In this extract from my thesis, I give some examples of how height is used for narrative in the architecture of Skies of Arcadia, and I question whether the idea of the panopticon is relevant when player agency within level design is considered. I wrote something else about panoptic structures in games a while ago, if you want to read more. I think I might have failed to argue convincingly for the importance of technological power in the game’s narrative – I don’t give many examples to back it up. What do you think?

Horteka in Skies of Arcadia

A 3D platform game released by Sega one year after Skies of Arcadia, Super Monkey Ball distinguished itself by its emphasis on the vertical dimension. Level design played on pillars and castle turrets to visually highlight verticality, game-play introduced falling as either a failure or a short-cut to success, and the optical distortion of its wide-angle view further added to the sense of near-freefall. (Here I reference Johansson’s review of the game in Space Time Play) In Skies of Arcadia, verticality is skilfully employed in architecture to emphasise the three-dimensionality of the game-world and contribute to game narrative.

Height is mobilised in architectural design to narrativise the political differences between civilisations in terms of character agency. Under benevolent regimes such as Pirate Isle and the rainforest land of Horteka, it is easy to travel vertically by climbing ladders and poles. Horteka feels particularly playful, as many of its buildings are treehouses. Wood textures are used on Horteka and Pirate Isle to evoke a sense of freedom and paidia – play as exploration as opposed to ludic, goal-oriented play.

However, more controlling regimes such as Valua restrict the characters’ movement, particularly along the vertical dimension. Valua is divided into the upper and lower city, and the upper city is restricted to only those of a higher social class. Forbidden routes through Valua are achieved via the underground `catacombs’, which are populated by monsters that the characters must fight in order to pass through. The use of underground architecture for subversive action is established on Pirate Isle, where all buildings and objects that relate to piratical activity are located in a secret underground base.

This equation of height with power lends itself to a reading of Arcadia’s architecture as panoptic. In some ways this is true. Valua features many electric searchlights that glare down on the characters from above, at one stage in the game actually posing a real threat as being caught in the searchlight generates a battle with a set of deceptively powerful robots. The sixth civilisation’s location in `upper sky’ above the rest of the world is reflective of their aloofness and ultimate power to destroy the rest of the world in an instant if they see fit.

However, both in terms of the storyline and the game’s artificial intelligence, there is actually nobody behind the searchlight watching the characters. They are able to spend the whole game travelling the world freely, and when they do run into Valua they fight ship to ship as equals. A great deal of the power held by the enemy forces is not a result of their height, but of their technological power. So while architectural height does contribute to an awareness of control and aggression, this is only in conjunction with the theme of techology, weaponsiation and geographical power