Book review: Videogame Atlas—Mapping Interactive Worlds

Video games are usually seen as mindless entertainment. But for those of us who grew up playing video games and continue to be inspired 
by these rich, virtual environments, we know that they offer much more.

Videogame Atlas: Mapping Interactive Worlds

By Luke Casper Pearson and Sandra Youkhana (Thames and Hudson, 2022)

REVIEW Ksenia Eic

Video games have historically been seen as mindless entertainment. But for those of us who grew up playing video games and continue to be inspired by these rich, virtual environments, we know that they offer much more. This is why I was pleased to see the appearance of Videogame Atlas: Mapping Interactive Worlds, a book that aims to showcase the artistic and design merits of video games.

Authors Luke Casper Pearson, an associate professor at Bartlett School of Architecture in London, and Sandra Youkhana, a registered architect and lecturer at Bartlett School of Architecture bring their professional training to bear by focusing on the spatial design of video games, highlighting some of the many layers of design thinking that go into game development. Opening the book and seeing the beautiful diagrams—all in a decidedly architectural style, using only linework and hatches—made me thrilled to start reading it. I was even more excited when I saw the game selections, which included Dark Souls, a masterwork of spatial design.

But this excitement died down as I made my way through the book. Though there were many interesting design ideas covered in the various chapters, three questions kept going through my head. Why did the authors come to choose these specific analyses, many of which described aspects of the games that were obvious to players or had little to offer in regards to meaningful design insight? How did the work intend to inform architectural or even game design? And ultimately, who is this book for?

Each of the book’s 12 chapters centres on a single video game There is a nice variety selected, from Fornite—an online, multiplayer, battle royal—to Dwarf Fortress, a roguelike 2D simulation. The writers illustrate design concepts in each chapter, ranging from how players move across a map/level and how real-world and in-game buildings and locations match up, to understanding the scale of in-game locations and interactions between players. While these generally were clear, some of the choices were odd. For example, anyone who has played Assassin’s Creed knows that one of the key mechanics in the series is the ability to climb on and jump between buildings. Some of the diagrams describing this—such as the elevation views showing climbable sections of various buildings—are quite beautiful and interesting, but by the fifth-plus diagram, the point was already clearly made. Conversely, I felt that other topics touched on briefly deserved far greater study, such as the layouts of various areas in Dark Souls, and how the spatial design of each affects gameplay, player movement and experience.

I would also have liked to see what game developers could add to the book based on their internal research. Many developers spend a colossal amount of time play-testing their games, a phase in which they gather data on how players move around the map(s), how players choose to play (for example, what attacks or weapons they use most), what locations/events are most popular, how much time it takes to complete a level, etc. For some studios, there are sophisticated methods for recording and reviewing this data. Gaining insight into the entire process from pre-release research to post-release analysis could provide an intriguing analogue to the pre- and post-occupancy studies for real-life buildings.

One further critique is the treatment of text in this book—generally in large blocks with no subheadings, which made reading through it feel like a chore, even for me—an architect fascinated with game design who has played many of these games. Finding a way to break up the text and move secondary information to the side would have helped immensely. Images, for their part, while beautiful and presented with a coherent aesthetic, lacked the labels and legends that would have made them more comprehensible.

Who is this book for, then? Those who are interested in the intersection of architecture and video games may find they are already aware of many of the insights illustrated in this book, but, even with its faults, I would say it is worth a read. For readers new to video games, the book perhaps relies too much on familiarity with the games that form the basis of the case studies. I would love to see books of this type written in a more accessible way for both gamers and non-gamers alike, so that people can learn about and appreciate the complexities of video games design and what insights this may offer to architecture and other design fields. All in all, I would give a tentative recommendation for Videogame Atlas to all those interested in architectural and video game design. Though it may not be perfect, it is one of the precious few publications focusing on the intersection between these two fields of design. This book builds credibility for video game design and helps lay the groundwork for future study—for that, I am grateful to both authors and hope that they continue to study these topics further.