Harvard architecture students turn Tokyo into brain-melting digital playground

In games, we are constantly encountering and enduring impossible architecture. The Italian futurism of Halo, the menancing Citadel of Half-Life, and the more recent verdant twists of Fez. We spend most of our time as players occupying places that will never be, except with the occasion of a lark, such as Aram Bartholl’s attempt to build a 1:1 recreation of a famed level from Counter-Strike. We accept digital streets and by-ways that will never be.

Fortunately, game designers have new company in developing towering heights and sprawling cityscapes: Architects. For two Harvard architecture students, Cory Seeger, 24, and Matt Conway, 26, it only makes sense. After all, in the both fields, the common language is creatively parsing code.

And no place could serve as a better—and more ambitious—inspiration for a playground than Tokyo. HomeMake, the duo’s first stab at game design, pulls heavily from Tokyo urbanism and explores architecture in a culture that’s only had the term for a century. Details are still forthcoming, but HomeMake follows the life of a robot (or a plant or a hippo) within the larger universe known as Galaxy SEED. The creative pull of Tokyo was so strong that it generated a world all its own. “Shibuya has these amazing winding alleys, dating back to the 1600s. We were trying recreate that in an abstract way,” Seeger says.

In fact, it is its own world: it’s actually the inside of a giant sphere that you’ll be traversing via its numerous hidden passages. But the wonderful part of a spherical universe is that it never really ends. When Conway was a child he played a videogame with a seemingly vast and uncrossable ocean. So he did what any good explorer would do: he sailed for the edge.

As it turns out, there was one, a very real and impermeable boundary that would prevent him from going forward. Recalling the moment, he echoes a common sentiment: “It happens in every game. There’s a forest or a mountain or something that gets in your way.” Open games came only be so open; even the expanse of Minecraft has a boundary.

But blurring boundaries, beginnings and endings, is actually part of Tokyo’s allure. “Tokyo was an origami city folded over and over until something was made of virtually nothing,” author Christopher Barzak wrote. The messiness of the legendary Shibuya “scramble” that was memorialized in Lost in Translation, the wedding-cake houses that allow light to pass to the street, and Tokyo’s visual overload were part of Seeger and Conway’s desire to emulate that feeling of the macro and micro existing simultaneously. The city as a sphere harkens to Kubrick’s legendary cyclical first shot of the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey, of a world that never stops moving.

The constant flux will be more than metaphor. Seeger and Conway’s plan to make the city actually move and remove itself, as buildings will grow and subside. And when players look up, they’ll see the streets they once walked upon. Perhaps the only frustration is that it will be unlike any place in the known universe. As an architect, “if you want to be there, then you’ve succeeded,” Seeger jokes.

Architecture actually has a precedent for building things that never come to fruition. “Paper architects” is the term for city-builders that only create on the page and nowhere else. Between 1962 and 1964, avant-garde design group Archigram, for example, modeled a speculative metropolis called “Plug-in City” with an interchangeable grid that would adapt to the city’s needs. (It was an inspiration for HomeMake). And Artist Lebbeus Woods never was a licensed as an architect, nor received a degree in architecture, but his fantastical structures pushed at the possibilities of what physical spaces could be.

In fact, to Seeger and Conway, architecture is too rational at the moment, driven by sustainability concerns in data. In many ways, videogames provide the whiteboard for them to explore architecture on a “emotional and subjective level,” Seeger says. “If you can understand what it’s like to be in a space and how that space works, then you can design. Videogames and its tools are such a ripe medium.”

HomeMake is currently completing its already successful Kickstarter project.