Architecture and games.
This might be getting a bit monotonous now that we’re into our fourth annual roundup of the best architecture in games, but I feel as though it bears noting, so I’ll just go ahead and point out that I hate lists, most notably when they’re ordered in terms of something like best to worst. I find this kind of thinking to be overly reductive. I imagine however that you’re not especially interested in my opinions on this particular matter, so let’s just get down to business and talk about the top ten games of 2022 from an architectural perspective. I ordered these alphabetically in previous years, but I’m going to shake things up and order my list chronologically this time around.
Dying Light 2: Stay Human
I actually had a couple of misgivings about this otherwise good game, but at least when it comes to the architecture, Dying Light 2: Stay Human does a great job at depicting decay. I know that I say this a lot, but decay is a process rather than something that just happens. There’s a whole natural cycle which occurs at various rates and speeds in a variety of different places, mostly depending on the construction materials in question, drywall as opposed to metal beams for example. When it comes to showing what would happen if people suddenly disappeared, this particular game is a tough one to beat.
I’ve been to a lot of big cities, but Hong Kong is definitely one of my favorites. You can go from gleaming skyscrapers to rotting tenements within a couple of blocks. There have been a few games which have captured this feeling over the years, but the only recent one that comes to mind would have to be Sifu, basically a brawler. While I of course loved the combat, it was actually the architecture that stood out to me. When it comes to levels, you’ve got the Squats, Club, Museum, Tower and a kind of resort called the Sanctuary. I feel as though each one captures a different aspect of places like Hong Kong.
Horizon Forbidden West
What I love about Horizon Forbidden West is the almost archaeological approach to architecture. Take a look around the game world and you’ll soon see how things have progressed to the point where it makes more sense to think less in terms of decay and more in terms of destruction. The player character, Aloy, is out there exploring vestiges, buildings which have been repeatedly transformed over time, truly a palimpsest of the past. I have to congratulate the environment artists and level designers for a job well done.
Elden Ring surely creates a stronger sense of place than just about any other game to have been released this year. The game pulls this off in a variety of different ways, but one of the most effective is through the architecture. The question that really needs to be asked in this particular context is what gives the space importance or meaning. When it comes to Elden Ring, the obvious response would be some combination of doom and gloom, but I think the much better answer is mystery and dissimulation.
I just love it when games depict real places, particularly when I’ve been to them before. Ghostwire: Tokyo is a wonderful recreation of the eponymous megacity and I have to admit that for a game about the supernatural, the level design manages to create a rather uncanny feeling of what I can only call deja vu. As I explore the streets of this virtual city, I get the feeling that I’ve somehow already had the experience, making the spirits in the game feel just a little bit less strange.
While there’s a lot to love about Hardspace: Shipbreaker, I’m just going to extoll the architecture. You might be wondering what architecture I’m talking about, but at least in my personal opinion, spaceships can be considered in these terms. I mean, they consist of internal components which are assembled around a framework of metal beams, making them basically the same thing as buildings. Hardspace: Shipbreaker is all about exploring the inner workings of these marvelous machines and figuring out exactly how they’re constructed.
While the subject is generally considered in concrete terms, the most interesting games in my opinion take an abstract approach to architecture. Neon White does this to perfection, presenting the eponymous player character with a series of what are basically just elaborate playgrounds, places filled with all sorts of seemingly random stairs, ramps and platforms. The point is to make your way through each level in the shortest amount of time possible, something which requires a remarkable degree of wayfinding. This would be a real mess if the level design wasn’t quite up to snuff, but when it comes to Neon White, traversing the game world is pure pleasure.
Architecture is all about experience. This of course means that with a change of perspective, a person will develop a very different impression about a place. What I liked most about Stray was how the game forces you to adopt a radically different point of view, making you quite literally see the game world through the eyes of another person, a cat in this particular case. The actual places are much the same as could be found in other games, but given that you’re only a few feet tall, they seem incredibly different.
Grounded really challenges you to think about architecture. The player character is shrunken down to such a degree that even insects are immense, meaning that you of course get a brand-new perspective on the various buildings in the game world, but this one being all about survival, you also have to consider what your needs are in terms of shelter. I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m confronted with mechanics like these, I always wind up making some sort of intricate mansion filled with every conceivable contraption.
A Plague Tale: Requiem
I’m always taken aback at how little Medieval architecture can actually be found in games, but A Plague Tale: Requiem does a rather good job at making up for this little problem. I mean, the game is filled with all sorts of beautiful buildings, everything from stone castles with soaring parapets to wattle and daub farm houses with more pig pens than floor space. There’s definitely something here for everyone regardless of whether you’re interested in the lives of the wealthy and powerful or the mundane existence of poor peasants. I have to say that each and every one of the levels in A Plague Tale: Requiem should be a portfolio piece for their environment artists and level designers.
Justin Reeve is an archaeologist specializing in architecture, urbanism and spatial theory, but he can frequently be found writing about videogames, too. You can follow him on Twitter @JustinAndyReeve.