Keeping It Real

The game developer Jonathan Blow turns to architects to make virtual worlds more believable.

Fourm Design Studio

Fletcher Studio

The Witness

It’s very unusual for game developers to invite architects to shape a virtual world. “If you look at most video games, they are playing in the same pool of ideas, splashing the same ideas back and forth,” says Jonathan Blow, an independent game developer based in Berkeley, California. “It’s helpful to go outside, as a sanity check.” Which is why he brought on the architect Deanna VanBuren and the landscape architect David Fletcher for an upcoming video game called The Witness.

Created on a budget of about $2 million, the game drops players onto a mysterious, deserted island, offering little explanation, and entices them to learn more by exploring the environment and solving puzzles. The Witness may be the first video game to fully exploit the narrative possibilities of adaptive reuse, presenting several buildings that have been pressed into unintended functions over the years. For instance, in the course of learning how to operate the machinery in a church that has been repurposed into a concrete plant, players encounter a diary left behind by a former inhabitant, who writes about his religious and spiritual beliefs. Blow uses such elements to develop an ambitious plot: “The story you uncover is about a character wrestling with why we exist, and the scientific and philosophical quandaries we find ourselves in.”

As he was conceiving the game, Blow knew that he couldn’t compete on the basis of razzle-dazzle renderings. “We needed to find a graphical style executable by a small team. So it’s not about ‘Oh, that army guy looks really, really realistic,’ but, ‘This is an interesting building that I’m in.’ ” he says. “You want the gravitas that comes from having a lot of thought go into the space.”

Blow found VanBuren through a friend, and VanBuren brought in Fletcher, who is known for conceptual work about cities of the future. For the designers, starting with a clean slate was exhilarating. “We had to create our own constraints,” says Fletcher. “We had to reverse engineer an island—we studied hundreds of them—and come up with everything for the evolution of the place and its cultures.” It took several weeks for the two sides to reach an understanding about what succeeded in a virtual environment. In an early meeting, VanBuren and Fletcher found out that a modernist house they’d envisaged as the starting point didn’t work, because its spectacular views proved too distracting for players; now the game begins in a house that is a former bunker. The payoff is a world that is completely integral to the game play, and which is that much more believable.

“The more we can expose people to good design in any environment, virtual or real, the better,” says VanBuren. “If we work in a medium that goes out to hundreds and thousands of people, they might start to wonder, ‘Why does the built environment around me look so bad?’ That’s my hope.”

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