Lessons in Architecture

I recently revisited Matthew Frederick’s ‘101 Things I Learned in Architecture School’, a fantastic book full of concise lessons that are applicable to various design disciplines and not just limited to architecture students. I have picked out 10 essential lessons, and then attempted to briefly explain them in regards to approaching level design in games.

1. “Use ‘denial and reward’ to enrich passage through the environment.”

As designers we can divert players down unexpected paths, denying them of their current objective and creating intrigue through alternative points of interest. We can then reward them by hinting at views of their target location, creating a sense of visual progress within the current objective. Frederick states that “we connect visual clues from our surroundings”; suggesting that designing intriguing pathways towards the objective can make the arrival all the more rewarding.


2. “Any aesthetic quality is usually enhanced by the presence of a counterpoint.”

To create greater impact in your spaces, try to integrate opposing qualities together. This can apply to approaches into a space as well as the elements inside; such as navigating through a low-lit, narrow corridor to reach a tall bright room.


3. “Three levels of knowing.”

SIMPLICITY – Referencing the child-like unawareness of what lies beneath the surface of immediate reality.

COMPLEXITY – Awareness of complex systems, but with an inability to discern patterns and connections.

INFORMED SIMPLICITY – An enlightened view of reality, to discern and create clarifying patterns within society and nature.

Pattern recognition is crucial, and I found the ‘Informed Simplicity’ definition a perfect description on how we should consistently break down and analyse the world around us for inspiration.


4. “Create architectural richness through informed simplicity or an interaction of simples rather than through unnecessarily busy agglomerations.”

Don’t overcomplicate things. When constructing spaces we need to ensure that we are not making things unnecessarily complex, and this is equally important in regards to our workflow; solving a design problem in fewer, simpler moves as opposed to introducing too many complexities early on.


5. “Beauty is due more to harmonious relationships among the elements of a composition than to the elements themselves.”

One fundamental compositional technique is the idea of viewing things holistically rather than focusing too much on individual elements. This can relate to designing and constructing highly-ordered game spaces, and how individual elements of the environment interact with one another to provide emergent gameplay.


6. “Geometric shapes have inherent dynamic qualities that influence our perception and experience of the built environment.”

Directional level geometry can subtly influence player direction. A long rectangular object or room encourages movement along it for example. These will also influence the player’s direction of gaze as well their movement.


7. “Overdesign.”

This rule is essential to real world architecture in that we are using physical space and materials, and that reducing or focusing the size or layout of a building is easier to do than having to try and create more space to fit things in. Of course, video games do not present us with the same types of restrictions with virtual space, however the idea of starting the workflow with a broader scope and then honing it down to a more focused and refined structure still applies.


8. “An object, surface, or space usually will feel more balanced or whole when its secondary articulation runs counter to its primary geometry.”

Take existing elements in a space and place counter objects against them,such as placing an offset horizontal beam across a series of vertical ones. This is effectively a way of disrupting patterns. You want to interrupt the eye and movement of the player with thoughtful placing of opposing level elements, subtly drawing them towards areas of interest.


9. “Limitations encourage creativity.”

A fundamental approach to design involves engaging with and taking advantage of your limitations. Set yourself constraints early on for the map you want to make, limiting your narrative, art, architectural and mechanical elements.


10. “Just do something.”

Frederick states that simply ‘depicting a design solution’ is enough to learn something about the problem you’re trying to solve. Start working on something. Anything. Adapt to the problems that arise and iterate. In relationship to level design, this may affect the time you spend in pre-production, as at times it may be better to just jump straight into the editor and start blocking things in. Study other designer’s workflow preferences and experiment. I’m currently trying out different approaches and finding that the sooner I have something playable up and running, the better.



‘Possibility Space’ is a familiar concept in game design that has always resonated with me when it comes to understanding how we interact with games spatially and mechanically. Essentially, the term refers to a visualisation of all possible moves and states within a defined game space; representing the full range of interactions and possible outcomes available to the player. A well-crafted possibility space therefore constrains a player’s actions, and within a range that they understand clearly. This may be through physical exploration of the boundaries of the space, or through gaining an understanding of the mechanics by exhausting all possible actions available.

An oft used example is the extremely small number of moves possible in Tic-Tac-Toe, versus the near-unlimited amount of player states available in a game of Chess. In both cases, the physical constraints of the space are relatively small, but the possible moves and states that can emerge vary dramatically depending on the rules governing the space.

Eric Zimmerman states that we can attempt to understand the concept of a possibility space both metaphorically and literally. In a metaphorical sense, we can view them as “an abstract decision space or conceptual space of possible meaning”; referring to the underlying systems of the game that dictate the actions available to the player. Exploring the concept literally as a 2D or 3D space, we can focus on the organisation of spatial elements that guide and constrain the player’s actions. Here we can attempt to understand the space of possibility narratively, considering the impact that these spatial features may have on creating meaning.

Will Wright was an early adopter of the term possibility space, and regularly referred to it in a similar way to the ‘metaphorical’ interpretation mentioned previously. However some designers have favoured the more literal approach of the concept; and in particular have been exploring its connection to narrative design.

“Games create ‘possibility spaces’, spaces that provide compelling problems within an overarching narrative, afford creative opportunities for dealing with problems and then respond to player choices with meaningful consequences” – Warren Spector

Warren Spector, acclaimed for his work in narrative design and character immersion at Looking Glass studios, supports the fact that spatial features have a strong impact on the creating the narrative space of possibility. We can effectively view an individual game space as a ‘physical’ narrative place that guides and constrains the player. Another ex-Looking Glass designer Randy Smith; has also often used the term possibility space in regards to narrative. Randy believes that the creation of “honest and believable stories out of the possibility space” is the key to engaging gameplay. He states that as humans we have an innate desire to witness to stories resolve, and that framing these key narrative points as possibility spaces is a compelling way to understand storytelling in games.