The ongoing blending of real and virtual worlds is causing all sorts of predictable challenges, as opportunities to reshape spaces from scratch come up against existing real-world prejudices and limitations. The metaverse is not without its critics, many of whom are making pioneering ventures into its unforged landscape in order to challenge these presumptions – the recent ‘Worldbuilding’ exhibition (which explores how artists can embrace and subvert the visual language and culture of video games) is a case in point. 

 Alyx, taken from Making Videogames book about virtual worlds
A dystopian cityscape from Half-Life: Alyx, taken from Making Videogames

Video games have been bridging this gap for decades. These worlds also offer unbridled escapism, creating landscapes that live on in our heads long after we’ve put down the controller. These three new titles – physical books, no less – are explorations of how these spaces are shaped and what sort of emotional imprint they leave behind. If you’re mindful of the scope and role of the projected metaverse, remember that video games have already helped shape the spatial perception of several generations of gamers.

To the contemporary city dweller without outside space, spare time, or transportation, a console or PC is a primary form of escapism. These aren’t good things, necessarily, but the emotional heft of an immersive video game doesn’t care if the wind rustling through grass or the rippling reflection of neon in a puddle is real or not; the brain tends to treat it in much the same way. 

 The Art of Creating Digital Worlds by Duncan Harris and Alex Wiltshire
Making Videogames: The Art of Creating Digital Worlds, by Duncan Harris and Alex Wiltshire

Thames & Hudson’s Making Videogames starts with the premise that ‘video games are a visual art’. It’s hard to disagree as we follow the authors’ journey through 12 different examples, revealing the sheer depth of content, research, and craft required to shape the modern game environment.

The influence of cinema is immediately apparent in almost all these case studies, but while ever-accelerating computing power increases photo-realism, it also throws up new complexities and opportunities. 

 Alyx, taken from Making Videogames book about virtual worlds
A dystopian cityscape from Half-Life: Alyx, taken from Making Videogames

Authors Duncan Harris and Alex Wiltshire show how advances in lighting, physics, and procedural generation – using a set of predefined parameters to create limitless new content – continue to open up whole new universes. The planets of No Man’s Sky, for example, are a riot of colour and form that evoke the science fiction art of the 1960s and 1970s; the game’s algorithm determines their landscape, palette, flora, and fauna, with over 18 quintillion variations. The game’s universe is, to all intents and purposes, as infinitely vast as our own. 

Making Videogames also dives into gaming architecture, from the neo-brutalism of Control’s awe-inspiring interiors to the post-apocalyptic cityscapes of Half-Life: Alyx. There are also digressions on changing approaches to style, as processing power unleashes an unlimited palette of visual approaches, be they retro, hyper-realistic, animé, painterly, or many more. 

Videogame Atlas book in slipcase by Luke Caspar Pearson and Sandra Youkhana
The limited edition of Videogame Atlas, by Luke Caspar Pearson and Sandra Youkhana

Video game worlds are approached from a different tack by architectural designers Luke Caspar Pearson and Sandra Youkhana. Their Videogame Atlas (available as a limited-edition slipcased volume for now, but soon to be published by Thames & Hudson) takes a very technical approach to the vast environments of the modern video game.

Through maps, charts, diagrams, and drawings, Pearson and Youkhana make an equivalence between virtual realms and the built environment, subjecting them to rigorous spatial analysis. 

The architecture of Dark Souls, from Videogame Atlas book, by Luke Caspar Pearson and Sandra Youkhana
The architecture of Dark Souls, from Videogame Atlas, by Luke Caspar Pearson and Sandra Youkhana

The 12 featured games include No Man’s Sky, Hideo Kojima’s cinematic epic Death Stranding, and Assassin’s Creed Unity, one of an ongoing series of historical adventures that are routinely praised for their forensic level of detail and ability to evoke past historical eras. 

A galaxy map from ’No Man’s Sky’, from Videogame Atlas book, by Luke Caspar Pearson and Sandra Youkhana
A galaxy map from No Man’s Sky, from Videogame Atlas, by Luke Caspar Pearson and Sandra Youkhana

Finally, there’s Genius Loci, a forthcoming memoir/travelogue by the writer and award-winning landscape designer Rob Dwiar. Rather than focus on architecture or topography, Dwiar is looking to place video game landscapes in the historical tradition of taming nature, treating game designers as if they were contemporary versions of Capability Brown, Gertrude Jekyll, or Dan Pearson.

Instead of moving mountains, today’s game designers push pixels, ‘grow’ virtual trees, and shape vistas that can be romantic, menacing, or both. 

Front cover of Genius Loci book, Rob Dwiar, which explores virtual worlds
Genius Loci, by Rob Dwiar, forthcoming from Unbound

Just as we carry mental maps of places we’ve been in real life, the virtual spaces of video games can also persist in the mind.

As games become ever more sophisticated and immersive, these boundaries and borders will continue to blur.  §

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