Video Game Spaces: Arkhangelsk Facility

You enter the facility through an abnormally large air vent in the bathroom. The vent hangs open over an empty bathroom stall. You can see, in the next stall over, a young soldier in a garishly green uniform. You take aim at his head, probably not thinking about his neatly pressed garrison hat at all as you peer over the sights of your silenced handgun. You fire a single shot, killing the young man instantly. You drop—silently, ever so–into the stall below, careful not to slip on the toilet looming beneath the vent. You kick open the door, gun poised, and fire two more mercifully silent bullets tsk tsk into the body of another soldier regarding his reflection in the mirror. If you are skilled, he is dead before he even realizes you’ve entered the room. His body slowly disintegrates until nothing remains. One more soldier cowers in a stall across the room. You kick open the door, gun blazing, and he is gone.

Now the bathroom is yours. You’re free to take in the surroundings.

The ceiling and walls are an unassuming gunmetal gray—a dark, damp concrete poured, no doubt, with a careful eye on the ledger book instead of the architect’s vision board. An economical white tile begins at eye-level, continuing onto the floor beneath your feet. A large service column divides the room into moieties, like restrooms you’ve seen in a truck stop or rest area. There are sinks set into the outer walls. They are bare-bones fixtures; stainless steel, no flourishes to arrest the eye or introduce a measure of warmth to the fluorescent cold. Opposite the sinks there are urinals bolted in the recessed wall of the service column. Perhaps an elevator or chimney shares the column with the plumbing. Perhaps if you waited long enough you would hear the inner workings of the facility behind these spartan walls. Unlike the soldiers guarding this facility—two of whom will never live, laugh, or love again—you won’t be spending a great deal of time in this restroom. You are merely passing through.

You are not an assassin or spy. Perhaps you are a student, in fact. You could be a cashier, a mechanic, maybe a teacher. But for a few nights a week, especially if you were alive around the year 1998, you may have spent a lot of time here or somewhere nearby. This is the opening scene in a level of the classic first-person shooter video game GoldenEye. The rest of the level, like the rest of the game, is full of similarly constructed spaces: offices, archives, corridors, laboratories, guard towers, missile silos, control rooms, closets, warehouses, a naval vessel, even a radio telescope. More than anything else, in fact, GoldenEye is characterized by space–by hundreds of spaces, each designed with care and constructed from raw materials and assembled through a combination of logic and skill. The facility in GoldenEye is a building. Its designers were architects.

If architecture is a way of shaping the human experience by shaping the spaces in which it unfolds, we must include video games in this category. We spend so much time there. My first exposure to a personal computer unfolded in the corridors of the Castle Wolfenstein nearly thirty years ago. I remember spending hours exploring the dungeons, hallways, banquet rooms, guard rooms, on and on, spellbound by the castle’s winding corridors, by its secrets. I’ve been back many times.

I still feel that sense of immersion and awe I experienced as a child. I’ve passed more time in the world of Wolfenstein and GoldenEye than the lavish spaces of the colleges and universities I’ve attended. I remember the facility bathroom in GoldenEye better than the restrooms at my middle school. If those schools are works of architecture, so is the facility.

GoldenEye is designed as a series of spaces through which the player navigates, but all video games—even card games, board games, and puzzles—are primarily spatial. They draw us into the action unfolding on the screen, compelling us through the strength of their design to withdraw from the space in which the screen is situated. Unlike television or movies, however, they invite us to interact with that space, to inhabit it and make changes.

Unlike movies or television, then, we should criticize and praise video games, perhaps glory in them, just as we would a work of architecture. We live in these spaces. We socialize there. If we view Zoom, Teams, and similar software as gamified work platforms, we work and go to class in these virtual spaces as well. As more of our life moves from physical to virtual spaces, the architectural aspect of video games—their ability to shape how we feel about ourselves and how we interpret the world—is more significant than it has ever been. It is worth exploring some of the many electronic spaces we inhabit in more detail.

Similar to other recurring features I’ve been launching lately, I will explore these virtual spaces on the pages of this blog by posting screenshots and recordings from the games I play along with personal or critical essays. Hopefully I’ll hear from you along the way! Feel free to comment below. I welcome thoughts and suggestions for spaces to explore.

Signcraft: Runnymede

In Grafica della Strada, designer Louise Fili lovingly documents the wildly creative shop signs, billboards, and other signage of the Italian street. “In the hands of a sign craftsman,” Fili writes, “type took on a new life, with a tantalizing menu” of styles, materials, and techniques. “Many of the signs proudly bore the imprimaturs of their makers” she explains. All of them are beautiful and inspiring.

Inspired by Fili’s valentine to Italian signage, over the years I began looking around for examples of well-crafted or creative signage here in my little southern hometown. To put it mildly, I’ve been disappointed. American streets certainly match their Italian counterparts in quantity. We are surrounded by signs, assaulted by their messages all day. When it comes to variety or creativity, though, our humble American streets leave much to be desired.

The problem, I believe, is one of commodification and transportation. What makes the signs in Fili’s book so wonderful are the myriad personal touches, the unique lettering, the diverse materials. They catch the eye in spaces that operate on a human scale, like pedestrian areas and urban centers where people move slowly. American signs must catch the eye on the scale of the automobile. Just about every sign here seems to be a sheet of printed plastic hung in front of a bank of lights, therefore, towering above the street where it can be seen from a distance at a high rate of speed. Signs are manufactured to corporate spec by franchisees for many businesses. In almost all cases they are manufactured using commodity materials, a limited design language, and industry-standard methods. It is a competitive business with precious little room for experimentation, serving customers with precious little appetite to break the norm. As business moves more online, I suspect this trend will only worsen.

Or so it appears. I’m willing to believe that this is a superficial reading of the American sign landscape, and I hope to prove myself wrong on this blog.

I’ll start with an example that is not beautiful, necessarily, but is remarkably different from the norm. I spotted this sign at the entrance to an “established” (that means old, in real estate terms, but not old or special enough to be “historic”) neighborhood on the opposite side of a busy road headed out of town. I swung around to take a few pictures, but could not find a good place to pull over until I spotted a side street a few hundred yards down the narrow entrance road. This gave me an excellent opportunity to walk through the neighborhood. The sun was shining warmly, and birds were singing songs of early spring in the trees overhead. Homeowners along the street have added, over the years, little hahas and embellishments to their yards. The neighborhood was peaceful, lived in. Alain de Botton argues that “those places whose outlook matches and legitimates our own, we tend to honour with the term ‘home.'” To call a place “home,” he says, is “to recognize its harmony with our own prized internal song.”

I was easy to see how Runnymede is home for its people. This sign was not as handsome as it may have been thirty years ago, but it speaks to the unique character of the community it represents. Perhaps it “sings” their “prized internal song.”

This is the first lesson in my study of American signage. Context is important. John Dewey rather famously wrote: “When artistic objects are separate from both conditions of origin and operation in experience, a wall is built around them that renders almost opaque their general significance.” A viewer cannot fully understand art unless they see it in the place and form in which it was meant to be seen. A sign is meant to be seen in a particular place. That is its purpose. Its value as a work of art is way down the list of priorities. I regret now that I did not do a better job of capturing this sign in context.