Zoya is a historian and journalist of games and playful art. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Memory Insufficient, and a consultant at Silverstring Media.

I recently finished watching Mad Men. One thing that has always struck me about the show is the way that it uses verticality. It opens with the slow moving cartoon image of a man falling out of the window of a high-rise building decorated with aspirational advertising images. The show then proceeds to illustrate at least one narrative point per episode with a shot of people in an elevator, facing toward the camera, maintaining perfect composure as they ascend up to a workplace or conspicuously beautiful apartment.

The elevator has cinematographic value, as a cheap-to-produce set that allows all characters present to face the camera. It creates a shot that’s like a dollshouse: a cutaway view of a complete room. I like to imagine when I’m watching those scenes that I’m peering inside an intricate model building where the show is being acted out in miniature and a thousand things are happening at once, a different drama happening in the mind of every character who never gets a speaking role. The building is a system within a system that keeps some people on the ground floor and elevates others to the top.

Project Highrise office illustration
Finishing Mad Men reminded me of a game project that I learned about earlier this year. Somasim, an indie studio founded by social gaming veterans, is building a high-rise simulator. Project Highrise will task players with building and managing a lofty mid-century skyscraper, populating it with their desired kind of tenant, keeping track of who is renting space where, preparing office space, getting people into the building, keeping occupants happy by managing noise level and flow, and keeping everything functioning.

This is a game about designing interlocking systems of prestige. Click To Tweet

Following their launch of gold rush simulator 1849, this next project looks to be a historical system simulator a few steps above what Somasim has achieved before. It’s not yet playable, but Claris Cyarron and I got the chance to look at Somasim’s beautiful concept art and learn about their plans at GDC earlier this year.

“We wanted to make this before 1849,” said programmer Robert Zubek. “The design is larger: 1849 could be made in 12 months. After completing that project, we looked through our design folders. We moved to Chicago, saw the skyline, and wanted to go back to that original idea.”

Buildings as systems

Designer Matthew Viglione explained that high-rise buildings would not be the only possible strategy for players, but will often emerge from the system as the most efficient solution to a problem. “We’re concentrating more on the economical simulation than the physical building construction. The distribution of services forces your hand into certain directions as a designer — office buildings need more elevators, for example.”

The team has been inspired visually by not just the high-modern visual style of Chicago, but Chicago’s politics of land use and zoning restrictions. Part of Viglione’s work as a game designer has been interpreting urban planning concerns into challenges for players to work with creatively.

“We’re thinking things like air rights. If you have a certain amount of air rights, how do you build? The city might say you have to have setbacks, or to have open space. In Chicago you can only have 15x the sqft of your lot, but if you have open public space it increases to 18x the sqft of the lot. We’re designing the sandbox first and then build the scenarios off that: thinking about San Francisco, where they’re obsessed with shadows you can’t build a building that will set a shadow on a park. Encoding different city planning rules.”

“Instead of saying ‘here’s what you have to accomplish’ we say ‘here are the limitations.’” Click To Tweet

“A huge part of the fun of a simulation game is building a mental model of how the thing works,” says Zubek, who used to be a lead programmer at Zynga. This systemic approach to a game about architecture can lead you to look at the architecture in the world around you differently: aesthetics are not just stylistic choices, but part of an attempt to get particular results from complex social systems.

At present, Project Highrise seems likely to focus on rectlinear forms in its architecture. Like Tiny Tower before it, Project Highrise will primarily display its buildings through the dollshouse-style cutaway view. The cutaway drawing has its own aesthetic heritage as a means of giving insight into a complex system, for technical drawings or educational books. In game design, it’s a performance boon that allows a developer to make the system being simulated more complex in exchange for keeping the graphics two-dimensional.
Project Highrise cutaway blueprint

Utopian visions

Claris reflected, “the international style is a particular period of time where there’s an obsession with a building that can contain a person’s entire life. How do you feel coming at this architectural style as a simulation that has the same baggage around being obsessed with control and understanding?”

“I think it fits perfectly,” responded Viglione. “It is the era of talking about the giant building as a machine, and simulation games are machines with little levers that you pull and see what happens. The idea that we could build our way to the future and we could build this thing and everyone could live inside it and the happy in it. There was a utopian vision and an optimism. What translates down is the pessimism of ‘oh it didn’t work’ but what we’ve lost is that optimistic vision.”

Within a game, this utopian vision works. “You can’t do that with society.” Click To Tweet

Simulation games allow you to have that optimism again for a little while. Games that are set in our own world play on our understanding of how the world works, letting us hang our strategies as players off our own pre-existing ideas and then recalibrate those assumptions in response to the simulation’s behaviour.”
Project Highrise residence concept art

Alternative history

“There is a bad side to learning from games,” say the Somasim team. If all of your knowledge of city planning comes from SimCity, that necessarily brings along a set of biases, because the game is designed to feel optimistic. The problems associated with the SimCity system are not made visible, because the simulation has no room for them. This might mean that a simulation game can only use history as a touchstone, rather than aiming at perfect accuracy.

“We don’t want to be limited by how offices worked in the 1960s” said Viglione, citing things like not having a Starbucks in every building, and not having computers. “What if Dieter Rams designed a computer?” is the sort of question that informs their design decisions. Eschewing the goal of perfect historical accuracy also allows Somasim to make their game’s optimistic fantasy more inclusive — instead of reproducing the gender politics of the mid-twentieth century, with ladies on typewriters and men in conference rooms, they plan to have gender be randomly assigned.

Mad Men was in part a TV show concerned with how people respond to being put in different positions in a system that benefits some people more than others: it was at times a resolutely pessimistic show. To simply enjoy the modernist aesthetic and appreciate the attempt to build something great, requires a self-consciously optimistic, radical reimagining of the historical context of mid-century modernism.

We have a post coming soon about the optimistic urban planning of SimCity. To make sure you don’t miss it, subscribe to our mailing list.


John Jurgensen (2015) “What Floor? Elevator Scenes on ‘Mad Men'”, Wall Street Journal

Mad Men elevator scenes

From the Wall Street Journal


Zoya is a historian and journalist of games and playful art. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Memory Insufficient, and a consultant at Silverstring Media.

Dave Gilbert has been independently making adventure games since 2001, and founded indie studio Wadjet Eye Games in 2006. Wadjet Eye creates beautiful, reflective, compassionate stories with diverse characters and a strong sense of emotional authenticity.

Dave Gilbert excels at using supernatural events to speak to something truthful. Click To Tweet

Zoya and Claris caught up with him at GDC and asked him about storytelling, game design and the nature of genre fiction.

How has your craft changed since you started making games?

I was living in New York when the towers went down. That was when I started making games. I was between jobs, took my laptop to a cafe and made a game, and decided I didn’t want to do anything else.

My games were shorter and smaller in scope then. I just wanted to get them done, and I couldn’t hire contractors and I knew that would be necessary [if I was to make them bigger]. I had to make a lot of concessions in the beginning. As time went on and we got more money coming in, I was able to relax more and think more about the craft of things and spend more time editing and changing.

We never used Kickstarter, it didn’t exist back then and we don’t do it now. It’s all self-funded and that gives me a lot of freedom. But also, I do have a family and I have to make compromises.

Do you find yourself drawn to a particular kind of subject matter?

Yes. Blackwell was an urban fantasy. My fans wanted me to make a sci-fi game and I felt I should do it, but it just wasn’t in me. I wanted to go back and do more urban fantasy. That’s what appeals to me: I’m a big fan of Dresden and Buffy. Ordinary people going through extraordinary things appeals to me, and urban fantasy is a good setting for that. It allows me to tell a more personal story, I live in a city and it feels close to home. I want to take what I learned from Blackwell and do something bigger and better.

I don’t want to stay in my comfort zone. I want to make it darker. Click To Tweet

Less Law and Order, less offices. Less spaces as backdrops, more places you can actually explore. More Dresden, more Hellblazer, more World of Darkness, or Vampire: Bloodlines.

Another tradition of “unusual & uncanny things happening to ordinary people,” comes from Lovecraft’s work. Interestingly, those stories usually feature rural settings. How does an urban setting change it?

I don’t think one is better than the other, but I’m writing from my own experience. People resonate more with a game that I put a lot of myself into, dig some things up from my past and put them into the light. A lot of Blackwell [draws on] issues that I was dealing with in my own life and expressing those things in these other voices. If something comes from the heart … anyone who lives can tell a story like that.

Is your work informed by a sense of nostalgia?

Not really. I mean, I can’t avoid being inspired by older adventure games, and we do have pixel art. But that’s not nostalgia, it’s about budget.

It’s very backward to always rely on nostalgia. Click To Tweet

It is a factor in those games but it’s more about how we remember them than how they were. That’s why I don’t go back to play them for inspiration. There’s this narrative that “adventure games are coming back”, but I’ve been hearing that since The Longest Journey in 1999. Adventure games haven’t gone anywhere. People still make them, they’ve been making them [all this time].

You can’t think of [adventure games] as one thing. Every medium has its own genres. You have to think about what works for the story you want to tell, not what works for an adventure game. And the way we consume games has changed so much since the 1990s that it doesn’t make sense to try and do the same thing.

How do adventure games relate to traditional literary and filmic genres?

What adventure games do very well is putting you in the shoes of someone else: you are driving the events of the story, or the events are happening to you. That is where they excel really well. You’re not reliant on mechanics; there are cinematic games where you’re a fighter and you make things happen by smashing someone in the face, [whereas] adventure games allow you to explore things in other ways.

How have technical changes in the past decade affected your work?

We consume so much now; it’s so easy to consume. If I need a book for a flight it’s not even a problem, I just get my phone out and have a book five minutes later. We consume things so fast now. If you don’t get someone’s attention right away they will move onto something else.

You’re only stuck on a puzzle in an adventure game if you want to be, because you can look things up on the internet. I struggled for hours on a puzzle in King’s Quest in the 1980s, now I wouldn’t last ten minutes [before looking it up].

If you have to go outside of the game to enjoy my game, I’ve failed. So I don’t like [overwrought] puzzles. If the player has to leave to look something up, it’s not fun, it’s just busy work. I focus more on making it immersive and enjoyable. [The question is] how to make this fun, rather than what kind of puzzle can I throw in here because it needs a puzzle.

A recent topic we’ve been discussing at Silverstring is the difficulty of designing branching narrative. How has this come up in your own work?

I love branching stuff, but it’s really hard to design. I want to do that with my next project. The problem with it is… as a writer you have a story in your head, and there’s always the real one that you have in your head, how it’s really supposed to go, but we’re including these other ones because [we value] branching stories.

If you have multiple endings, there’s always one that’s the canon one for you as the writer. Click To Tweet

You’re telling this story for a reason, there’s a point you’re making, and if you branch it has to be true to that. That’s the danger of branching narrative — if you have an ending where lots of bad things happen, for one person that’s the ending they get — is it true to the rest of the story?

How do you stay focused on these ideas that you want to keep at the centre of a project?

Blackwell was a story about urban isolation, the characters and the people that are affected in different ways by that. You can’t get too specific with a theme. Epiphanies’s theme was, what if your personal realisation could be manufactured? It was about realising that it’s okay to try and fail. Everything comes from that core. I remember that this is what it’s about, and if I deviate from that — if a character doesn’t have an epiphany — I haven’t told the story the way I wanted to. If you’re exploring a certain theme you’re going to deviate and go around corners as you explore it. Sometimes I look at my notes and remember that I wanted to do one set of things, and it just morphed as I worked on it and it changed, and that’s just how it works.

Editorial note

The brackets here indicate that this word was changed to be brought in line with our house style guide as regards ableist language. This decision came after much deliberation, and with the original spirit of the speaker’s statements in mind. In future we will notify interviewees in advance that some terms which are in common vernacular usage may be edited in this way. We’ve updated our style guide to reflect this policy.


Claris is a writer, multi-disciplinary designer, transgressive architect, and art historian. Her work seeks to complicate notions of reality, materiality, and normativity. She is creative director at Memory Insufficient and the design consultancy, Silverstring Media.

I’m an architect, though I rarely turn my talents to the design of physical installations anymore. I matriculated at a major university, in a well-regarded honours architecture program. After several years of hard work and study, I successfully graduated, and, upon shaking Many Important Hands, I received a sad, austere piece of paper stating as much. I also went home thoroughly disgruntled with the architectural academy.

Architecture is a very large and very old field, and while I’m aware that there are many programs that provide valuable knowledge ( *cough* not all architects *cough*), I have found the architectural profession and academy largely dismissive of the kind of work that I have come to practice: namely, the study and creation of spaces such as videogames and the internet. Traditional architects have often described this work to me as “not concrete” and sometimes simply “not architecture.” I choose to describe these spaces as “emergent.”

Humans are very spatially perceptive creatures, and notions of space 'colour' much of our experience. Click To Tweet

Despite the frustration I feel toward my discipline, I still find its approaches and lessons extremely valuable. The act of consciously reading and interpreting what a space is doing to its inhabitants, and the ability to use that knowledge to design systems and entities in spatially informed and deliberate ways will always, in my opinion, be worthwhile.

So when my friends and colleagues from other creative disciplines come to me and ask where a good place to begin their own private study of architecture is, it is always with a large measure of glee that I begin to respond. They, unlike me, have begun their journey prudently; by electing to remain outside the gravity-well of the architectural establishment, they bring vital outsider sensibilities to a craft dominated by where conservatism and caution frequently rule the day.

There is, of course, much more to architecture than the formal considerations of how space is designed and composed, but it is here that we will begin. We’re going to cover some practical introductions to architecture as a craft, and then in a future post, trace a barebones lineage of architectural thought from ancient Rome to contemporary Europe and America.


Architecture: Form, Space, and Order by Francis Ching

Filled with hundreds of gloriously detailed, hand-rendered images of buildings, landscapes, and cities throughout history, famous architectural draftsman and lecturer Francis Ching walks the reader through what each example is “doing,” and how it was achieved. Further, he fits all of these discrete critical readings into a comprehensive introductory framework of spatial “movements.”

This book is a superb examination of how architecture works and what it feels like. Click To Tweet

What is gained by centering a piece of architecture around a single node? What is gained by extending the node upward, to form a tower? What is gained by pairing that linear element with another a short distance away, creating an implied plane? How and why can this structure in three dimensions read as a plane? How might such a place be experienced by its occupants? These are the questions that Architecture: Form, Space, and Order both asks and answers.

I tried to keep the three introductory texts as inexpensive as possible, but unfortunately, this one is the most expensive, due in part to the fact that it is a textbook. Let me assure you, however, that of all three of these introductory texts, this is by far the most comprehensive and useful. All of the texts mentioned in the piece are commonly found in local and university libraries, and some have been made available as PDFs. Search around.

paper building

Architectural Drawing Course: Tools and Techniques for 2D and 3D Representation by Mo Zell

You might worry that you are missing out on something foundational by foregoing the academy... Click To Tweet

Don’t panic! This is normal. Capital-A-Architecture is distinguished at making practitioners feel inadequate, with disciples often passing on the abuse. Mo Zell’s excellent Architectural Drawing Course contains all of the exercises your professor would have asked of you, but won’t expect you to forgo sleep for 3 days straight to prove your “commitment.”

This book is constructed as a series of short “assignments,” commonly known in the design community as “charrettes” — so named for the carts the underslept architecture students of 19th century France rode upon as they frantically worked to amend unfinished drawings. The book begins with basic exercises to get you thinking spatially, slowly building in complexity as it also builds your confidence. My own prized copy was unavailable at the time of this writing, but if my memory serves, none of the exercises are longer than a day’s (or a few afternoons’) work. These charrettes follow a structure similar to the previous book, inviting you first to explore the line, plane, and volume, and what working with each can grant you. This makes it an excellent companion for making sense of the more abstract groundwork laid by Architecture: Form, Space, and Order.

Don’t mistake this 140-page wonder for a mere survey of what you’d get in school; the exercises contained within cover just about all of the physical media techniques used by architects to sort out their ideas on any given project. Digital techniques are largely not covered in this book, but don’t fret about that too much, I’ve often found stopping work in CAD to do a quick model from foam or paper to be a fruitful change of pace. However if you find that not to be the case, these approaches can be approximated by whatever digital modeling program you prefer. These rapid-fire architectural charrettes are certain to serve you well no matter what your relationship to architecture and digital modeling is.

Clear some time and savor each exercise, spacing them out to allow for rest and reflection.

101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick

The title is fairly self-explanatory, though I’m living testament that even if you did attend architecture school, you can miss many of these lessons. Better to buy this cheap reference book, and save yourself on hilarious tuition costs.

How do you capture the essence of postmodern architecture in four words? What was the difference between sections and elevations, again? And what the hell is a parti? (only the single most useful design technique in architecture!)

Each of the hundred-and-one architectural lessons occupies a two page spread — one page for a simple and evocative doodle, and the other with a few words to summarize the idea. The previous two books will likely have over-filled even the most focused and diligent mind, and that’s where this one comes in. Let each of its short, sharp lessons serve as a hook for the voluminous information you’ve already absorbed.

An inspired volume to keep on your desk to flip through.

These are the books I recommend when someone asks me how and where to begin their study of architecture. Click To Tweet

If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @Cyarron. Happy reading!

In part two of this series, I will be examining (and complicating) the history of architecture.