups of players here, effectively serving as both architecture and its beating narrative heart. The Tower was host to players completing quests, trading with the game’s vendors, or even sitting with friends, swapping stories of completed accomplishments or, more likely, waiting for one of your group to hurry up and finish getting a cup of tea.

The Tower was more of an intricate stage under a panoramic skybox than a genuine area to navigate, but its lifeblood was in the personal tales it would become the backdrop for. Once, after completing the game’s then-most challenging quest, my own group of six friends sat in the Tower for almost an hour as we recounted the tale over our headset mics, gazing up at the digital stars of a fixed sky. Again, art and life are intertwined: “I believe up-to-date ideas and theories of urban planning endeavour to bring people together,” says Murray of Coda Planning.

destiny the tower video games

Destiny 2 is released this September. Its first action: destroying the Tower, effectively wiping clean the game’s original vision of an evolving, decade-long web of player narratives. It’s not the first time this has happened: back in 2010, Blizzard also scorched its fantasy RPG World of Warcraft when dragon fire radically redesigned the game’s epic topography. Played by 12 million people at the time, to walk from one end of World of Warcraft to another would quite literally take hours. The cities that millions of people had poured their time into – this is a game that has both spawned and ended countless relationships – was changed overnight. World of Warcraft lives on Blizzard’s servers, and there was no way to go back to the way things were. The game people had lived in for six years was dramatically changed, yet the emotional connection to cities like Stormwind and Orgrimmar were very real and, for its players, logging in after the cataclysm felt like relocating to a new home.

Cities: Skylines and SimCity: Gaming the Traffic

cities skylines

While the industry’s biggest publishers continue to chase success in realising the macrocosm of a city, many smaller developers are also wrestling with the individual systems. One of the most successful is Cities: Skylines (above), which revived the city-building simulation in 2015. “Simulation is something small teams can do really well,” says Colossal Order designer Karoliina Korppoo.

The inventor and champion of this genre since 1989 has been SimCity, which attempted its own 2013 reboot after proposing a suite of features that consumers hated. Eagle-eyed players then noticed the inhabitants of its cities would drive at the start of the day to the nearest job and then, at the end of the day, drive back to the nearest vacant house – a sort of hot-desking policy which extended to their entire lives. The whole authenticity behind these play cities was broken and the game’s reputation came crashing down around it.

One of SimCity’s other reviled features was in forcing people into tiny environments with limited resources, which inadvertently asked difficult questions of its would-be mayors. What are you prepared to sacrifice for that school and who, exactly, has to live next to the rubbish tip? It was, perhaps, the most interesting thing about SimCity, though it wasn’t particularly fun to play. Cities: Skylines, on the other hand, allowed people to craft their own perfect, sprawling utopian environments – and it became a critical and commercial success as players looked to dreamy escapism when in charge of forging their own environments.

It turns out nobody fantasises about the negative intricacies of being a city planner, then, although actual city planners have shown interest in using it as a sketching tool. “In Stockholm they had a workshop for city planners and urban planners,” says Korppoo, “and they actually used the game to find out what could be done with some traffic solutions.” Not to mention that Cities: Skylines has, at any one time, about 10,000 people playing it. The crowdsourced mind could one day feed back into real-world design. “It's like having many people testing out ideas on how the cities of the future could be built, because the traffic system is quite realistic, so they come up with solutions in the game that might actually be transferred to real life cities.”

mini metro video games

As in life, plotting out the success of a modern digital city rests heavily on the traffic. It’s fundamental to Cities: Skylines’ simulation, it broke SimCity and, on a wider level, players ultimately expect to be able to run red lights in Grand Theft Auto V with no repercussions. When it comes to city systems, traffic remains the crown jewel for games, leading the developers of 911 Operator and Mini Metro (above) to create engaging puzzles about the strain of providing services with limited resources. These games might not challenge their big-budget contemporaries for scale, but they’re equally indebted to their city influences.

The Future: Where Digital and Physical Merge

Games are currently obsessed with the city, but what of the future? If there’s one thing we can bank on, it’s that our computers will probably get more powerful. Developers are now looking to grapple with augmented and virtual reality, with the International Data Corporation expecting the two industries to be worth $162bn by 2020. Therein lie the opportunities to engage with gaming’s fantastical worlds with new tools and new hardware that could become affordable enough to buy on a whim over the next few years.

“We have virtual reality software in our office which allows us to walk around our new developments when they’re in the concept stage,” says Murray. “This is absolutely phenomenal and provides a real insight into where technology and opportunity on this level is going.”

For non-gamers, one of the things most difficult to grapple with about its culture is a preconception of willing removal, an apparent agreement to spend our lives gleefully disconnected. By contrast, we tend to think of our cities as active places. But millions of us now have our lives delivered to our door, and the majority of our time spent experiencing our grand cities comes from getting to work and back, and maybe catching some Pokémon along the way.

Alongside VR, the knock-on effects of aggressive automation could lead to an entire generation of our workforce slowly, or suddenly, redefining the very notion of work itself. An abundance of time potentially looms on the horizon. Without the daily commute to work and back, a whole generation could find itself quickly displaced from this need to congregate around the metropolitan areas that were once sought out for work and trade. According to Murray, the key thing is to “ensure our built environment is beautiful, interesting and interactive, giving opportunities to all, as can be achieved in an alternative reality so readily.”

Could new tech also lead to the kind of disruptive democratisation of architecture as the modern phone has done for photographers? “My fear for the future is that, as a society, we begin to think that we are all architects and that we can choose to eliminate the architect out of the design process,” says De La Mora of Studio Gang Architects. “Architecture is problem-solving; it's a discipline, a way of thinking, a way of living.”

Our great cities are more connected than ever, and in our globalised world it could even be argued that their spread now continues long past their geographical boundaries. When dinner can appear at your doorstep following a few taps of your phone, it could even be argued that our cities now already exist, at least in part, in a digital space. Gaming has become as obsessed with the city as we are with gaming, and who wouldn’t want to relocate to a digital city when we live in a world where a cheeseburger from Five Guys already costs £8.75?

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