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Typically when you think of computer games, you think of alien spacecraft, industrial wastelands, slugging your way through a maze of wire-lined corridors with an oversized rocket launcher cocked and ready to blow off the heads of extraterrestrial opponents.

For architects like Ed Keller and Leslie Shih, this scenario is beginning to sound a bit too familiar, which is, one of the reasons why they are currently developing their own game.

The project started a little over a year ago as an expansion on some of the ideas Keller had been exploring in his graduate studio at Columbia University's School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation where he currently teaches. When he met up with Shih, a professor at Chiao Tung University in Taiwan, it was a natural match, since Shih had already been involved with several projects investigating the connections between digital media, content creation, and architectural film theory. "I guess we were just two frustrated film buffs who wanted to migrate into film," says Keller. "We wanted to do something in the realm of media, film, and architecture, and a game seemed like the answer. In the future, new forms of interactive media are going to slowly replace film as a popular medium. We saw this as our opportunity to jump in."

The game itself will be set 20 years into the future, and unlike most games today, the narrative will include seven different storylines with seven possible endings to each story. It will be created using the Unreal Game Engine, more commonly known to the layperson as a first person shooter game—the kind typically used to create the popular seek and destroy scenarios seen in most games today. However, the engine or game will be re-purposed and completely revamped to include new spaces, alternative scenarios, and increasingly sophisticated interactions between multiple players. "The computer game engine itself has extensive possibilities that are just not being utilized today," says Keller. "It has the ability to control crowd behavior, to control a limited sort of artificial intelligence, to deploy text media and streaming media, to design fully interactive spaces with objects that you can pick up and toss around. All the weapons can be redesigned as devices that allow you to reach out into the world and interact with it."

Not only will players be able to interact with objects but also with other players as well. Keller envisions the possibility of having between 20 and 30 players in a space at one time. "The game will be a really interesting balance between a first person exploration and an episodic community experience online," Keller says, "which basically means you can leave the game and the game will continue without you. When you return, time will have passed and events changed." It's like having an alter ego online.

As for the spatial design and narrative, Keller has assembled a team comprised almost entirely of architects to carry out its development. Since the game is set in the future, part of the challenge of course becomes not only rendering the future but also envisioning an entire world that functions consistently on multiple levels. For this, Keller is working closely with architect, Ben Arand who in addition to having his own firm, Terraswarm, is also a scenario writer. "Our storylines have a very rigorous grounding in classic scenario planning," Keller says, "so we are not just pulling futures out of our hat."

In this respect, there is a close tie between architecture and the gaming industry. Keller even admits that there is a great deal architects can learn from a game designer's point of view, "Gamers look at space from an interactive point of view and are primarily concerned with program and how space becomes activated. They also pay particular attention to time and forms of non-linear movement through a space, which if you think about it, is exactly the how architects look at space."

While there are certainly points of interaction between the two fields, there are also areas of divergence. Keller describes game design as a very fast medium and unlike architecture, one where hundreds, if not thousands, of users participate in the creation of space. In games like Unreal, users may download the game engine and with programs like 3D Studio Max, they can go in, remodel the spaces, add levels, and host their own games online. Keller describes them as being a "completely peer-revised community." Hundreds of people submit games, play each other's games, form collaborations, and even have widely publicized competitions. "They have absolutely no training in architecture," says Keller, "yet they are probably just as proficient, if not more, with the 3D rendering tools and in some ways, as capable of planning space as most architects."

In fact, Keller hopes that one day the architectural community might look to the game industry as a potential resource. "You have hundreds of people who are not urban planners or designers but who all they want to do is solve problems. If we could channel some of the urban design problems we deal with in architecture into a pipeline that would allow game developers to participate in the design process, I think urbanism can be radically changed. The design of our environment would be a much more democratic process."

With architects like Keller paving the way for new lines of communication between disciplines, we will certainly begin to see more hybridized forms of collaborations between the different design fields in the future. After all, are they really that different? According to Keller, maybe not. "I really don't see a distinction between architecture, film, pop-music, and game design," he says. "They are all ways of understanding how people are actually affected by time and space, and as designers, we all share a common goal of better understanding that interaction."

 

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