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Thoughts about Architecture and Games
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
In World of Warcraft, when you enter a major city, you invariably have to pass through an entryway first. Usually, the entryway looks something like this:
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There will usually be some big impressive statue in front of that wall in the middle of the entryway, which makes it look cool. Still, you might ask yourself, why have that big wall there in the first place? The answer is technological. Rendering the inside of a city, with all its shops and crowds, takes a lot of computational power. Rendering the countryside, with all its monsters and trees, *also* takes a lot of power. The entryways are structured so that the player can never see the inside of the city from the outside world -- nor can he see the outside world once he is inside the city. Thus, his computer never has to do *both* of those computationally expensive rendering jobs at the same time. The technical term for this is "occlusion".

Most video games do lots of occlusion in one way or another. In Half-Life and Deus Ex (both near-future SF games), the player frequently goes down corridors that twist into S-curves for no obvious architectural reason. The actual reason is to divide up the world into small independent zones, to increase rendering efficiency. Gratuitous S-curves, walls in the middle of entryways, these are all things that are endemic in videogames, but are never seen in real-world architecture.

Yet.

Thirty, forty years from now, will there be a generation of architects who grew up on videogames? Who think that this practice, born of technical necessity, has intrinsic aesthetic value in the real world? It could happen.

Admittedly, this is a crazy idea, importing constraints from a virtual world into a real one. But is it any crazier than importing constraints from one climate to another, inappropriate one? There is a current architectural fad for buildings with huge, cavernous spaces in the interior, usually with at least one exterior wall composed solely of large panes of glass. This produces an airy, outdoor feeling, even when one is inside. It's quite pretty. But people are putting some of these buildings up in *New England*. Do they have any *idea* how much it costs to *heat* those cavernous, airy, *poorly-insulated* spaces? It's insane.

And for that matter, don't fads in all arts tend to exhibit generational pendulum swings? If the current "in" thing is big airy spaces with wide-open sight lines, maybe the next generation will want smaller spaces, with highly constrained sight lines, but full of interesting details within those lines. In other words, just like videogames.

So that's my wacky prediction for today. The Occlusion School of Architecture. You heard it here first.
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Admittedly, this is a crazy idea, importing constraints from a virtual world into a real one. But is it any crazier than importing constraints from one climate to another, inappropriate one?

Or importing geology. Golf is a game invented in a terminal moraine: sandy bunkers, water hazards, lots of little ups and downs but no real honking hills. Golf has since become very popular, and has been exported to lots of other geological zones. Geologists get the giggles watching bulldozers creating terminal moraines out of, say, delta flatland.

Forgot to add my other point: I could imagine those inner-gate walls becoming more popular in the near future as security features, not just from video-game-trained aesthetics.

Security through occlusion

I can certainly see setting up an occlusion at the entrance to a company's space: make sure people outside can't see what's going on inside, and make sure people inside don't get distracted by people outside.

However, I don't buy the notion that architects of 30-40 years from now will be influenced by current technological limitations on videogames—it presupposes that those limitations are here to stay. If the problem is that rendering the city and the country at the same time is hard, then all it takes is one more iteration of Moore's Law to give us hardware to do both at the same time just as well as they're done independently today.

Re: Security through occlusion

I disagree. Counter-intuitively, Moore's Law has (to date) tended to add *more* limitations to games, not less. As the processing power goes up, the demands on it also go up, and usually faster. The more realistic the high-end graphics manage to be, the more the bar is raised even for the lower-end.

This trend may not last forever. But we're still a *lot* of iterations of Moore's Law away from being able to render a large complex world at photo-realistic quality.

Re: Security through occlusion

{insert rant on the lack of opaque walls in modern RPGs}

But we're still a *lot* of iterations of Moore's Law away from being able to render a large complex world at photo-realistic quality.

OK, this is definitely not my field (I don't even play videogames at this point), but one thing occurs to me: long before we get to photorealism, we'll hit the Uncanny Valley. At that point, more visual realism may be counterproductive, and there'll be pressure to spend the computrons on other kinds of realism.

(Are we near the Uncanny Valley yet? It'd seem that we couldn't be that far into it, at least—movies didn't hit it until a couple of years ago.)


Cutting-edge videogames are certainly close to the Uncanny Valley, arguably actually in it. And that is one of the possible ways that the trend towards "I need more POWER!" in graphics might reverse. (My Evergreens essay posits another.) OTOH, the UV arguably matters much less in videogames, which aren't (usually; HL2 is a notable recent exception) trying to create 'human actors' out of their polygons. If your main interaction is going to be shooting at them, the fact they look creepy is actually a *plus*.

But the trend towards bigger, faster, shinier is definitely in existence now. And it doesn't take a lot to sustain it, unfortunately. As long as *anyone* can make a public splash by having 'shinier' graphics, then the bar keeps going up for *everyone*.

If your main interaction is going to be shooting at them, the fact they look creepy is actually a *plus*.

Heh. True.

As long as *anyone* can make a public splash by having 'shinier' graphics, then the bar keeps going up for *everyone*.

Mmm, yes, but there are different values of "shiny", and they go in and out of fashion. If some game gets released with huge, complex crowd scenes, and people like it, then fashion will tend towards the crowded.


If the city were under attack, could you put defenders on top of the central wall? That would be a good defensive position, while the attackers had to make 4 right-angle turns! Of course, that sort of architecture is not new, but was practiced in crusader castles and walled cities.

Couldn't happen soon enough for me...

Seriously, architecture has had much stupider reasons for doing the things they do. And have done stupider things (not just huge empty spaces). I won't get into the myriad sins of architecture here in your LJ (perhaps in mine). My real question about whether it will happen is whether the future of architects are coming from the rolls of videogamers.

Take a look at the building the guys who wrote Myst built.

Thank You Kindly.

I have run into occluding walls in commercial entryways fairly often, and usually in front of the wall there's a receptionist. Not unlike a statue, in some cases.

A huge wall of glass, if well insulated, isn't a necessary liability, particularly if the floor and the wall the sunshine fall on are designed with a lot of thermal mass. I'll grant you such good design is rare, but my Aunt had such a space that heated itself, in Maine.

And occlusion is a good thing to keep in mind when making cuttings for power lines through forested areas. It makes a giant gash in the trees far less obvious. Also rare, but it's at least known as a technique in the business.

Interesting thoughts about potential video aesthetics gaining currency.

huge wall of glass, if well insulated

Begging your pardon, but there ain't any such thing. Current glass technology allows about R-5 in a normal sized window, which is pretty crummy compared to almost any wall it be in. However, as the square footage increases, making seals that last, and glass that does squeeze the insulation space to uselessness gets harder. Nor do you really want that much glass for solar gain, much over 10-15% of the floor area and you bake, even with lots of thermal mass (the mass can't absorb the heat quickly enough).


Thanks for the correction!

Here in L.A., the city planners have already implemented a far clipping plane when outdoors.

Oh, and when you get on a freeway with too many vehicles, framerate SUCKS.

What I'm wondering is, will there be a fad for leaving boxes containing important supplies scattered around the inside of these structures...

and those automatically regenerating natural resources, when can we get those?

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