Semiotics of Architecture in Digital Games

By Gabriele Aroni.

When we talk about digital games the first thing that comes to mind is their ludic aspect – the act of playing and the way we interact with them. However, digital games underwent a colossal development in the past decades. We are now far from the simple bi-dimensional landscapes of Super Mario Bros. where we could only move on two axes. At least from the mid 1990s, in most games we are offered three-dimensional spaces that we can explore as if we were looking through the character’s eyes, while manipulating the point of view in real time, giving us the same flexibility that we would have in visiting an actual place. We can infer that the experience of virtual spaces and thus virtual architecture can be assimilated to the real one, at least as concerns its mode of visual perception. But most importantly, since digital games are, as the name implies, primarily games, there is an intrinsic need for the design of their sceneries to communicate with players, in order to be played in any meaningful way. In fact, the movement in a space is essential in almost every game:

“architecture is the basic element of games. Because games are almost always a process of going from one point to another. And in-between you have doors, you have puzzles, and it is always a journey, always a progression through space. Except in pure puzzle games, or text adventures, but in the majority of games it is the architecture you are experimenting with, though with new rules: with different gravity, with different ways to move. It’s the essence of games.” (Martin, 2017, p. 100)

An architecture that is symbolic in nature, that has a communicative vocation, can seem strange in a world of cookie-cutter buildings that appear to “function” rather than communicate. Undeniably, architecture fulfills a mechanical role and usually does not try to “represent” or “symbolize” something else: a pillar is there to support a roof; the roof is there to protect the building and its users from the weather, and so on. At the same time, even functional aspects are meaningful in themselves: large windows at the street level would probably indicate the presence of some kind of shop, or revolving doors would signal a publicly accessible space.

These architectural elements placed in games usually have a greater necessity to communicate with players than real architecture. There are often many other signs and symbols that help players navigate and interpret the space around them, or make sense of the story, such as dialogues with other characters, or interfaces that indicate where to go and what it is possible to do. However, in order to facilitate the navigation of players in the environment, architecture itself needs to be as communicative as possible.

Umberto Eco claims that architecture can be semiotically understood as denotating a function, for example a flight of stairs or a ramp denotates the possibility of ascending or descending by virtue of its own shape and how we understand the environment around us. Based on other external codes, be they linguistic, cultural, or other, people can read the denotation of more complex architectural constructs. Let us look at the case of an elevator: in order to know that the button opens the door, or that the number on the control pad corresponds to a floor, one needs to possess additional codes so as to decipher the links between the function of elevators and these signs. (Eco, 1997, p. 177)

Other than denoting its function, an architectural sign can also connote “a certain ideology of the function”, so for example a seat communicates the possibility of sitting on it, but a throne has a semiotic connotation that goes beyond the mere function of a seat. (1997, pp. 178–179) Eco considers that this ‘symbolic’ aspect of certain architectural constructs has a function in and of itself, so that he speaks of primary functions that are denotative and secondary functions that are connotative. The terms “primary” and “secondary” are not to be read in order of importance, but rather based on the fact that connotative functions “rest on the denotation of the primary function”. (1997, p. 179)

In digital games, architecture can be interpreted at first as an iconic sign, i.e. a house in a game will look like a house in the real world in order to convey the meaning of ‘house’. Save for entirely abstract games, we mostly find forms and objects that we can link with the real counterpart and base our actions on this interpretation. Unlike what we could at first think, there are several technical constraints in digital game architecture, as much as there are in real architecture. Of course, the laws of physics do not apply, and there are no plan regulations to respect or water leakage to prevent, but there are memory limits that set how many buildings and objects can be on the scene at any given time, or how much detail can be put in any building. Also, gameplay constraints can limit and/or decide how locations are designed so that the intended ludic activity can take place without issues. For example, an action game that involves gunfights must have an architecture that allows for taking cover, space to move around and an appropriate setting. More than only providing a useful setting for the action, the space should also aid in the characterization of the environment and the narrative aspect of the game.

The Ludic Sign

Brian Upton, a veteran of the game industry, uses semiotics to frame his idea of play, pointing out that in games and, in general, in any aesthetic endeavour, there is not a fixed correspondence between signifier and signified, since the goal of the communication is not to arrive to a particular meaning. Much like in a song, or in a novel, there might be a meaning that the author wanted to convey, but “the path we take to get to that meaning is convoluted and indirect. The path is convoluted and indirect because navigating a well-constructed system of constraints is interesting and fun.” This is what Upton calls a ludic sign, where rather than experiencing a direct connection between a signifier and signified, we “experience an aesthetic work as a stream of signifiers”. (2015, p. 170) If an aesthetic experience is thus a semiotic engagement, architecture is arguably no different, and even more so virtual architecture. We usually experience architecture as we explore it, it is never a direct, clear message. Even if there is a message that the author wanted to deliver, it is the movement through the space that composes it, and this holds true for both real architecture and architecture in digital games.

Architecture as Anticipatory Play

From this framework, Upton derives the concept of “Anticipatory Play”, that is the capability of players to image how the game will unfold, based on pre-existing knowledge of the rules, the layout of the environment, the enemies, etc. This is a fundamental part of the enjoyment of play, as thinking on how the action will unfold, or what the next move will be is as important as putting it into practice. In the opinion of Upton, bombarding players with constant action without respite is detrimental, and the game needs to afford the right amount of anticipatory play and strike the right balance between actual interactive action and more reflexive moments: “anticipatory play allows us to focus instead on what opportunities any play experience provides for elaborated analysis, contemplation, and reflection” (2015, p. 76)

The virtual architecture of the game plays an important role in the anticipatory play, as it is also through the architectural design of the game levels that players can afford to plan and thus to engage in anticipatory play. In a first-person-shooter game, where players are tasked with fighting enemies in gunfights from a first-person perspective, the simple presence of architectural elements can change how the gameplay unfolds. For example, the presence of an open door in an otherwise empty corridor changes how players behave, not because the door itself has any effect on the movement of players or on the action, but rather because its presence creates a series of possibilities that players have to evaluate: “is there anyone behind that door?” “Where does it lead?” “Is it dangerous?”. Even if there is actually nothing behind the door, its mere presence as a sign makes the experience of playing more interesting, and not by changing anything in the interaction itself, but only by communicating a set of possibilities to players. (2015, p. 78)


NaissanceE (Limasse Five, 2014) is a first-person exploration game that became a cult-game of sorts amongst architecture enthusiasts in the digital game sphere. The game was created by a single developer, Mavros Sedeño, who “wanted the architecture to be in-between symbolic spaces and more real spaces”. (Martin, 2017, p. 95) In NaissanceE there are no characters aside from the protagonist, no dialogues nor text, as the main idea behind the game, in the words of the author, is “to make the player appreciate the loneliness, the feeling to be lost in a gigantic unknown universe and to be marvelled by the beauty of this world”.

Fig. 1 Architectural structures in NaissanceE (Limasse Five, 2014) from

In NaissanceE no explanation is given as to how and why players are in this particular situation, and the whole story is narrated through the exploration of the gigantic structure, inspired by the Prigioni of Piranesi and the works of Japanese mangaka Tsutomu Nihei. With so little information to use to make sense of what is going on, players are forced to rely on the architectural signs of the environment in order to progress in the game. The developer Sedeño used architectural signs, such as light paths, or openings in a wall, to guide players towards the next part of the game. In the case of NaissanceE, anticipatory play is more prominent than actual gameplay. The interaction with the environment is limited, there are only some sections that could be classified as platform, where players have to time jumps between various parts of the scenery, or avoid obstacles in order to progress in the game, but much of the time is spent wandering around the enormous structure. With so little action, the interest of players is kept through anticipatory play: “where does this staircase lead?”, “what is emitting that light?”, “who might have built this structure?” are the questions that players formulate in their minds and that keep them going.

The vagueness of the story gave birth to numerous interpretations from the people who played the video game, from theories on how the voyage in the structure was a metaphor of the protagonist’s journey through drug rehabilitation or some inner, spiritual introspection, to more grounded theories about the exploration of some ancient abandoned megastructure inhabited only by mechanical entities.

Fig. 2 A megastructure in NaissanceE (Limasse Five, 2014) from

In the case of NaissanceE, it is up to players to interpret what is displayed on-screen. The primary functions, the ones related to gameplay, are there to be interpreted in order to progress in the game, to know where to go next, whereas the other artistic decisions regarding the architecture of the game can be read in different ways and players can draw their own conclusions. At the beginning of the game the structures have a more human aspect, with furniture and lighting, whereas later in the game, deeper within the structure, everything appears more blank and abstract, giving birth to a number of suppositions. For instance, that the civilization that dwelled in the structure evolved so that it required no more furniture since the structure itself would perform mundane tasks, or that the protagonist symbolizes the beginning of humanity, or that she is going through an after-life experience.

Fig. 3 A more abstract level of NaissanceE (Limasse Five, 2014) from

The Witcher 3

Rather than using virtual architecture for anticipatory play and elicit various interpretations from players, game developers might also decide to deliver clear messages and use architectural signs in order to do so.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD Projekt RED, 2015) is a radically different digital game from NaissanceE. The latter being a small, independently created game, while the former is one of the most successful big productions of the past years. The Witcher 3 is a fantasy action role-playing game (RPG) developed by CD Projekt Red and released in 2015 to great critical and commercial acclaim. It is part of the series The Witcher, which comprises the first two other games, released in 2007 and 2011 and inspired by the series of short stories and novels of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, Wiedźmin. Players impersonate Geralt of Rivia, the titular “witcher”, a slayer of monsters who, like all his companions, received training and body modifications at a young age in order to be able to fight the beasts that populate the game’s world. The Witcher 3 has been developed as an open-world role-playing game, where players can freely navigate in the scenery, crossing lands and visiting various cities and villages that litter the vast game world – around 136 square kilometers – (Sayed, 2015) on foot, horseback and by boat. The game has been praised for the extension of the playable area, which ranges from marshes to snowy mountains, cities and forests. The game aesthetic, as well as the story, is inspired by Polish folklore, as stated many times by the developers (Dzik, 2017; PlayStation Polska, 2015) and has a generally dark and gritty atmosphere, since the story takes place during the war that the Nilfgaardian Empire is waging against the Norther Kingdoms, where the game takes place.

Fig. 4 The countryside in The Witcher 3 (CD Projekt RED, 2015) courtesy of CD Projekt RED.

In 2016, the last expansion for The Witcher 3, called Blood & Wine (CD Projekt RED, 2016) was released. This expansion adds a vast new land to explore, called Toussaint, which differs drastically in looks and settings compared to the base game. In place of the war and famine torn countryside and inquisition-like plagued cities, Toussaint is a rich and peaceful country with a mild climate and little social and political strife.

Fig. 5 The duchy of Toussaint in The Witcher 3 – Blood and Wine (CD Projekt RED, 2016) courtesy of CD Projekt RED.

The developers of The Witcher 3 wanted to differentiate their game, as Konrad Tomaszkiewicz, game director of CD Projekt RED, said in an interview: “We’re proud we can show Polish nature and its atmosphere, unique to gaming, because most games offer cookie-cutter worlds. Our team, by using folk themes, offers something one of a kind.” (PlayStation Polska, 2015) It is thus clear that the aim of the developers was to communicate this uniqueness to players. Gameplay-wise, The Witcher does not differentiate itself substantially from other open-world action RPGs, so this differentiation had to be made as regards other aspects, in particular the visual one. The question that arises is the following: how does the architecture in the game transmit such messages?

Visual styles are used in digital games to convey information all the time. Enzo D’Armenio semiotically analyzes the characters of Ryu and Blanka from Super Street Fighter IV, (Capcom, 2010) explaining that by just looking at their movements and appearance, one can infer much of their stories and play styles, and how very different it would be to have anonymous characters in a fighting game. (2014, 66-70) The same can be said as regards architectural objects in games: their look, state of disrepair, and perceived level of development are all carriers of messages aimed at players.

Architectural elements of the cities, such as high-pitched roofs, crown-stepped gables and pastel colored buildings, convey to players the indication of being in a distinct location, which resonates with players who are able to recognize this style as well as players who may not directly link these architectural details to a specific location, but would be able to differentiate them from the usual stone or wooden buildings that populate other game locations.

Fig. 6 The city of Novigrad in The Witcher 3 (CD Projekt RED, 2015) courtesy of CD Projekt RED.

Even within the game itself, the identity of architectural design plays an important role. The expansion to the main game, called The Witcher 3 Blood and Wine (CD Projekt RED, 2016) takes place in a separate realm, that unlike the one of the main game, has not been ravaged by war and social strife, but is a flourishing and rich duchy called Toussaint. As the name implies, the inspiration for this location is France, and the developers wanted to have a radically different design to be communicated to players. In the words of Kacper Niepokolczycki, environment artist at CD Projekt RED: “Narrow streets full of beautiful and colourful vegetation and breath-taking architecture served as references for creating the renaissance-inspired look and feel of city” (Yarwood, 2017) The main city of this new realm is Beauclair, built on a high position, as in Novigrad in the main game, but unlike the latter, there are no fortified walls to protect it, and it gently blends with the buildings in the outskirts. The lack of fortified walls is already an architectural sign that communicates information to players: the city is located in a peaceful region, so much so that there is no need for defensive measures. It is in fact missing other military installations so typical of role-playing games and medieval cities, such as guard towers and fortresses, other signs of the absence of social unrest. In this case it is thus the lack of architectural features that one usually expects to find in a location that produces meaning.

Fig. 7 The city of Beauclair in The Witcher 3 – Blood and Wine (CD Projekt RED, 2016) courtesy of CD Projekt RED.

The virtual built environment thus exists, not only to serve as a backdrop for players’ adventures, but to communicate information as well. This can come in various forms, from affording anticipatory play, thus making the non-interactive part of the game more interesting by offering opportunities for reflection, to expressing a cultural identity, and providing information on the status of the in-game locations as an enrichment to the play experience.


This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


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Gabriele Aroni received his Master of Architecture from the University of Florence in Italy with a specialization in multimedia reconstruction of historical architecture and his MSc in Digital Media Production from Oxford Brookes University in England. He worked as an architect and designer in The Netherlands, England and Italy and is a member of the Multilanguage Cultural Heritage Lexis Research Project of the University of Florence. He published a book on architectural history (Mimesis, Milan 2016) and is currently teaching at Ryerson School of Interior design while pursuing a PhD on architecture in digital games in the joint Communication and Culture program at Ryerson and York University. (Photo by Calla Evans)


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