Home Stories

Designing death in the virtual city

Video-game designers incorporate a healthy dose of reality into their fantasy dangers – it makes peril both fair and fun. And now the reverse is happening, as the exploration of virtual worlds feeds into the design of real-life environments.

Words by Konstantinos Dimopoulosaverage reading time 5 minutes

  • Article
An image of a videogame city being designed, showing wireframes used to sculpt buildings.
Lake city, Konstantinos Dimopoulos. © Gamious.

Virtual cities have some unique urbanistic traits. They are, to begin with, either completely imaginary creations, or playful abstractions of existing and historical urban spaces, and were thus never meant to be inhabited by actual people with real, physical needs.

We, their planners and designers, do not have to care about existing zoning regulations, traffic loads, pedestrian networks, infrastructure or building costs. We do not have to convince any mayor, corporation or politician about the feasibility and importance of our designs.

What we must do instead is trick players into – even momentarily – believing that their experience could be real. We have to construct believable civic illusions serving as the setting for often extravagant stories in fantastical worlds, and to make sure every aspect of their creation supports and enhances the way each game plays. It is the mechanics of play that lie in the digital heart of all video-game cities.

View out of a spacecraft city window with stairs and a pool table in the foreground and showing a planet and stars beyond.
Event[0]. © Ocelot Society.

Even games set in space, a place which almost no players will really have experienced, must feel real - and really dangerous.

Putting players in peril

Realism helps to create the sense of spatial immersion most virtual worlds aim for. Keeping rules like gravity or momentum means there can be situations where a player’s avatar has to avoid mundane yet occasionally deadly dangers such as falling off heights, being run over, getting crushed by debris or being exposed to epidemics.

Obviously, the more exotic an interactive space is, the broader the definition of ‘realism’ and the less mundane the available types of everyday dangers. Being drowned in a malfunctioning underwater city, getting sucked into the void of space from an apartment with a great view of Venus, or contracting cholera in a cursed medieval fantasy town are definitely more amusing than falling down an unattended elevator shaft.

Game designers often acknowledge that cities are essentially the people living in them. We tailor game societies accordingly, providing high-risk thrills and the chance to die a heroic death via encounters with intriguing criminal activities, devastating wars, or even, as is customary, cabals of vampires.

Virtual cities possess a variety of intriguing health hazards. These are places ruled by the laws of game and level design, and so must, exceedingly often, sensibly threaten a player’s in-game existence, both directly and indirectly.

Even in cases where all notions of virtual death and violence have been designed out, certain types of implied threats must remain to help civic creations feel plausible. AI systems may never allow a bus to kill pedestrians, and cleverly-designed safety railings can be too tall to jump over, but both traffic and heights still have to maintain their in-game intimidating presence.

Fair play

Besides being modestly dangerous in order to feel convincing or interesting, the cities of gaming have to also be dangerous in very particular ways that, unlike cruel reality, must feel fair to the player.

This means that the users of gaming’s civic spaces need to be able to anticipate threats without having to replay the game. Physical or mental hazards should be visualised or otherwise marked without breaking the sense of physicality of a coherent imaginary world.

This can be challenging with invisible or novel threats. Death or injury from falling, being hit by a horse-driven carriage or being mugged in an alley on the wrong side of town are health risks we can anticipate based on our real lives in cities, but we are less prepared to face supernatural or invisible threats, let alone cosmic invaders.

Eerie fog and the shuffling, grunting sounds of ghouls can alert players to danger to create a sense of fairness.

Sickness, radiation, gas poisoning and exposure to mind-shattering truths can’t just simply happen in video games. We have to make danger fun, and thus avoidable – at least by the better players. We have to signpost it whenever necessary.

Nobody would walk on a skyscraper balcony without railings on a windy day, but many would happily explore an interesting abandoned building, unaware that a unique strain of cholera resides there, or fail to notice rising radiation levels without a Geiger counter.

So designers create quarantined districts filled with biohazard signs, have in-game characters warn of alien monsters, place flashing lights on the borders of toxic areas, make radiation evident as an ominous green cloud, ensure toxic gas is visible, provide audio cues, or even colour whole districts. We employ environmental storytelling to warn and intrigue the player, and make our civic dangers perfectly suited for gaming.

From fantasy to reality

Interestingly, though we cannot really paint radiation or prepare people for the shocks they might encounter in actual cities, variations of the techniques video games are using might help us plan safer environments.

Just as good design practices or their inversion can create enjoyable or scary game cities, level design and signposting techniques lifted from games could help influence the construction of better, safer environments in real life. A combination of aural and visual cues has served many games, and should, for example, work in highlighting actual dangers in civic space. Focused research should be easily able to pinpoint which of the warnings that players find effective are applicable to real-life environments.

Sketches of potential city maps, which look like bright abstract shapes.
Map designs, Konstantinos Dimopoulos. © Konstantinos Dimopoulos. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Many city designs begin as abstract-looking plans before becoming realised in the fully developed realms that players explore.

Allowing people to roam virtual cities enables them to discover unforeseen potential risks or problems that might usually be invisible without facing real consequences or causing damage. The lack of actual danger as well as the limits of all simulations obviously somewhat restrict the usefulness of such experiments, but they have already kickstarted the discourse on the virtual testing of physical designs in game or game-like spaces. Besides, ideas and solutions worth exploring can be suggested by game cities as easily as by their literary or cinematic counterparts. 

About the author

Colour photograph of the head and shoulders of Konstantinos Domopoulos.

Konstantinos Dimopoulos

Following a PhD and over ten years of research in urban planning and city geography, Konstantinos Dimopoulos combined his knowledge of cities with his love for game design via the field of game urbanism. He has worked on the cities, rules and geographies of several games, is the author of the forthcoming ‘Virtual Cities’ atlas, and talks about game cities at conferences throughout Europe.