Every once in a while, whilst playing a game, you might notice something a little odd. You may not be able to clearly define it, but in the course of your explorations, you might occasionally get the feeling that there’s something not quite right about the setting, nagging at the back of your mind like the background code-static from the Matrix.
I’ll let you in on a secret: buildings in games are distantly related to the TARDIS.
I should clarify that I don’t mean they’re actually TARDISes sitting more anachronistically than usual in the middle of a game, although that would be an interesting Easter Egg. Game buildings are Escherian conundrums in which the floorplan inside frequently does not match the exterior footprint, or for which the visual scale does not compute with the scale of other things ingame.
Much of the time, the scale of graphical assets ingame will be skewed a bit for the sake of the visuals or for technical reasons. When compared to other things, the assets may be smaller or larger than the real object would be. When this is done well, players don’t even notice.
Moons in EVE Online are a good example of this: their assets — the actual objects attached to the visual representation — are often both smaller and closer than they appear to be, and it’s possible to get your ship caught on them when you’d swear you’re nowhere close to grazing what little atmosphere they might have. Part of this has to do with what your brain tells you should be the moon’s relative size. A good asset-builder, like any artist or architect, knows how to force perspective in order to create an illusion of distance and scale. In EVE, it only falls apart when you realise that there’s no way in hell your ship could possibly have squeezed through the station undock, let alone have fit within the station itself along with the rest of your corporation and all of your other ships and gear; there are a couple station models where the hangar interior is literally larger than the station exterior in space. But until you really start thinking about it, it’s easy to suspend belief a bit.
And then you get things that don’t make sense. At a distance, with no character nearby for scale, a location or object looks amazing. But then you put a character in the scene and find out that that a guard-railing in Moria is head-height on an elf or human, and wouldn’t do a lick of good keeping a dwarf from falling over the side. Likewise, stairs. Lord of the Rings Online is beautifully visualised, but its stairs make me want to cry. I kind of wish they’d been left as a painted ramp, because it’s tough to imagine dwarves hiking up and down a hill using what are essentially waist-high shelves. At range, these features and others look fine, the human brain does a fantastic job of scaling things mentally so that they make perfect sense, even when they don’t; there are limitations in games that don’t exist in real life, and we can forgive these easily.
Full-on TARDIS houses, on the other hand, are a bit of a stretch.
I’ve studied architecture, structural engineering, and I’m a reasonably good draughtsman both on paper and in CAD programs. When I look at a building, I’m mentally mapping its layout; if I’m in an older building, I’m looking for signs of structural expansion and history — I’m a nerd like that. When the interior of a house doesn’t match its exterior, or when a wall seems just a bit too thick for no apparent reason, it’s fairly noticeable. For a few months I lived in a house in Providence, Rhode Island (not far from dear old H.P. Lovecraft’s old home, in fact) which was distinctly non-Euclidean, and it was a great mental exercise to figure out how the walls were joined.
Again, sometimes TARDIS-ing is done in the interests of accommodating game limitations, either visually or technically. Allow me to provide a couple of notable examples.
Take the Prancing Pony in Bree from Lord of the Rings Online. No, no, put it back, I didn’t mean literally. The exterior looks great; the latest graphics update to Bree only improved its appeal as a place to get a room, a pint and a hearty meal. Now compare that exterior to its ingame floorplan. For reference, the red triangle in the upper left is the main entrance, which is accessed via the stairs under the archway outside. Look a bit odd? It gets better: the red triangle below the main entrance lets you out into the yard, almost directly behind the wall in which the front entrance is located. The rest of the rooms “below” that in the floorplan are up flights of stairs. This is what I mean by TARDIS houses. Some of my favourite buildings in the UK are coachhouses that have been turned into pubs or student unions, and while they certainly have a number of odd angles and short flights of stairs connecting levels through holes that have been carved through the stonework, I’ve never seen anything quite so dramatic. LotRO pulls a lot of Escher tricks for the sake of simplicity, mind. This is the map of Moria. If you look on the left at the chamber called “The Twenty-First Hall”, there is a well-chamber (this one, to be precise) on the far, far left edge of the map. If you jump or fall in the well, you’ll end up in “The Water-Works” at the bottom-left of the map (certain chance of death may apply if you do this). When actually walking around, however, the map is (relatively) straightforward and flat, and your latitude/longitude on the mini-map reflects this. The implication is that Moria is far more vertical than they were able to make it; belief is willingly suspended in favour of the Rule of Cool: YOU CAN JUMP DOWN THE FREAKING WELL.
Then there’s Dragon Age 2. I’m a massive Dragon Age addict, and if I had only one game series I was allowed to play for the rest of my life, that’s what I’d choose, but building interiors in those games sometimes defy the laws of physics. DA2’s production limits had a strong influence on the ingame architecture — I can’t fault the artists for doing a good job with what they had, but the results are great TARDIS-building examples. The layouts of most interiors make no sense, particularly as the buildings in the game appear to be multiple-storey blocks — there would have to be concessions for internal stairwells and passages, at the very least. After your character earns the right to buy an estate, the estate interior is far too big and oddly-shaped to fit into its footprint in Hightown; moreover, when you’re exploring its cellar in the first act, the map of the above floors doesn’t match what you find later after moving in in the second act. A door that leads you into a side-room in an early quest will later let you into the entry hall of the same building.
TARDIS-ing is partly a symptom of disconnecting interior locations from the exteriors assets, requiring a moment’s loading blink when you change locations: when there’s no external boundary to stay within, the possibilities are limitless. The Pokémon games are notorious for this, and the only real way to avoid such a disconnect is to not allow the players to see the exterior of the building they’re entering, which is usually done using walls or plants, or implying that there was an additional passage to travel through which the player wasn’t forced to traverse manually. Sometimes the artists will make an effort to match the interiors to a suggested exterior profile, but sometimes there are design matters to take into account, or time and resources are limited and it’s simply more effective to clone interiors for multiple buildings. Cloning interiors makes a great deal of sense in a location such as that in DA2, where the entire town was purpose-built, but not so much for a village which has grown over time and where the houses were built by their original occupants, like Bree.
Is any approach particularly better, though? While my personal preference is for structural continuity, I would not actually suggest that it’s ideal for all games. There are a lot of variables to take into account with any design decision, and while it might be more realistic to have narrow staircases in your inn and a space station that looks like it could feasibly house a hundred capital-sized hangars, it’s not always the best option for the game itself. For my part, I try to not focus too much on why City of Heroes offices were all constructed by the same firm which clearly believes in useless dead ends and not building lifts to go directly from ground floor to rooftop.