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There’s a wonderful BBC4 documentary being broadcast on Monday nights, Dreaming the Impossible: Unbuilt Britain. 

The series looks at the stories behind structures and buildings that were designed and imagined, but never built.

One of the most impressive designs featured in the first episode was the Great Victorian Way, a proposed glass-topped arcade that would have circled central London. Designed by MP and architect, Sir Joseph Paxton, it was pitched as a harmonious combination of commuting walkways, shops and civil amenities. The project never came to fruition, but if it had, it would have been one of the wonders of the modern world.

Joseph Paxton’s Great Victorian Way

The documentary also explored Geoffrey Jellicoe’s Motopia, a grid based town in which cars would travel on roads built on top of buildings, and ground space was reserved for parks and people. Again, it was a hugely ambitious project with the noble aim of creating an urban space that provided a balanced relationship between man and his growing dependence on the motor car.

What struck me about these proposals is that they still look completely futuristic. Their scope, ambition and design seem beyond anything we see today (where building upwards seems to be the trend) and although designed in 1855 and 1961 they still look like postcards from a glorious, pioneering future.

And they also reminded me of environments and architecture in video games.

We’ll never get the chance to live in Motopia or walk through the colonnades of the Great Victorian Way; they will remain as thoughts and blueprints in the imaginations of their architects and the files that preserve their designs. But now video games give us the chance to interact with buildings and spaces that will never exist in the real world. Game designers can create environments that can be explored in three dimensions, and feel like real places. They can be populated with residents, and a fiction can be applied to show us how they might be used.

The most successful examples of environmental design in video games do two things. Firstly, they create a space within which the player’s actions are rewarded, whether by the pleasures of exploration or the strategies of game-play. Secondly, they are spaces that feel real. Or rather, they feel genuine. Not in terms of artistic execution, but in terms of application. They have a reason to exist within the universe of the game, and their design and structure is consistent with that reason.

Only a few games manage to achieve this. Portal 2’s combination of test rooms and back office mundanity being a perfect example. Other games create environments that may look pretty, but are devoid of purpose, only providing visual wallpaper. An example being, well, most other games.

Bioshock’s Rapture

Looking at the Great Victorian Way I was immediately reminded of Bioshock’s Rapture. Rapture is perhaps one of the most impressive spaces ever created in a video game. It’s beautiful of course, with grand art-deco spaces and a striking use of glass and neon, but it’s the game’s fiction that lets it work as a coherent space. Locked doors and blocked exits don’t stand out within the context of a fallen city and the lack of NPCs don’t draw attention to its artifice.

In contrast, Bioshock Infinite’s Columbia isn’t quite as successful. It’s presented as a living world, but this only draws attention to its deficiencies as a genuine place. Whereas Colombia’s blithely oblivious residents have to vanish in a puff of smoke at the first sign of trouble, Rapture’s state of decay bypasses that problem, lending the city a greater sense of authenticity.

Game spaces often fall apart when the narrative layer exposes their limitations. Ico is another game with wonderful architecture that circumvents this issue. Ico’s game space is the narrative. The aqueducts, arches and courtyards tease a living past, but are not bound by it. The architecture is purely designed to create mood and encourage exploration. The player applies their own fiction and the game soars because of it. But there is also a sense of familiar history in the way the game offers visual touch points to the real world, particularly in the way it evokes medieval European architecture.

Other games lend their environments weight by giving us the opportunity to be tourists in virtual representations of real places. Grand Theft Auto IV’s twisted vision of New York, or Assassin’s Creed 2’s Venetian postcard lets us interact with real cities in ways not possible in the physical world.

But it’s not just about grand architecture and scale, sometimes simplicity is key. The modular arrangements of Jellicoe’s Motopia’s recall Mass Effect’s identi-kit colonial settlements. Mass Effect drew some criticism for its repeated environments, but they did feel functionally genuine. (As an aside, the Mass Effect series also pulls off the illusion of authenticity through excellent use of ambient sound, be it the chattering of electronic instruments, or background murmurings of refugees in the Citadel’s docking bay.)

Jellicoe’s Motopia

Maybe the most awe-inspiring, but also consistent spaces, are found in games where the fiction does not matter. Countless environments in Super Mario Galaxy impress because they are just designed to give the player an excellent time. Some of the best Halo maps succeed not because they feel ‘real’, but because they let the player create their own stories and strategies.

It’s also significant that one of the most successful games in recent years in one that allows you to build your own spaces. In Minecraft you can create anything, the only barrier being your own talent, tastes, ideals and philosophies. So if you want to create your own version of the Great Victorian Way, you can.

What game spaces have inspired you? And what  is the key to creating a successful and coherent game environment?

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