This is a continuation of, what I hope to make a more regular series called Archigame where I take an in-depth look at one building and one game and discuss how the two are similar in my eyes.
The ancient Romans have always fascinated me, so much so that while getting my undergraduate degree in Architectural Studies I minored in Roman Archaeology and have gone on to teach the subject at UCLA. Without a doubt one of my favorite buildings of all time is the Pantheon. I loved it the moment I laid eyes on it in a Tufts University classroom. It is one of those buildings that is so seminal that it really never goes away. I remember learning about its history and patronage in my undergrad survey course and I remember four years later learning about its concrete dome structure in my graduate Structures class. The first time I saw it in person was what I imagine its like to meet a pen pal you’ve had for years, expect the pen pal is a hundred times more awesome in real life. I couldn’t believe I was actually there. The space is far bigger than pictures would lead you to believe and there is a harmony about the interior space that evokes a sense of wonder and calmness (despite the hundreds of loud and obnoxious tourists). It is truly a building that needs to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.
For those who don’t know, the Pantheon, as it stands today was erected by Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’ right hand man, while the original building was largely destroyed, Emperor Trajan erected it again in 114 CE. The building stood as a monument to the Pantheon of Roman Gods. The centralized plan was meant to equally honor all of the Gods, as statues of the entire pantheon ran around the perimeter of the inner walls. It is worth noting that Trajan put a statue of himself in the center effectively deifying himself. The building is far and away one of the best preserved ancient Roman temples in existence. Most Roman temples were destroyed during the rise of Christianity, the truly remarkable temples however, like the Pantheon, were simply converted into churches rather than destroyed.
The building itself was so far ahead of its time that it would be difficult to reproduce even today. In fact, it is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome (modern concrete structures have steel rebar inside of them, this is what is meant by reinforced concrete). As far as the Romans were concerned this building might as well have been their space program. The genius in constructing the massive concrete dome comes from the incredible command of the material that the Romans possessed. Concrete is a mixture of water, a binding agent, and an aggregate. Depending on what aggregate is used the concrete will vary in weight and strength. Knowing this, the Romans actually made the dome using multiple types of concrete that actually got lighter as the dome ascended, meaning that the top of the dome is far lighter than the bottom. The Romans also utilized coffers (those square designs on the ceiling) to literally remove some of the concrete all along the roof, decreasing the weight of the entire structure. All of this amounts to a marvel of a building that had no right existing 2000 years ago. To me, the Pantheon is the closest thing there is to a perfect building.
In January 2011 I sat in my dorm room and was blown away by Mass Effect 2. Despite having to wait an entire year to play it on PS3 after its initial release on Xbox 360 I was awestruck by the game. A year is a long time in the video game industry, often games released a few months ago are quickly out-shined by the new game on the block. Yet, if you had asked me then Mass Effect 2 might as well have just been released. Actually, to me, it felt like a game from the future. Playing it felt I had traveled ten years into the future, I felt like I was getting a glimpse at what video games were going to be like in years to come.
I’ll never forget the first time I talked to a friend of mine about my experience playing Mass Effect 2. I told him that it was the closest I had come to ever playing a perfect game. To be fair, I actually think Mass Effect 3 is better than 2 but for what it was, at the time, Mass Effect 2 was a masterpiece in my eyes. The game managed to be equally epic and intimate. The stakes of your mission and its implications on the galaxy were never lost on you but at the same time you were surrounded by so many interesting and well written (and voiced) characters that having a conversation was just as engaging as shooting someone in the head.
One of my favorite game mechanics is party recruitment, I love going out and finding unique and different characters that I can add to my party. It feeds the same sense of satisfaction I get from catching a Pokemon. At its heart, Mass Effect 2 is about assembling a team of interspecies badasses to take on a suicide mission. For a large portion of the game you are embarking on missions to find, recruit, and help these characters and each one is more interesting and layered than the last. If you asked me to come up with my top 10 favorite video game characters I would bet that at least 4 of them would be from Mass Effect 2. Not only do you have to recruit party members, but if you want them to have any hope of surviving the endgame suicide mission you’re going to have to help them out along the way. Each member of your crew inhabits an area on your spaceship, The Normandy, which functions as a home base between missions. It is truly a testament to the writing by Bioware that I went around talking to every crew member not so I could increase their level but because I was genuinely interested in what they had to say. The dialogue is incredibly organic and when the time comes to help them out of a sticky situation I didn’t do it because I wanted experience points or a “perfect” play through, I did it because I liked them and wanted to help them.
It is more than a bit ironic that I am relating an ancient building to a futuristic game that takes place in space but, to me, both the Pantheon and Mass Effect were way ahead of their time. For my money, there is no building that is as beautifully simple and wholistic as the Pantheon and there is no game as cohesive, engaging, and thoughtful as Mass Effect 2. Both of these things were truly unbelievable in my eyes. There is no such thing as a perfect building or perfect video game but whenever you get that feeling that makes you think “OH MY GOD I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M DOING THE THING THAT I’M DOING” you know its pretty damn special.