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Video game worlds are facades, and sometimes we catch a glimpse of what's beyond. Recently, while exploring one of the intricate levels of Dusk, I somehow managed to slip through the cracks and found myself on the other side of the invisible partition that upholds the illusion of coherent space. I'd entered a world of broken, gravity-defying architecture, and there in the middle of the level had opened a pit that revealed a vast grey void beneath my feet. Close by, there was an exasperated message on the ground: "YOU AREN'T SUPPOSED TO BE HERE, GO AWAY."
Anyone who's spent a lot of time playing games will have their own stories of discovering the cordoned-off spaces behind spaces. We know the strange feeling of clipping through the ground only to plunge into a bottomless void while the level we've been exploring recedes into the distant ether above us; a tiny island unto itself, a dwindling speck suspended in the great digital void.
These are accidents and glitches, but then again, if we're not supposed to gaze into the abyss, then why is the void such a popular trope in games? It seems any self-respecting fantasy game offers its players a tour of the void: There's the Void of the Dishonored games (read more about it here), the Fade of the Dragon Age series, the Realm Between Realms of God of War (2018). Divinity: Original Sin 2 and Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire also dip their toes into the great nothingness. These are metaphysical spaces inhabited by or associated with gods and spirits, the afterlife, and, most significant of all, origins and acts of creation. They are displaced and timeless, existing in between or beyond conventional space-time, and are only accessible through special pathways that pierce the veil: dreams, visions, rituals, death or magic.
There is a saying in architecture that no building is unbuildable, only unbuilt. Structures may be impossible in the here and now, but have the potential to exist given enough time or technological development: a futuristic cityscape, a spacefaring megastructure, the ruins of an alien civilisation. However, there are also buildings that defy the physical laws of space. It is not an issue that they could not exist, but that they should not. Their forms bend and warp in unthinkable ways; dream-like structures that push spatial logic to its breaking point.
The Tomb of Porsena is a legendary monument built to house the body of an Etruscan king. 400 years after its construction, the Roman scholar Varro gave a detailed description of the ancient structure. A giant stone base rose 50 feet high, beneath it lay an "inextricable labyrinth", and atop it sat five pyramids. Above this was a brass sphere, four more pyramids, a platform and then a final five pyramids. The image painted by Varro, one of shapes stacked upon shapes, seems like a wild exaggeration. Despite this, Varro's fanciful description sparked the imaginations of countless architects over the centuries. The tomb was an enigma, and yet the difficulty in conceptualising it, and the vision behind it, was fascinating. On paper artists were free to realise its potential. If paper liberated minds, the screen can surely open up further possibilities. There's no shortage of visionary structures within the virtual spaces of video games. These are strange buildings that ask us to imagine worlds radically different to our own.
Whilst many impossible formulations are orientated towards the future, there are also plenty from the past. The castle in Ico is one example of this. During the Renaissance, Europe was obsessed, not with future utopias, but with ancient Greece and Rome. While the box art of Ico is famously inspired by Giorgio de Chirico, the long shadows and sun-bleached stone walls only make-up a portion of the game's mood. It is the etchings of Giovanni Piranesi that best capture what it's like to explore the castle's winding stairs and bridges. Piranesi's imaginary Roman reconstructions were absurdly big - so colossal you could get lost in just the foundations. In a similar way, Ico's castle is impossibly large, the camera zooming out in order to overwhelm you and build up the unfathomable mystery of its origin and purpose.
Years ago, I interviewed a level designer who had originally trained as an architect, which these days is not an uncommon career trajectory. I asked him about the benefits his skillset brought to 3D level design. He talked about how it helped with approaching scale and structural integrity and creating a rational space.
Then I asked him about what the personal benefits of creating virtual building were. "If you design a building in a game and it falls down," came his simple response, "it cannot kill anyone, and you don't go to prison."
It was a pragmatic reply from a pragmatic person. But underneath it is another meaning - you can build anything you want. In virtual 3D space, the laws of physics don't apply unless you tell them to, and that means you can design any structure that you like.
DUSK rather undersells itself when it declares it’s “straight outta the ’90s”. While absolutely going for that Doom/Hexen vibe, with outstandingly fast movement, gorgeous chunky pixel enemies, and big meaty guns that pack a punch, it also has a really quite fantastic amount of good sense where not to be faithful to those mid-90s gibby times. If anything, DUSK feels like the FPS that id, 3D Realms and Raven would have made if they’d only had the tech.