From Dark Souls to Manifold Garden: How games tell stories through architecture

Thomas McMullan

You’ve spent days in the dark, winding through dim corridors. The first time you saw the cathedral it was covered in light, and you’re basked in it again as you teeter on the threshold. Your heart jumps as you step through, into a space vast enough to make the giant in front of you seem small. He raises a hammer.

I’m alone in a conference room when I speak to the architect James Blaze Burn Sale on the phone. He is director of Collaborative Design and Build (Co-DB), an architecture and design company, and he’s going to tell me about the ways buildings tell stories.

“As architects, our tools are the materials that the building is built of, but also light and space. We can contract and expand those as much as we want,” he explains. “It’s what we use to give space different feelings. For example, a classic trick is to create a small threshold and then open out into a big space. You contract and then release.”

(Above: Lincoln Cathedral’s ringer’s chapel entrance)

Contract and release is a great phrase; it reminds me of someone being born. The soon-to-be-mother gripping her partner’s hand.

Contract and release is a great phrase; it reminds me of someone being born. The soon-to-be-mother gripping her partner’s hand. Contract and release. “If you imagine walking into a cathedral, you’re going from the outside, which is a big space, through a small doorway, and back into a big space,” Sale continues. “Your eye is drawn up and around. At the threshold you have that sense of protection, from this grand space. You might have a small lobby, or in a house you might have a porch – those small spaces give one feeling, and the larger spaces give another.”

As with real-world architecture, contracting and releasing is one way that game architecture can give space a sense of feeling and narrative. That movement from a small, protected space to a vast, exposed area is used in many games; the sheltered room before a boss fight, or the big reveal of an environment, such as the underwater city of Rapture in BioShock. It’s one example of how games tell stories through spaces.

Dark Souls and the Tate Modern

Squeezing and letting go yanks you from intimacy to vulnerability, emphasising the grandness of a space and your exposure within it. It conveys narrative in the sense that there is progression from feeling safe and enclosed to feeling awestruck at something much bigger than your own body. Medieval cathedrals typify it, where the aim was to make the viewer feel humbled by God and dwarfed by the institution of the church. It’s no coincidence that FromSoftware’s Dark Souls and Bloodbornegames where the player faces up to deity-like enemies and religious institutions – both prominently feature the architecture of cathedrals.

"The fabric of the building hasn’t changed that much, but the small details within it have – and that tells a story."

Religious buildings also tell stories through the layering of history. Sale gives the example of Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, which has its origins in 672 AD but has been built up and added to by people across hundreds of years. You can read history in it. “Or there’s the Brick Lane Mosque,” Sale says. “It was built in the 1700s as a Christian chapel, then in the 19th century it became a synagogue, and then in the 1970s it became a mosque. The fabric of the building hasn’t changed that much, but the small details within it have – and that tells a story.”

Dark Souls and Bloodborne both put the player in decaying worlds and invite them to peel back layers of history. From the ruins of Firelink Shrine and its relationship to the Undead Church above it, to the various connections between Bloodborne’s Central Yharnam, Old Yharnam and Cathedral Ward, Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team of environment designers imply much of the game’s narrative through the clash between one architectural style and another; between one layer of history and the next.  

(Above: Bloodborne)

Part of Miyazaki’s skill lies in directing the player – part fighter, part archaeologist – through the interconnected labyrinths that make up these games’ environments. Again and again the player will progress forward, only to loop back on an earlier location from a different perspective. Not only does this emphasise the connection between spaces, but it makes the player go through that process of layering themselves: it encourages you to think about buildings not as single paths, but as webs of branching and interlacing routes, built on top of each other over the course of hundreds and thousands of years.

While there may be a lot of them, the routes in Dark Souls and Bloodborne are fixed and tightly choreographed by the game developers. Sale tells me in real-world architecture this linearity can give buildings a sense of a journey. “An example might be the Tate Modern, by Herzog & de Meuron,” he says. “You see the classic release when you get into the building, but you also work your way up quite a choreographed route, pass the lightboxes that look into Turbine Hall, and eventually up into the big lightbox at the top where you get the view out to the city. I think that choreographing of the route is the most overt type of storytelling.”

(Above: The Tate Modern)

The Tate Modern, with its cathedral-like Turbine Hall, layering of history and choreographed gallery spaces, is an interesting real-world parallel to a From Software game. Granted, you’re more likely to come across Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals than a Capra Demon, but there are more than a few shared techniques in how Herzog & de Meuron use windows and openings to direct people through gallery spaces, above the cavernous central space and past remnants of the building’s former life as Bankside Power Station.

Manifold Garden and the Eames House

While some games use architecture to tell a story in a tightly controlled way, others have a much looser approach. From a real-world perspective, Sale tells me that if buildings like the Tate Modern occupy one end of the spectrum, structures like the Eames House in Los Angeles – designed by husband and wife Charles and Ray Eames – occupy the other.

It’s a box – a simple box, quite industria – and the architecture is created from all the objects that are inside that box: pieces of furniture, collections of stones and so on,” explains Sale. “The objects are carefully arranged to create the idea of zones and rooms that you might move through. But they’re much more free, they don’t take you on a perfect path. You roam around. It’s more like an informal garden in that way.”

(Above: The Eames House)

It's closer in some ways to how a garden tells a story than a traditional building

Talking about narrative becomes a very different matter when you consider the open-plan architecture of a building such as the Eames House. Without compartmentalised rooms and corridors, linear direction is replaced by a looser, associative type of journey. As Sale says, it’s closer in some ways to how a garden tells a story than a traditional building. While the Tate Modern and Anor Londo emphasise the grandeur of their interior spaces, the roof-to-ceiling windows of the Eames House make the division between interior and exterior less pronounced. One developer playing with this sense of fluidity, and how it can be used to convey a sense of narrative, is William Chyr.

Chyr’s upcoming puzzle game, Manifold Garden, puts the player in a world situated somewhere between the minds of MC Escher and Jorge Luis Borges, where infinite, looping structures can be flipped so that ceilings become walls; walls become floors and so on. While the sinewy buildings that make up the game look fantastical, Chyr tells me that he pulled on a number of real-life architectural inspirations including the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Tadao Ando, both of whom tend to use strong horizontal and vertical lines. For a game where the player can flip gravity around a fixed axis, these inspirations are practical as well as aesthetic.

world_026_library_web.gif

(Above: Manifold Garden)

“Ando was the original inspiration,” Chyr explains. “I can’t have curved surfaces in the game – they all have to be 90-degree corners – because you can only fit along six gravity planes. If there was a slanted surface, I wouldn’t know what gravity to put you in, so it would break the mechanics.”

Chyr showed me a level called Library – a reference to Borges’ short story “The Library of Babel”, which describes a library containing every possible book, made from every possible sequence of letters. Inside the library is an infinite chasm, and outside the library are an infinite number of other libraries. In terms of space, the division between interior and exterior space isn’t entirely clear. Stand outside the library and, instead of open space, you’re walled in by other libraries, like in Michael Wolf’s photographs of crowded Hong Kong tower blocks.  

(Above: From Michael Wolf’s Architecture of Density series)

"You have spaces that feel like they’re inside and outside at the same time"

“Another big inspiration is Japanese gardens, which I think Frank Lloyd Wright took a lot of inspiration from,” Chyr says. “The thing that’s really cool about Japanese architecture is that it has a very different idea of inside and outside. In the West, like my apartment, I’m very clearly inside, then I go onto the balcony and I’m clearly on the outside. You have walls and glass separating that. In Japan you have paper walls that slide in and out, so you have spaces that feel like they’re inside and outside at the same time.”

Bringing life with you             

Like the Eames House, the levels of Manifold Garden seem to consist of multiple, undefined paths. This is partly an illusion, however, as Chyr makes it clear he has spent a great deal of effort choreographing routes through his spaces. One of the ways to do this, and to give players a hook when dealing with infinite loops, is to use recognisable structures. “It’s hard to know where a building starts or ends,” Chyr admits. “Where I do guide the players is with what I call moment-to-moment architecture. They aren’t part of the overall idea of the level, but are small things that guide you to where you need to go next. I call it having intentionality in architecture.”

One example Chyr gives is of a staircase. He had trouble convincing the player to walk to a wall and flip it so it became the floor. Once he built in a staircase up to the wall, even though it visibly led nowhere, it would anchor the players in something relatable. It gave the architecture the impression of having an intention, and players would walk up to it. This moment-to-moment guiding isn’t that dissimilar from Dark Souls or Bloodborne – those games also have recognisable parts of buildings to draw in the player – but the staircase from Chyr’s game is dislocated from its original function, severed from life and reappropriated as an useful echo of reality.  

(Above: Tadao Ando’s school of art, design and architecture at the University of Monterrey)

While architecture forms an essential part of Manifold Garden’s gameplay, Chyr tells me it is also key to the game’s overall story. “I do have a narrative arc, and the only way it’s conveyed to the player is through the architecture and the mechanics,” Chyr explains, touching on how the game will – at least on one level – work as a metaphor for the past 400 years of physics. “You start off by learning how gravity works, and then by the end you’re piecing together the shape of the universe,” he adds.

If contract and release is a movement from comprehension to incomprehension – from a mentally manageable space to one that eludes easy measurement – the movement in Manifold Garden sounds as if it is one from incomprehension to comprehension – from a seemingly infinite space to one managed by the player. Aiding this is a tree-planting mechanic. As you move through the spaces you bring life with you, Chyr tells me. How this will work remains to be seen, but it raises another point when it comes to architecture and games. Buildings are made to be lived in. Life in Dark Souls and Bloodborne is haunted, uncanny, clockwork. They centre on cursed stagnancy, but Manifold Garden allows the player to inhabit the space, tend to it like a garden.

"That’s exactly what we think of when we think of a city"

“That’s exactly what we think of when we think of a city, and urban design and architecture,” Sale tells me. “The interaction of people, using these physical things to express themselves and create a collective city.”

As Sale suggests, expression is key. Games, like buildings, let people make their own stories. Game-makers may use architecture to direct the feel, pace and narrative of the game, but ultimately it’s the player that needs to move through the space.

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Dark Souls III is available for pre-order now and launches in the UK on 12 April for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Manifold Garden will be released in 2016 for PC, PlayStation 4, Mac and Linux.

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