My latest article on PopMatters is now life: Games and the Making of Ominous Architecture.
The inspiration for this article comes from an old article I stumbled upon recently from Damn Interesting, which actually links to a fascinating report from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant research team. Reading some of the messages the report wants to get across to people many generations from now is like reading a piece of science fiction. The lifespan of this destructive radioactive material is so far in the future that we have to plan, today, for any sort of contingency. In 10,000 years, we could be living as minor-gods or, more likely, barely surviving as a species in a Mad Max scenario. How do we warn people, potentially a civilization ignorant of radiation and its effects, that something dangerous lies buried below their feet?
Recall Arthur C. Clark's statement that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Now imagine WIPP 10,000 years in the future, discovered by a group of people who have no memory of the nuclear age. Our morbid obelisks and cryptic markers may seem like religious symbols left here by an alien race. For Hawking's sake, there are people today who believe Stonehenge was made by aliens - and that site was constructed no more than 5,000 years ago! If a future group of people stumble upon messages carved in stone that express the dangers of invisible rays that cause one to slowly die, they may think New Mexico is a land of sorcery or demonic power - it might as well be.
Designing an ominous message for the future is really an exercise in designing instantly readable architecture - something game designers attempt regularly. Look at something like League of Legends. Environmentally the game is simple, but consider all the unique champion and spell animations. If a character casts an area spell that damages opponents, players need to give the effect one look and know to avoid it. Bubbling caustic slime and spiked walls of ice must express their purpose quickly and efficiently. Similarly, the architecture of horror games, or any game for that matter, should convey its atmosphere and even lore within the curves of its walls and the look of its materials. I really wish I had the architectural background to do this topic even more justice. The art of creating visceral architecture is an amazing skill, for scientists and game designers alike.