Artistry in Games minecraft-creepers Form, Space and Polygon : Form Follows Function (and Creepers) Features  minecraft design creepers assassin's creed

Architecture.  When this word is heard in the context of gaming, the usual expectation is to enter a discussion of software systems or data management.  In this series – Form, Space and Polygon, we will be addressing the ‘architecture’ of built forms, that which was known by Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, and Vitruvius.  As games evolve, so too does the built environment contained within them.  A relatively new aspect of this evolution of in-game architecture comes from the way the player interacts with it – since the release of the sandbox game Minecraft, gamers have been able to control the environment of the games they play to a hitherto unprecedented level.  There is architecture in more established genres of gaming, as well – where real-world and imagined architectural styles help the developer to tell the story of the game. It is also present – if not vital, in credibly framing a chosen place and time, as has been done in the juggernaut Assassin’s Creed series.  As games grow in complexity and artistry, it makes sense that the ways in which architecture is used to tell stories in these games will also grow, both reflecting its application in the real world, and perhaps developing unique applications in the digital.

In this installment of Form, Space and Polygon, we will be investigating how player-built architecture, specifically in Minecraft, mirrors two foundational tenets of real-world architecture.  The newer of these, coined by American architect Louis Sullivan, gave this article its name – Form Follows Function.”  The elder, that of the “Primitive Hut,” was first explicitly detailed by the Roman architect, engineer and scholar Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, then further expanded upon by the French architectural philosopher Marc-Antoine Laugier.

Anyone who has played Minecraft will probably recognize the relevance of “Form Follows Function” to that game, as it involves function-driven building from the first fifteen minutes of play onwards into the hundreds of hours it’s more than possible to sink into it.  The full quote from Sullivan is that,

“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.” 

This straightforward concept, while not known to many outside of the architectural profession, asserts itself in Minecraft in all from the crudest structures, to the most complex, provided that one is playing in survival mode.

Artistry in Games minecraft1-1024x559 Form, Space and Polygon : Form Follows Function (and Creepers) Features  minecraft design creepers assassin's creed
Verily, ’tis the eye of despair.

When you begin a game of Minecraft, the world sprawls out around you, and unless you are prepared, you might well fall prey to zombies, creepers, skeletons, spiders or worse before you figure out how to survive.  The simplest, and most desperate, of all possible structures is just to dig a three block deep, one block wide hole, jump into it, place a roof of dirt over your head, and then to somehow wait out the night in the clawing darkness. But this is not any way to live in Minecraft, much as in the real world.  Unlike in reality, though, the solution to your problems in this world is to start punching trees.  You punch a tree, (ideally, many trees) and one of the first vital actions that you will undertake following this, is to build some kind of shelter.

Artistry in Games minecraft2-1024x491 Form, Space and Polygon : Form Follows Function (and Creepers) Features  minecraft design creepers assassin's creed
A Minecraft structure unburdened by ornamentation, indeed.

These first structures are the very heart of the idea of Form Follows Function, more or less the primitive hut of Vitruvius realized in the Minecraft world.  It is the hut the player needs, built from the most abundant material surrounding them, but not necessarily the hut that they want.  The idea that the form of the dwelling is driven by materials on hand is one of the central ideas of the ‘primitive hut’, shown in Laugier’s famous frontispiece below.

Artistry in Games Essai_sur_l%27Architecture_-_Frontispiece Form, Space and Polygon : Form Follows Function (and Creepers) Features  minecraft design creepers assassin's creed
Frontispiece of Marc-Antoine Laugier: Essai sur l’Architecture 2nd ed. 1755 by Charles Eisen (1720-1778)

The primitive hut is a concept which originated in the seminal work De Architectura, penned by Vitruvius and bankrolled by Roman emperor Caesar Augustus at the end of the last century BC.  The idea is a simple one – that Hellenistic, or ancient Greek, architecture took its iconic forms from the earliest structures erected by humans. That is, two tree trunks, side by side, used to support a horizontal beam, while a pitched roof overhead allows snow or rain to fall away.  Thus, this early structure satisfied all the needs of humanity for shelter, built from the material most readily at hand.  While Vitruvius and his patron lived in a time when the architecture they so admired was already ancient, there are many enduring truths in the theory.  That people first built structures from the materials surrounding them is undeniably true – peoples native to grasslands do not build structures from trees as people from forested areas do.  Minecraft mirrors this, whether by the intention of the programmers or not – the player will construct their first shelter of whatever suitable building material is near to them.  I have been unfortunate enough to spawn in grasslands before, and have built my first hut from dirt in the absence of wood.

Before long, those of us who become ensconced in the world of Minecraft will come to a point where we need to expand our original hut, if not abandon it entirely for grander locations.  Slowly, our carefully constructed crafting, mining and farming apparatus take forms which are pleasing to the eye and satisfying to the mind, rather than simply fulfilling basic needs.  Nobody actually needs a forge room, for example, but almost everyone I know has built one.  This is where the architecture of Minecraft flows into another Vitruvian concept, one which Sullivan says inspired his own rule – “firmitas, utilitas, venustas,” or in English, that structures must be solid, useful, beautiful.  It seems part of human nature to produce things which are in some way pleasing to the eye, as we do it whenever we have the resources.  Louis Sullivan may have condemned ornamentation, but I believe in Minecraft, if not in real world architecture,  ‘venustas‘ is where the real evolution of design happens.

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Crenelations – Beautiful and practical! Image Source – Minecraft Forum.

Of course, in Minecraft, a world populated by myriad enemies like the spontaneously combustible creepers, ornamentation must always be at the very least solidly defended by structures of function.  Unlike the real world, where the majority of buildings are only burdened by gravity and budgets,  player structures need to consider fortification as a necessity.  Moats and towers, for example, protect bases from much of the harm that natural enemies would throw at them, while adding a certain gothic flare to the structure.  While many of the fortifications I have added to my bases over the years have started out as whimsical nods to historic architecture – who would have thought that crenelations – originally built because they looked cool – would actually be useful?  Even the most fantastic and impregnable of Minecraft structures – graceful glass spheres floating in the sky, forest structures carved from the living (well, okay, programmed) wood or vast underwater dungeons with walls made from glass – are informed in some way by the need for defence, if not from monsters, then from rogue players.

From a theoretical standpoint, it is fascinating to see how easily these architectural tenets can be applied to the experience of playing and creating in Minecraft.  Of course, one could argue that the connections I have drawn here are tenuous – that I am seeing what I want to see.  To that I would say that I am merely following in the footsteps of Vitruvius himself, who observed existing Hellenistic structures and formed assumptions about from whence the ancients drew their inspiration.  Less tenuous, I believe, is the connection between player structures and “Form Follows Function,” which persists in the game well past the design of dwellings for your character and into the construction of complex and wonderful machines via Redstone circuitry.  That Mojang has created something incredible in Minecraft has never been in dispute, as the game has been wildly successful since Alpha.  However, I believe that it also offers us a unique window into the idea of architecture in games driven by the same concepts as architecture in the world – form driven by function, influenced heavily by the surrounding environment, and finally the search of the individual for a pleasing aesthetic.

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