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Architecture in Video Games

by Sam Katovitch

Video games are, for the most part, about building worlds.  These worlds can reflect our own, and many “realistic” games, such as racing games, exploration games, and combat games often do.  They can superficially resemble our world, but operate on different principles, or different mechanics to lend them the edge of difference.  Video games can also build worlds that never have or could have existed in our universe, with settings in the future, the past, different planets, or even alternate dimensions.  Part of what makes these varied settings so immersive and engaging is the graphical and visual languages from which they are made, and the designers of these worlds work just as hard as any architects operating in the real world. 

Making a game world takes a lot of work, and if a setting is good, it means a person or team of persons poured their blood, sweat, and tears into making it so.  If a world is detailed, engaging, and most importantly believable, at least in the context of the game, it has that elusive quality that is the Holy Grail of video game designers – immersion.  A game world that swallows up the player and lets them believe, if only for a second, that what they are doing is making a difference, has that all-important quality. 

Conversely, badly-designed settings take a player out of the experience, and a good game that is hampered by a badly-designed or poorly-implemented world is the worst kind of bad experience, especially if the story on its own is engaging.  Many independently made (aka “indie”) games suffer this problem, as many are very well written, but all the good writing in the world isn’t going to pay animators and designers enough to create a good world on a shoestring budget. 

Video game settings are also very dependent on the player’s suspension of disbelief, and their standards.  Games like Doom and Quake from the very earliest days of 3D looked great in comparison to 2D games of their day, but in the nearly 3 decades since those games came out video game technology has come a very long way.

Part of what makes video games so massively popular among mainstream media is their ability to create settings which could never existing in the real world.  The architecture of these settings varies massively based on the genre and artistic preferences of the designers and the message they are trying to get across.  The ancient, incomprehensible megastructures of Halo or Shadow of the Colossus create a sense of being a tiny, insignificant creature, wandering through the ruins of a once mighty, now fallen civilization; the towering, claustrophobic Gothic spires and ancient cathedrals from games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne contribute to a much more oppressive, deliberately angst-inducing environment.  The small villages and bustling, human-scale cities of the Elder Scrolls games are a stark contrast to the cavernous tombs, dungeons, and bandit camps the player explores in the wilderness, and provide welcome moments of relief from dangerous adventures. The oppressive city of Dunwall in Dishonored, on the other hand, is as much an enemy and obstacle to the player as the corrupt city guards and swarms of carnivorous rats the game is known for.

Portal at Voi –  Halo 3 , 2007, Bungie, 343 Industries

Portal at Voi – Halo 3, 2007, Bungie, 343 Industries

Research Hall –  Bloodborne,  2015, FromSoftware

Research Hall – Bloodborne, 2015, FromSoftware

Lothric Castle –  Dark Souls 3,  2016, FromSoftware

Lothric Castle – Dark Souls 3, 2016, FromSoftware

Riverwood Village –  The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,  2011, Bethesda Game Studios

Riverwood Village – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, 2011, Bethesda Game Studios

Dunwall Clocktower –  Dishonored,  2012, Arkane Studios

Dunwall Clocktower – Dishonored, 2012, Arkane Studios

With the growing video game industry came the burgeoning profession of video game environment designer. Designers of video game worlds may not be bound by strict building or zoning codes like designers in the real world, but they have an entirely different set of rules they have to abide by, as nothing breaks a video game’s immersion than bad level design. A video game world has to be just as well laid-out as a major civic or commercial building, because in many situations there will not be signs pointing the player’s way to the next objective. The wayfinding in virtual environments is crucial, since if a player gets frustrated and lost, they are as likely to turn off the game and go do something else as they are to keep pushing until they find the way forward. This does not necessarily mean the environments need to be simple – a great deal of skill is needed to create a game world where the paths are complex enough to challenge, but navigable enough to not frustrate players. On the low end of the complexity spectrum are games like the Call of Duty series, where the levels are linear and progress is restricted almost entirely to corridors so the players keep moving forward, thus allowing little to no exploration or player freedom, to allow greater focus on the game’s story. At the other end of the scale are puzzle games like Portal and The Talos Principle, which have more open-ended levels with the path forward cleverly disguised by puzzles and confusing layouts. There are players who prefer linearity, and those that prefer to find their own way through an environment, but players naturally gravitate to games with the kinds of environments they enjoy.

Aqueduct –  The Talos Principle,  2014, Devolver Digital, Croteam

Aqueduct – The Talos Principle, 2014, Devolver Digital, Croteam

The worlds built by video game designers may not necessarily reflect our own, but a similar amount of care goes into creating an engaging environment in virtual space as it does in reality.  Game designers may not be bound by the laws of gravity, but they are bound by the laws of player consciousness and understanding, and a game with a badly-realized world will soon be laden with negative reviews and critical panning.  Thus, video game architecture has to be carefully laid out and curated so as not to take the player out of the experience and ruin their immersion, and most importantly, it has to be believable enough to serve the main point of video games in general – to be a break from the mundanity of everyday life, and a chance to escape into a world of fantastic scenes. 


Bloodborne – Research Hall -

The Talos Principle – Aqueduct -

Dishonored – Dunwall Clocktower -

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Riverwood Village -

Dark Souls 3 – Lothric Castle -

Halo 3 – Portal at Voi -

Sam has played all these games, but mostly just draws his own worlds now (he’s an architecture student, you know!)



LANDAU Design + Technology joins the Toner Team at Bok.


We are excited to announce that Chris Landau of LANDAU Design + Technology has joined us in our office here at Bok.  Chris founded LANDAU Design + Technology earlier this summer and joined the Toner Office on September 1st!  Chris has a background in art and his company strives to bridge the gap between design and technology.  His main client base is designers, researchers and engineers.  He works in a variety of modes so he can help his clients produce, develop, strategize, design and learn.  His services include but are not limited to; 3D Modeling, custom tools, integrated design systems, animation, visualizations and analysis, and fabrication preparation.  For more information please visit

 If you’re interested in seeing Chris and his work in person, you can join us at our open house, which will take place as part of Design Philadelphia. We’ll be open this Friday, the 12th, from 4-7pm. Hope to see you there!




Maybe you get our newsletter, but want to see more of the day-to-day stuff. Maybe you like construction photos of current projects? Maybe you wonder what an architect thinks about as they move through the world? Maybe you just want the facts about someone?

Well, we have several ways we put information out there, so take your pick.

On our Facebook page, we post photos from construction sites, real estate listings for recently-completed projects, and the occasional sketch or drawing of a project still in design.

On our Instagram page, you will mostly find pictures of random buildings throughout Philadelphia (and, occasionally, other places), with our thoughts on the good, the bad, and the ugly. We also publish these photos to Facebook and Twitter.

Our Twitter feed is mostly comprised of photos from Instagram, but we occasionally drop a thought or two there. As you can see, getting down to 140 characters is a bit of a challenge for us.

We use LinkedIn to show you our resumes and to give basic info about our firm.

We've started using Pinterest more and more to communicate ideas with clients. It's easy to make boards to describe the feeling you want in a space, a particular countertop material, or even a color scheme.

If you're on one or more of these sites, connect with us and see what we're up to!



Beginning the Process

Clients often ask me "what happens after we sign the contract?  How do we get started?"  Here, I'd like to show you a little bit about what those very first steps look like.  

I recently started working on a new project with a new client.  We're renovating a row house in the East Falls section of Philadelphia, which will involve gutting the entire interior and tearing down and rebuilding an addition at the back of the property.  I'll use this project as an example.

The first step, after meeting with the client and discussing the vision for the project, is to go out and see what's already there.  I measure and draw the building as it exists.  Here's what that looks like:

I take these sketches back to the office where I translate them into a three-dimensional computer model.  I use a program called Revit.  This is software that not only lets me model, but lets me model intelligently.  The program knows a door is a door.  It knows a wall is a wall, and what materials make up that wall.  It is able to produce any view I need of the model, and keep all the information coordinated in one place.  These are significant advantages over traditional CAD software, where the building is represented by simple lines, much like a hand-done drawings.  I could go on and on, and plan to in a future post.  But a discussion of software isn't why you came here today. . .

The plans I sketched above end up looking like this:

The program can also output 3d views to help me analyze the space and make decisions:

3523 Sunnyside - photo-exterior+composite.jpg

existing photo and the resulting modelI use cutaway views to look at the relationship between rooms, and the way stairs tie the whole thing together:

Using this information, I can work easily with the client to develop ideas for the redesign.  Everyone's different--some people are totally comfortable with plans, while others can really only interpret things in three dimensions.  My goal is to help clients get the best result, however we get there.  The model isn't an exact representation of everything--no model is--but it can really help to visualize the spaces, organize information about the project, and aid in proper construction.



Has it really been this long?

Wow. . .how time flies.  Just when I thought it had only been a few months since my last post, this happens--nine months goes by.  So sorry to my loyal readers.

So, what have we been up to at Toner Architects?  A lot has been going on:  I completed a lot of Revit modeling work for SSM Group in Reading, PA.  (More about that in a separate post.)  We're also deep in the thick of the permitting process for the Colorado Street Rowhouse Renovation, the 7th Street Rowhouse, and the Linden Avenue Apartments.  

In construction news, the Graduate Hospital Roof Deck, Fishtown Kitchen Addition, and South Philly Dining Room Addition have all been completed, and the Huntingdon Valley Kitchen Addition, Mainline Prefab, and Fink Residence Addition are all under construction.

So, there's a lot of updating to do!  Keep checking back here for photos and articles about these and other ongoing projects.



Multiple approaches.

Poplar and Chang Streets, Philadelphia. Which is the better solution, the fence or the sign?

Poplar and Chang Streets, Philadelphia. Which is the better solution, the fence or the sign?

For the past few days, I've been in a mental cave, teaching myself how to use some new software.  Current architectural software is a lot better than the old drafting programs.  Before, you were essentially mimicking the process of hand drawing--lines on a screen.  The meaning the lines carried was only in the eye of the beholder.  Now, with Building Information Modeling (BIM--read about it on Wikipedia), the computer knows what things are.  This is pretty great.  Because the computer knows what you're drawing (modelling, actually), it can help you keep track of things and keep the project up to date.  For example, if you wanted to know how many of a particular light fixture are in the building, the computer can tell you that instantly.  If you change the name of something in one place, the program updates that name everywhere.

I went through all this once before.  Three years ago, I began learning REVIT, one of the top BIM programs.  It was tough to learn, but worth it.  Now, I'm learning another one, ArchiCAD.  And even though the basic idea is the same, and the intended output is the same, the approaches are very different.  It's a reminder that, given the same design problem, two different designers will often come up with two very different solutions.