Architecture theory is a considerably broad subject, an amalgamation of numerous artistic and psychological sensibilities. However, regardless of architectural movement or era, one idea has proved itself a philosophical mainstay. In the words of architect Louis Khan; “architecture is the thoughtful making of space”. For centuries, architects have been concerned with how physical forms shape and manipulate the spatial void they are placed within, exploring how this influences the ways in which human beings interact with space.
Even though digital game levels are intangible, players interface with these spaces in a fashion to how their own bodies would interact with the world around them. Hence, level design can be approached through an architectural lens to enrich the player’s experience of digital spaces.
In this assignment, I shall explore how level designers have utilized architecture theory in their craft. Throughout, I will introduce and explain several spatial principles and present a curated range of game spaces that employ them. This will display the ways in which level designers have utilized, subverted or otherwise re-purposed architectural theory to enrich player experience, but may also show how genre affects these decisions.
Emotionally-guided Planning of Space
A ‘parti pris’¸ often shortened to ‘parti’, is a planning technique that some architects use early in their design process to identify their project’s layout and spatial qualities. Usually a sketch of the site’s overhead layout, the parti can be informed by external ideas which often transcend the physicality of architectural form. Through this approach, an architectural piece can become a physical manifestation of the philosophical concept it was founded upon.
Meaning ‘spirit of place’, the Roman concept of genius loci has been adapted by architects to describe when a place is recognized for a remarkable or memorable quality. For some level designers, the genius loci may exist through an intended gameplay experience that is shaped by their game genre. In horror game Dead Space 2, hostile enemies were omitted from the chapter ‘Déjà Vu on the Ishimura’ which subverted player expectation and placed it among the most memorable moments of the game’s campaign. The genius loci here can be considered as being the elevation of dramatic tension throughout the level’s spatial atmosphere.
Place and Space
Generally, it can be assumed that both architects and level designers must possess a fundamental understanding of how shapes and spaces are visually organised. A way for this to be achieved is application of gestalt theory; the psychological study of human perception.
Level designer Christopher W. Totten refers to level design as “an art of contrasts”, in which the gestalt component of figure-ground theory can be applied. Figure-ground theory states that all components within a person’s visual field can be separated into two contrasting elements: ‘figures’ and ‘ground’.
For Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka, “the whole is something else than the sum of its parts”. Through the lens of architectural design, this idea is present; form and space must be considered equally to be distinguishable and understood. Architect Francis D. K. Ching defines the relationship between figure and ground as “a unity of opposites”, alluding to both elements having equal significance to a visual composition.
There are two ways in which the placement of figures will determine how the surrounding ground is visually processed:
- Positive space is created when figures are arranged to imply shape within them. The ground itself can be perceived as a figure.
- Negative space occurs when Figures are placed distantly from one another, making the ground appear shapeless and uncontained.
Ching reinforces how the base principles behind figure-ground theory remain significant when applied to Architecture, claiming that “architectural form occurs at the juncture between mass and space”. This perspective echoes throughout the application of spatial theory in both architecture and level design. Here, mass and space are the tangible equivalents to figure and ground. There must be always be a perceivable contrast between form and space to retain visual clarity. The contrast between figure and ground has numerous was of being achieved, including colour, value, and texture.
N++, as a two-dimensional platformer, does not adhere to many architectural sensibilities. Despite this, the game’s minimalistic level design highlights the symbiotic dichotomy between mass and space. The figures and ground are easily identifiable from each other due to their heavily contrasting colours and values (see Figure 1).
Fig. 1: N++ 2016. 'Parkour Park Prototype' level. [screenshot by the author].
Here, the white masses shown are physical structures, and the navy-coloured void is the space in which players navigate through. The placement of obstacles and enemies within the playable space help to prevent the player from alternating their perspective of the game’s figures and ground, a problem that occurs when both elements of a visual composition have roughly equal presence.
Some levels in N++ are prone to this problem, where their masses and spaces dominating equal space and disrupting the distinction between figure and ground. This is exacerbated when the level’s masses appear to be extensions of the surrounding game border (see Figure 2).
Highlighting the shortcomings of a minimalistic colour palette, scenarios like these have potential to confuse the player, as the game environment consequently becomes more difficult to read. However, these abstract visual compositions could be considered a positive or otherwise intriguing quality, contributing to the level’s genius loci.
Fig. 2: N++ 2016. 'Learning Process' level. [screenshot by the author].
Urban designer Kevin Lynch proposed that urban city environments are comprised of five key elements. One of these elements, landmarks, can be considered a significant level design tool to enrich a game’s environment. At an urban scale, landmarks are typically physical structures like towers, distinctive buildings, or statues, that serve as spatial anchors or reference points for pedestrians. Furthermore, landmarks have potential to contribute to a space’s genius loci.
Lynch believed that the “principal factor” for an object to be considered a landmark was its visual contrast to a background, which could be achieved through application of figure-ground theory. The Eiffel Tower is perhaps one of the most renowned examples of a landmark utilizing figure-ground effectively. Here, the sky itself is the ground in which the figure is placed upon (see Figure 3). This grants Paris a landmark of immense scale that can be observed and referenced several kilometres from its origin.
Fig. 3: Gustave Eiffel 1889. The Eiffel Tower.
Landmarks as World-enriching Figures
Naturally, Level Designers can use skyboxes in outdoor environments to similar effect. The skybox can also be made visually distinguishable from the game’s horizon, resulting in a significant amount of negative space to be used as the ground for landmark figures.
In World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth, players are immediately greeted by a monolithic structure upon their arrival to the fictional city of Dazar’alor (see Figure 4). This structure is a gilded, Mesoamerican-influenced pyramid that houses the upper echelons of the native society and their seat of power. Visually, the pyramid contrasts its background to a similar magnitude of landmarks like the Eiffel Tower.
Fig. 4: World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth. 2018. Pyramid landmark in Dazar'alor. [screenshot by the author].
The placement of Dazar’alor’s pyramid echoes architectural conventions of spatial elevation. Ching identifies how the physical elevation of a structure is often a culturally informed decision, venerating the site’s religious or social importance to the area it has risen above. The pyramid itself is among the tallest locations on the entire continent of Zandalar, indicating its significance to the city’s cultural identity. Home to the Zandalari Trolls, the races’ occupation of the structure symbolises their dominance and mastery over the land. This notion continues through the bold, triangular shape of the pyramid, which mimics the surrounding mountains.
Similarly, the Citadel in Half Life 2 carries a similar theme of dominance over the surrounding landscape, but in such a way that it appears overwhelmingly oppressive. The Citadel’s futuristic, muted features and monstrous size have a discordant but contrasting presence among the dated, brick-and-mortar apartment blocks of City 17. The tower evokes a sense of dread or unease, which is fitting, as Totten explains how the game establishes very early that the Citadel is the location of the game’s primary antagonist.
Using Landmarks as Diegetic Pathfinding Devices
Additionally, level designers can place landmarks throughout game levels as physical goals or locations that the player must reach. The impact of using waypoints in this manner can be augmented by an architectural technique that Frederick describes as “denial and reward”. Generally, the intention behind this is to make arrival to a landmark or destination feel more satisfying.
In the context of level design, denial and reward is used during the player’s passage to a landmark. Landmarks become temporarily obscured from view, only to be revealed later from a new distance or perspective. Revealing the landmark from increasingly closer distances can indicate the passage of time to player in a natural and unobtrusive way, compelling the player to proceed.
Journey utilizes this technique well. The game’s primary objective is to reach the mountain, a distant landmark that is introduced almost immediately after the game begins. The mountain often leaves the player’s field of view as they complete puzzles and traverse the abandoned landscape, but will occasionally resurface, appearing closer to the player. The physical qualities of the mountain are layered; new details are made apparent to the player as they get closer to the summit. These details include changes in weather, as well as the addition of small ruins and structures that would have been impossible to see from a greater distance.
Further Exploration of Positive and Negative Spaces
Positive Spaces in Urban Environments
In urban environments, architectural figures are often placed in such a way that shapes the within them, implying spaces without using form. These positive spaces act as “dwelling” zones where people are typically found to socialise. The Nolli Map demonstrates the use of these spaces throughout the entire city of Rome, Italy (see Figure 5).
Fig. 5: Nolli 1748. Segment of the 'Nolli Map'.
Major cities in World of Warcraft, social environments using the same considerations of positive space. Like many urban environments, the positive spaces in the city of Stormwind are shaped by the placement of architectural figures. Overhead, the city is shown to have its districts separated by rooftop colour. This is the primary way in which each district’s visual identity can be distinguished. Characteristics like these, although simple, reflect urban planner Kevin Lynch’s criteria used to define ‘districts’ in urban cities, another one of his five urban city elements. Additionally, Stormwind’s layout uses canals to further separate these spaces, resulting in the transition between the city’s district a being very apparent to players navigating through the city.
In Stormwind City, the Trade District is typically where social interactions between players’ game avatars are concentrated. By observing a figure-ground plan of the area, (see Figure 6), these hotspots are shown to be within the district’s positive spaces.
Fig. 6: Tancock 2018. Stormwind Trade District Figure-ground Diagram.
The high number of players in this zone can be attributed to the clustering of character services that are otherwise sparsely located in the game world, namely the Bank and Auction House. Like many dwelling spaces in urban architecture, the high player activity can be taken for the Trade District’s landmark. This mirrors the findings of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, that designer Claire Hosking references in her exploration of positive spaces.
The positive spaces in the Trade District can be considered a ‘social canvas’, where the high concentration of players has increased potential interaction. These spaces can be utilized by level designers to create memorable social gathering places.
The rampant popularity of the Unreal Tournament map Facing Worlds (see Figure 7) is often attributed to its use of negative space. For arena shooters, the use of negative space allows players to distinguish other players, both hostile and friendly, from great distances. Additionally, negative space aids in the identification of power weapons and game mode objectives.
Fig. 7: Unreal Tournament 1999. ‘Facing Worlds' multiplayer map.
Level designer Jim Brown compares the use of negative space of Facing Worlds to the lack thereof in the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 map Favela. Here, the environment’s negative space is more difficult to distinguish from the playable space, leading to confusion and frustration from players. Despite this, Brown admits that the map’s environmental design was faithful to its architectural source material; the favelas of Brazil.
The primary threat in competitive shooters comes from the presence of hostile players. Therefore, level designers must emphasize negative spaces to make all players identifiable from the game environment. This approach should reduce external factors, outside of the individual skill of the player, that reduces the frustration from failure. In this context, the ‘failure’ comes from being killed by an enemy player.
In Modern Warfare 2, the single-player mission ‘Takedown’ is also set within a Brazilian favela, utilizing the same level design language and lack of visual clarity as its multiplayer equivalent. Level designer Dan Taylor uses this level to justify that “confusion is cool” but admits that these situations should be carefully and sparingly implemented. It can be argued that using negative space to a similar extent of Facing Worlds would have detracted from the level’s experiential qualities.
Repurposing Architectural Conventions for Level Design
Although many spatial considerations of level design are analogous to their architectural roots, the ways in which people and players experience these spaces are inherently different. Totten manipulates architect Le-Corbusier’s philosophy towards modern architecture, as he states how Level design is often constructed around challenges or situations that must be overcome by the player; “the game level should be the machine for living, dying, and creating tension by exploiting everything in between”. Some principles of architecture must be subverted or otherwise manipulated to achieve said intended experience.
Spatial Considerations of Multiplayer Map Design
First introduced in Call of Duty: Black Ops, the multiplayer map Nuketown has been embraced by game modding communities and has since appeared in later Call of Duty titles. Nuketown’s popularity, like many other renowned competitive multiplayer maps, could be partially attributed to its use of synergy between positive and negative spaces.
The spatial organisation of Nuketown (see Figure-8) is based on a suburban living space. Positive and negative spaces are combined in order to separate to allow for both dwelling and movement spaces. Similar layouts can be found on various College and University campuses.
Fig. 8: Tancock 2018. Nuketown Figure-ground Diagram.
Although multiplayer maps like Nuketown follow the same spatial arrangement of real suburban spaces, the purpose of these spaces is manipulated to better serve the shooter genre. The outdoor positive spaces of Nuketown are located on either side of the level’s layout and contain the initial player spawn points. These areas are safe from enemy fire unless encroached upon. To encounter members of the opposing team, players must make the conscious decision to venture from the safety afforded by these spaces into the central space, where lines of sight are opened. The map uses vehicles as figures to define this negative space.
In level design, the aspects of prospect and refuge spaces can be considered. These spaces share some of the architectural considerations of positive and negative space, where Nuketown’s central area can be considered a prospect space, as the space is an open area that exposes the player to potential threats. The large suburban houses that dominate each team’s side of the map are, alternatively, refuge spaces by way of their positive space being used break enemy sightlines and protect the player from gunfire.
The dichotomy between prospect and refuge spaces in multiplayer level design should inform a player’s spatial experience by exploiting their survival instincts; players within prospect spaces are likely to subconsciously seek the shelter and protection of a refuge space. From here, the player may once again venture into the prospect space to engage enemies.
Additionally, players can use the houses’ balconies to gain a vertical advantage to the centrally-contested prospect space, although this requires sacrificing the safety granted by the houses’ refuge spaces.
As a final consideration of Nuketown’s level design, the level’s layout is comparably small to other maps found in the genre. Naturally, this means that the transition between positive and negative spaces are more frequent, raising the frequency in which players will encounter each other. The genius loci of this level could be attributed as a high-paced, thrilling multiplayer experience.
Architecture has long been concerned with spatial theory. Over time, this philosophy has guided and established design principles that remain considered even today by contemporary architects. From my research of architecture theory, it is apparent that the medium’s spatial lessons have been embraced by level designers. Where contemporary architects are guided by the virtues of human comfort and efficiency, level designers can craft virtual social environments by adhering to similar rules.
Alternatively, level designers can use the implications of game genres to repurpose architectural theory entirely, allowing players to be subjected to numerous emotional experiences. From overwhelming dramatic tension, to the empowerment from claiming a tactical advantage over a contested space, level designers have been shown to achieve genius loci that are unique to digital games. Exploiting the relationship between positive and negative space can foster a competitive atmosphere in what would otherwise be a safe and social space.
Video games provide virtual experiences that are meant to be interacted with, where levels act as the stage on which those experiences are presented.
*Note: This article is re-published in full, with permission from the author. References can be found at the source, linked below.
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