The underappreciated art of furniture in video games
Furniture has often been a part of games, but for players, it's easy to ignore. Even if the home is the next frontier of gaming environments, will players ever stop to feel the velvet drapes?
“Furniture in games is underappreciated, even by me,” Kate Craig, environment artist on Fullbright’s Gone Home, an independent video game notable for taking place entirely inside a suburban home, told Hopes&Fears.
Furniture and interior design have been a part of games for decades, for players, it can be easy to ignore. “That's kind of the way things are with everything [in games]. If you ask an animation student or someone who's working in comics, they'll spend years working on a graphic novel that someone can read in 20 minutes,” Craig says. So too with games: though animators may spend hours sculpting the wrinkles on a throw pillow, it's unlikely that a player will ever take the time to notice it.
But even if players take virtual interior design for granted, 3D modeling, art direction, and environment art are essential in setting a game's tone and shaping the narrative. As graphics improve to the point where they can accurately represent real world objects, game designers have increasingly used interior design to create a mood. From The Sims to Sunset, from ugly cots to metal thrones, furniture, and interior design have provided a real-world context for the virtual worlds they populate.
Hopes&Fears looked at how interior design has evolved through the history of modern gaming, with help from designers and experts both physical and digital.
Ape, HAL Laboratory
Nintendo’s Earthbound, released in America in 1995, is Shigesato Itoi’s look at American suburban life: a sweet, innocent 1950s affair. In the game, you play as Ness, a young boy who discovers that an evil alien, Gygas, has turned all wildlife into hostile monsters. After being given instructions from a friendly bee, you set off on a quest, leaving your hometown for the first time to defeat the invader.
In contrast to the great unknown, outdoor spaces teeming with snakes, gangsters, and inhuman monsters, Ness’s home is cozy and comfortable, full of pixelated wooden side tables, plush couches, and a soft, peaceful bed. Each room is curated to tell you about the characters that live there, who you’ll be missing when you go on your pilgrimage. Ness' sister’s room is soft, frilly and pink. Your character's rich, rude neighbor, Pokey, lives in a home decorated with lush carpets, blue tiled floorings and tall, bright windows, his wealth and entitlement contrasting with Ness’s salt-of-the-earthiness.
The narrative connection between home and safety isn’t limited to the visual design itself—in order to save your progress, you call and have a pleasant chat with your family. Even when you’re far from your quiet neighborhood, that comforting bed is always waiting for you.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Creator Will Wright designed The Sims to function as a dollhouse, after his real-life home was burnt down by a fire in the early '90s. As a Sims player, your purpose is to create characters and advance their careers and personal lives. But, as when playing with a physical dollhouse, most of the fun is in creating their home and surroundings. At the start of the game, your Sims might only be able to afford scuffed up, nondescript coffee tables or a range stove that catches on fire when used, but as you start earning more money, options open up.
In The Sims, decorating your house is as important as getting married and having children, even if your Sim might not interact with the furniture all that much. Auriea Harvey, who worked on design, direction, art and programming for Tale of Tales’ Sunset, told Hopes&Fears, “A lot of furniture that comes into our lives are things that are very functional. I go into Ikea and buy this chair because I need this chair. [But] when you have control over furniture, what you're buying, it expresses something about your style. So even when you're not sitting on it, it's still serving some function.” This is true of the furniture in The Sims, which serves as an aspirational goal that gives your Sims motivation to slog through work and slowly increase their economic standing.
While players of The Sims may spend hours earning simoleons (the currency of the game) to buy the perfect chair for their living room, the instances in which they will sit in that chair are pretty few and far between. “To let the player sit on a chair, someone had to code a ‘sitting system’ and bind specific character animations to it, which is a non-trivial cross-department feature that might takes days or weeks to develop,” Robert Yang, a game developer and academic who teaches design and development at the NYU Game Center, told Hopes&Fears. “Meanwhile, an experienced 3D artist could sculpt out a unique chair within an hour or less. The Sims probably has a hundred different chairs for you to buy—but inside the game, each chair functions exactly like the other, with slightly different stats.” In short, it takes time and resources to code in options like sitting in a chair. In order to justify spending resources for that job, the game needs to have a specific function tied to chair usage.
But the appeal of playing house by consuming digital furnishings is part of what has made The Sims a lasting franchise. Beyond the basic furniture sets provided in the game, which range from a country style living room set, to expensive and modern stainless steel kitchen counters, the community that has sprung up around this franchise has taken to creating custom modifications for their own fantasy furniture. If you feel the game is missing space age '60s beds and dressers, you can find those online. If you’d rather have your home covered in gothy dark brocade and black lace, that’s available too. Even tiny details, like a small pile of mail for the coffee table or an iPod speaker to perch on your mantle, have been created to fill in the gaps of what players consider the markers of modern life.
The Sims gives a sense of ownership to the player so that they create their own space, in the same way you do in the real world (where you can’t just type "rosebud" to get an extra $1,000): through consuming products. Whether the game is a clever satire of modern capitalism or merely a reflection of it is still up for debate, 15 years and countless expansion packs later.
Sony Computer Entertainment
Ico is a puzzle game made for the Playstation 2 that takes place in a sprawling, decrepit, abandoned castle. You play as Ico, a boy with horns who is trying to escape with Yorda, a young woman you rescued from imprisonment. With her ability to open the many doors of the palace and your fighting skills, you must work together to get out.
Though there’s only one piece of furniture in the game, it’s an important part of play: a roughly carved stone slab couch where you and Yorda sit in order to save your progress. As you sit, the couch glows with blue-green etchings, and the two of you are able to rest until the player picks up their controller again.
“It's a save point that takes on this larger meaning because of our associations with what a couch means, and it adds this really interesting layer to the world and your interaction with it,” Scott Benson, one third of the development team for Night in the Woods and Lost Constellation, told Hopes&Fears. “Ico and Yorda kinda doze off while they're on it, lending even more of a dream-like vibe to the world. At the same time, it brings it right down to earth with how small and mundane it is. You're slumped on the couch, your hands inches apart. You're aware of how their bodies inhabit the space.”
But the Ico couch is more than just a way for players to find peace in a stressful environment. “That stuff is interesting to me insofar as it eliminates graphical HUD [heads up display] elements. It prevents you from going into a menu," Luis Hernandez, artist for Necrophone games, says. "Any time that you can have what would normally be an external gameplay system embed itself in the world, that stuff is really important to me. It requires less of a suspension of disbelief.” By resting on a couch instead of going into a menu system, players can spend more time immersed in the game world without being jerked back into a monotonous reality. The stone couch makes saving another function in gameplay, something your characters can do without exiting the game world.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Bethesda Game Studios
Windows, XBox 360, Playstation 3
Bruce Nesmith, Kurt Kuhlmann, Emil Pagliarulo
Bethesda’s Skyrim, released for the then technologically impressive XBox 360 and Playstation 3, is an open world game which allowed a greater freedom of play than their more linear, more narrative contemporaries and antecedents. While “open world” games, like the Grand Theft Auto franchise or even Banjo-Kazooie, became popular with the advent of 3D visuals, technological limitations prevented studios from fulfilling the promise of the format: that you could go anywhere, do anything, be anyone. Skyrim’s main appeal was how much more it delivered on that premise. While you were destined to be the Dragonborn, Skyrim offered a seemingly endless variety of side content, including buying and decorating a house.
The few predetermined places where you are able to make your home are “unlocked” after completing quests. Furniture is parsed as upgrades that can be unlocked to level up skills, and, for the most part, the design of that furniture is all the same by-the-numbers unfinished wood and iron “medieval” look. The wood has one tone (very dark brown) and most of the detail work is in grommeting and pitch black iron detailing, though sometimes you’ll find pieces with more intricate etching.
But why is the furniture itself so non-descript? Craig says of her own experience in development, “It's one of those 'pick your battles' things. Ideally, every model could be a thing that you spend time on and make beautiful, make comfortable, especially if you're making a house.” But that doesn’t mean players appreciate the effort. “Even if you can sit down, no one really sits down with their character,” she continues. “In games, the level designers looks at things on the micro, and they take furniture and use it to create flow. Kind of just building blocks.”
“I think many game developers have gotten very good at rendering and depicting furniture but have given comparatively little thought to our everyday relationship with furniture and what we do with furniture,” Yang says. “But I also think that ‘game furniture’ is its own weird, specialized category, an unholy Ikea catalog of crates, explosive barrels, and ladders—those are the fundamental furnishings of many game worlds, not necessarily chairs or tables.”
Yang suggests that the “furniture” of the game world isn’t the same as what we’d define as such in real life. The “objects” useful to us in a game might look more like a weapons rack than a sofa. But this is proposing an idea of what furniture is that some wouldn’t agree with. Most designer-made furniture in real life is nearly as useless as a CG chair for anything but looking at—just check out some of the pieces on display in a typical MoMA design exhibit. Though some designers agree with Yang that for something to be furniture, it must be useful, in real life (like in games) the interior decor is often just that—decoration.
In recent years, indie games have often focused more on initimate settings. Part of the reason for this is the technical limitations of small teams working under budgets much tighter than their larger, AAA (high budget) counterparts. “A single house is a manageable development space for a small team,” game critic Leigh Alexander writes on Offworld. Limiting a game world to interiors has provided a way for many other indie developers to convey a personal narrative within their games without maxing out their design budgets.
Windows, OS X, Linux
In contrast to Skyrim, the home in Gone Home isn’t just incidental to the story, it’s the story itself. In Gone Home, you play as a young woman returning home to her parent's house after a semester abroad to find it empty. As a player, your job is to investigate the objects in the house to try to understand what has happened since you’ve been away.
The home itself is banal. The couches are the kind of ugly, striped sectionals you remember from your neighbors' rec rooms, a fleece throw is draped, unfolded, over the arm like someone got up halfway through a movie. It’s a mishmash of functional, middle-class American suburban furniture. But in Gone Home, even innocuous objects have a greater meaning, because they once belonged to someone.
“A lot of the rooms in that house remind me very much of the house I grew up in,” game developer Amy Dentata told Hopes&Fears. To Craig, it became a way to give herself some of the things she’d wanted when she grew up, like a princess bed. “My friends would have those,” she says. “I just had this thing that was given to me that used to be my dad's bed, and I was like, well, I'm gonna finally get it!”
The world that Gone Home inhabits is a pretty faithful recreation of 1995, complete with a playable riot grrrl mixtape and X-Files posters. “We tried to go to original sources when we could, so we had bought a 1989 Sears catalog off of eBay. We based pretty much everything we made in the game space off of objects we found in that magazine itself,” explains Craig. But she also notes that furniture in a home doesn’t always all come from a single time period. “Houses don't work like that. You accumulate stuff, and you're given things from your parents and some of it is super old. Some of the oldest pieces in the house were, maybe, antiques.”
So the decor in Gone Home is mundane on purpose, to convey a specific time and place in American suburban life. Remember—this aesthetic is only unremarkable to many of us because we lived through it ourselves. Even the coffee table with a pizza box on it in the living room was something Craig remembered from her childhood best friend’s house. But just because the furniture is fairly plain doesn’t mean that considerable work doesn’t go into creating it. The process of sculpting an overstuffed '90s couch becomes a production “to-do” like any other.
“When it comes to curves, you're building these things out of flat planes. So, angled corners work better than curved corners, because with curves you get a higher polycount,” she says. “You gotta spend a lot of time lovingly sculpting these wrinkles that don't always look right.”
The amount of work needed to create a realistic '90s home with a small team and budget meant that some things got left behind. “Originally the kitchen was just going to be a kitchen, and then we decided, if we have cabinets, we have to fill those cabinets. And that ups your polycount, it means more models you have to build, because people want to look through them,” she says. “Our solution was to make it so they're renovating this house, so all the cabinets are sitting on the floor and they're empty. It makes sense in terms of the narrative, but it's also practical. You don't have to build that stuff now.”
Adult Swim Games
Windows, OS X, Linux
Luis Hernandez, Jess Brouse
Necrophone Games’s Jazzpunk is a 1960’s Cold War pastiche, with the furniture to match. Though it’s a humor game, more focused on gags than anything else, Luis Hernandez, one-half of the Necrophone duo, says that to properly set the tone, he had to crack open some books on the history of furniture. The result is a combination of classic mid-century modern pieces, from Mies van der Rohe to Eames, as well as originals with no direct lineage in our own world. “One of the hardest parts in the design of the game was constantly walking this really fine line between having something look recognizable or iconic while still wanting to be able to design a piece of furniture from scratch,” he says. It’s a challenge designers face in real life as well.
But Hernandez is unsure if most players really notice the care paid to the details in the Jazzpunk. He says he was a bit disappointed that a lot of people missed his little architecture jokes. “Only other game designers acknowledge the fact that everything in a game world has to be built from absolute scratch,” he tells us. “I feel a lot of players take for granted that the world is populated with stuff. They don't really think too hard about the fact that someone had to painstakingly make, you know, a cigarette butt on the floor, or one missing ceiling tile on the ceiling.”
Tale of Tales
Tale of Tales
Windows, OS X, Linux
Auriea Harvey, Michaël Samyn
Like Gone Home, indie developer Tale of Tales’ Sunset takes place in a home that you only ever experience alone. You play as Angela, a young African-American woman working as a housekeeper in the fictional South American country of Anchuria, which is at the brink of a civil war. Through her interactions with this apartment, she may or may not fall in love with the person who decorated it, Gabriel Ortega.
“You're never going to meet Gabriel Ortega, so his entire character had to be expressed through the objects and the furniture in the apartment,” Harvey tells us. “The apartment itself is from a Playboy magazine. Every few years they used to put in plans for the ideal bachelor pad into Playboy, and we just picked one, from 1970. So there's this very specific 1960s modern thing going on—well, it's more '70s because there's more wood and chrome involved. But it's still got that mid-century modern thing going on in the shapes.”
“But on top of that, there are two other layers,” she continues. “There's this idea that the man who's rented this apartment doesn't really like all this stuff. On day one of Sunset, you unbox it all, sort of like it came with the apartment. And he doesn't like all this stuff, so he starts bringing his things in.”
To demonstrate Ortega’s real taste, Tale of Tales looked to Brazilian Modern furniture, a style heralded by designers like Sergio Rodrigues, Joaquim Tenreiro and José Zanine Caldas, which was typified by using local materials, like jacaranda wood and colonial forms as a way to express Brazilian national identity. “We basically just trolled around looking for designs that we liked, and then we found all these great South American designers. We weren't really familiar with them before the game, so we felt really happy to find something that if you lived there, you might actually have," Harvey says.
"But then the third layer to the whole thing was what we called the YSL layer, the Yves Saint Laurent layer," she says. Gabriel Ortega, as well as being a man moving to a new apartment, a man from South America, is also an art collector. The third layer of his character is, “really pretentious stuff. He's got sculptures and drawings and objets d'art that are just like, beyond. He's got Barbara Hepworth sculptures, a Calder, he's got drawings by Picasso, he's got all this religious artwork. He's also collecting artifacts that were indigenous to the country where he was living. These are all things that, theoretically, he's saving from this disaster, the civil war.”
In order to tell a story about Ortega, Tale of Tales had to effectively curate how and when you’d see each side of him. “The pacing at which things show up was important. Things had to express different sides of the character depending on when they showed up or what they were. They had to enforce what was going on in the story.”
October 8th - 30th, 2015
Prashast Thapan, Stephen Lawrence Clar
Babycastles: Living, a recent exhibit at the Babycastles gallery space in New York, explored the place of furniture design in video games alongside real-life objects. Prashast Thapan and Stephen Lawrence Clark curated the exhibit, combining avant-garde indie games with the furniture from Pinkhouse, an experimental furniture brand.
Kevin Wiesner from Pinkhouse told us how he makes designs that purposely work against the timelessness that’s expected from furniture. “[Furniture is] about passing down the shaker chair you got from your grandmother to your grandchild,” he tells Hopse&Fears. What Pinkhouse has made for Babycastles, then, are "anti-timelessness objects,” just as of-the-moment as the games that surround them. The trendiness of Pinkhouse’s work, its pastels and animal shapes, is central to their concept. The brand works in “seasons," just like a fashion house.
Thapan and collaborator James Orlando’s VR experiences sat alongside Clark’s curated arcade cabinets, loaded with games that investigate our relationship to home furnishings. In American Dream, from Terry Cavanagh, Increpare, Jasper Byrne, and Tom Morgan-Jones, your character goes to work trading stocks in order to earn money to buy new furniture, from formless Ikea-esque pieces and modern furnishings, to “antiques". Once you complete a set, you can have a party, and when the party’s over, there’s a new collection to buy. It’s contextualized by Babycastles: Living as, “Furniture as cultural cache, a thing which requires wealth but helps get more of it through social interactions it allows.” This is reminiscent of The Sims, where the process of consumption can seem to trump all other objectives in the game.
While the games like Gone Home, Jazzpunk, and Sunset focus on representing furniture as it is used in real life, Pinkhouse and Babycastles try to view real-life furniture in the way we usually see video games: disposable and mostly useful for fun. “Traditionally, furniture builds memories; it is long-lasting, passed down generations; it is durable and difficult to move—a one-time purchase,” they write to introduce the exhibit. “We don’t care about any of that. We’re interested in objects that reflect today; objects that are time- and trend-specific as opposed to timeless.”
Furniture in games is a competition between utility and aesthetic, between AAA and indie development. It’s a struggle to find balance. Everything in games must be constructed, and resources have to be conserved to make sure games ship on schedule. To create something that’s aesthetically consistent and impressive but nonfunctional is easier than creating furniture that’s useable. But even beautiful design doesn’t mean most players will notice designers' hard work.
It seems that furniture in games then, has more in common with Pinkhouse’s pieces than the Eames stools or Noguchi tables that games like Sunset, Jazzpunk, or even Sims modders try to recreate. While furniture can do considerable work to enrich a narrative or craft a story, in a game, it’s something to enjoy in the moment, while on your way to your real objective.