Games and the Making of Ominous Architecture

We can better understand our responses to certain physical spaces by tapping into the study of human psychology and the visceral reactions that we have to aesthetics and architecture, a field that game designers explore constantly.

In a deep salt basin in New Mexico about 26 miles east of Carlsbad, the US Department of Energy has been burying the world’s most dangerous material. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) houses an enormous load of transuranic radioactive waste, the destructive remnants of nuclear weapons research and production. In this massive hole in the desert, our deadly refuse must sit for 10,000 years -- a timespan difficult to imagine let alone predict. In the far off future, when an advanced human culture or the destitute remains of a crumbling civilization finds our pock upon the earth, regardless of their culture or linguistic ability, they must understand a clear and resounding message: “What is here is dangerous.”

You can imagine then the difficulty faced by WIPP’s scientists in designing a universal missive for future generations. Their solution was to tap into the study of human psychology and the visceral reactions that we have to aesthetics and architecture, a field game designers explore constantly.

Foreseeing the variety of thought that must go into the design of an ageless message, WIPP scientists were joined by architects, anthropologists, linguists, futurists, and science fiction authors to draft a report on deterring intrusion onto tarnished ground thousands of years into the future. The findings read like the notes for an H.P. Lovecraft novel. How do we get across through visual design sensations of foreboding? How do we construct something obviously man-made yet in no way honorific? How do we make something long-lasting, but also useless in part or in whole to dissuade future generations from utilizing the architecture in any way?

Concept Drawings for the WIPP Report

The ideas of this group of thinkers range from creating dense and incongruous obelisks to valleys of cement thorns, an ominous art form that evokes only menace and discomfort -- a message that conveys, as the report states, an “understanding of the ideal, but at the same time a deliberate shunning of it... suggesting we do not value this place, that it is not one that embodies our ideals.”

My mind of course wanders to the ominous architecture of horror games. Regardless of what monstrosities we face, digital environments must capture our attention and establish a grim atmosphere. Yet for the most part, the architectures of horror games draw on symbols that we commonly associate with fear and revulsion. From Castle Wolfenstein to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the stonework, mildew ridden basements, dark hallways, and cobwebbed attics of gothic mansions remain established horror locales. Many games, including the two above, use their environments remarkably well. Regardless, the frequency of candlelit masonry tests my patience.

The revolting organic constructs of games like Prey,Dead Space, and countless others evoke strong reactions of abhorrence and disgust -- and rightly so. The moist and fleshy hallways and the shambling wretches that inhabit them tap into an innate aversion to blood, viscera, physical desecration, and infection. With startling frequency, these creatures and environments become even more macabre as they intertwine with technology in grotesque arrangements.

New York City 22, Subway by H.R. Giger

All of these games, particularly those populated with extraterrestrials, owe a great deal to the work of H.R. Giger, whose bizarre artwork melds the division between organic and artificial into deeply disturbing forms. Giger’s alien constructs are instantly recognizable as man-made and synthetic, yet their almost perfectly molded forms defy an easy analysis of their purpose. Curves reminiscent of breasts or limbs intertwine with images of wires and tubes. These abominations transfer naturally to video games and popular themes of technology and human progress. Likewise, the same visceral reaction that we have to Giger’s work or the synthetic/organic husks of Mass Effect 3 mirrors a reaction that future generations are intended to have when they meet the WIPP’s warning markers. There is horror found in artificial yet unreadable architecture.

Imagine for a moment stumbling upon a piece of foreign architecture. You are out for a stroll when suddenly you encounter the remains of an ancient civilization. What might you learn of its contents with a simple glance? What can its corridors tell you of those who once walked among them? Surely these questions cross the minds of Bioware’s artistic directors when designing the architecture of Mass Effect’s alien races. The very beginning of Shepard’s story hinges upon her encounter with an unknown piece of Prothean technology, a beacon that transmits (again reminiscent of Giger) a horrible image of flesh and circuitry. The Citadel and its keepers are also mysterious remains of an ancient civilization. Mass Effect 3 capitalizes on the discomfort evoked by alien architecture, revealing its strange purpose gradually throughout the experience.

Halo also exploits our innate psychological reaction to foreign and inhospitable constructs in its use of Forerunner environments. The bulky design of UNSC armor and vehicles clashes with the austere, expansive arrangement of Forerunner architecture, itself distinct from the curved walls and confined space of Covenant ships. When we enter the environments of Halo, the architecture primes us for an alien experience.

Half-Life 2 Citadel

Perhaps the video game example that best mirrors the WIPP's attempt at a foreboding message is Half-Life 2’s City 17, still a marvel of video game art design. The Citadel at the city’s center stands tall and menacing, towering over the neighboring buildings. Its smooth and clean facade is a counterpoint to the city’s rundown Eastern European architecture. Although the tower seems cut from a single piece of glass, a portion seems opened, revealing what looks like the artificial ribs of an alien construct. Wires reach from the building into the city, as if intravenously drawing life from its surroundings. The Citadel’s purpose eludes easy recognition, but two things are clear: this is foreign and this is dangerous.

If future generations were to play Half-Life 2, would they be struck by the same aversion to the Citadel? Would they find the hallways of the Ishimura as unsettling as we do? I have no doubt that when drawing on universal aversions, games can evoke powerful emotions with their environments. While I doubt that any game quite achieves the design goals of the WIPP's inter-generational message, video games have nevertheless created profoundly evocative sensations.

The WIPP report explictly states “the medium is the message” -- a saying not unknown in the games industry. Be it a sense of foreboding or a sense of wonderment, true visceral reactions are created as much by mechanics as they are by aesthetics. Architecture is, after all, experienced. Perhaps scientists should consider games as modes of communication through the eons, a form of experiential practice. WIPP’s job will be done if, in 10,000 years, the first person to glimpse a wall of thorns turns to her companions and says, “We should turn back. This is a dangerous place, and I have been here before.”

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