Who creates a city? Who decides the layouts of the streets, buildings, and subways we walk through each and every day? Ask Victor Antonov and he'll tell you it's a "privilege reserved only for kings and dictators." And while he's neither, he's created worlds many look at as some of the best in games.
Antonov creates worlds and cities that are kind of fucked up, but that's selling him a little short. The artist and designer behind Half-Life 2's City 17 and Dishonored's Dunwall, Antonov has created disturbing, memorable, and unique worlds that simultaneously conjure images of cyberpunk metropolises and grim London alleyways.
After leaving AAA development, he joined the independent studio Darewise Entertainment, where he's working on its upcoming game Rokh.
We recently caught up with Antonov about his inspirations, his processes for designing worlds, and his recent jump from AAA development back to independent. We wanted to learn just how those unique worlds millions have inhabited came to be and why creating worlds like City 17 or Dunwall are so important to a game's overall effect.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Waypoint: Starting at the beginning, who or what got you interested in world building and architecture?
Victor Antonov: I grew up in a place, which is Sofia, Bulgaria, and this was in the 70s. In this place, time was frozen at 1945, when communism started. So the city was very empty. So kids could go in the street and play and explore abandoned construction sites, go on the roofs, go on the streets. So, you've heard that term urban-exploration? I've been doing that since I was very, very young.
So, being able to actually go into the buildings and see them intimately really opened up your mind to loving architecture?
Antonov: Yes, and the architecture experience comes from my love for the infrastructure of the city, and also how things are constructed, what's inside buildings, and what's inside cities. Everything from the smokestacks, to courtyards, to sewers, and the dangerous places, like the sewers and rooftops. I was always fascinated by the infrastructure and the scale of what the city represents.
I've only lived in [big] capitals: Sofia, then Paris, and Los Angeles—which is not a capital. But I look at the city as a character or a creature. The way some people go hiking in the mountains, I'm very, very interested in what a city is made of, and what's behind the facades and the surfaces.
We're talking about architecture, which I'd say you're primarily known for, but you do have a degree in transportation design. Can you tell me about how you applied that degree to your work in the game industry?
Antonov: I had started doing concept cars, advanced concept car design, and prototyping, and then some commercials, and I was planning to go into special effects in Los Angeles. I joined a company called Xatrix Entertainment at the time (now Gray Matter Interactive), and I did a pretty punky, let's say, game called Redneck Rampage, and I got to do about everything there. Because, at this time, you didn't really construct the city, you hand-painted everything.
And then I did Kingpin. This was my second game. And with Kingpin, I worked with Cypress Hill and we went exploring downtown Los Angeles. We had been doing small towns with Redneck Rampage, so there was a little research was involved. And this got me fascinated.
An industrial designer or a concept designer would usually do one object or one vehicle. And creating a whole city in the real world, of course, is a privilege reserved to kings or dictators. So, in video games and in animation, you can build a whole world and a whole city. It's much more fascinating. So, as soon as I got my hands on building what not many people were interested in—the environments—I fell in love with it. Because traditionally, most artists are very interested by monsters or drawing ladies, but I really loved the environment building, because it created a whole world.
I could just give you an example: when you travel, when you get off the airplane in a new city, there's this combination of light, sound, materials, and it just hits you; it's a very strong sensation. There's no real word for it, but it happens when you discover a completely new town. So, with every project—a game or a movie—I would try to reproduce this magic of being in a brand new place that's mysterious and very impressive.
"With every project… I would try to reproduce this magic of being in a brand new place that's mysterious and very impressive."
So you worked at Valve on Half-Life 2 designing City 17. How'd you end up there?
Antonov: What happened was Kingpin was released around the same date as Half-Life 1. And Half-Life 1 got all the awards for animation, gameplay, and it was considered a revolutionary game. Kingpin was very hard to play, but it was the first realistic city done in the Quake II engine. And Valve called me right away and they said, "If we merge your skills in world-creation with our skills of game design and animation, we may have something very interesting eventually." So, I was living in Los Angeles and I started doing concept design for Valve creating Half-Life 2, and then I moved on to become a full-time art director for Valve.
So what was your process at that time? How did you create that world?
Antonov: The process applies to most projects that I work on. On one hand, you have something called accessibility, which is cliche things that people are used to. Which is a good thing. On the other hand, you have originality, and this may be commercially risky. So I'm trying to find the right balance.
For City 17, it was a large scale science fiction world and I wanted to get to the roots of some writers that influenced me, like Kafka, and Orson Welles' 1984. And since I was born in Eastern Europe, I thought this was a treasure of a world that nobody had explored; it's a frontier territory. Many people had done Westerns between, you know, Texas and Mexico, but nobody had explored, at this time, Eastern Europe as a setting.
So I pitched it to Gabe Newell and to the team. "Let's take a chance and create a new world. Let's take video games outside of the bunkers and the corridors and the hallways, and let's have a whole world that feels real and very intense. And then when any event happens in this world, the impact will be much stronger."
Half-Life 2 of course went on to be considered one of the best games of all time, and I feel like a lot of people point City 17 as—you know, the game's world is often regarded as being fantastic. What're your thoughts on the game's legacy and your work in that legacy?
Antonov: First of all, I mean of course it's—I don't get it. It's a huge honor, because people still love it 12 years down the road. And it's still known. It was a very creatively risky project, because it had so many features in it. It had a new lighting system, you had the Source Engine, you had a new setting, and it carried the characters and story from Half-Life into the second one. So, for me, that was a great achievement.
And it's a sentimental game for me, because City 17 was my childhood city that I rebuilt. I didn't expect how much of a legacy and impression this would create. And what's funny is, I was getting emails from people from Hungary, from Mongolia, from Russia, and everybody was claiming, "No, this is my hometown. No, it's my hometown." And they would send me pictures about whose hometown it is. So it hurt a nerve somewhere, somehow, this city. Because it was specific, as opposed to generic.
Many people at the time would think a place or a city and would start with the textures and the facades, but I work from the infrastructure out. "What is the street layout? How are the poor territories put together? What are the rhythms of the buildings? What are the negative spaces? What are the smokestacks exactly? What is the exact lighting?" So, I was trying to be pretty, let's say, scientific about how a city is put together and how it lives. And I tried to create a very strong sense of coherence and consistency that shouldn't be noticed by the players, but it's felt.
To that point, Dishonored's city of Dunwall, which you also designed, is very intricate, interconnected. You can run along the rooftops, through the alleys, climb through the grates and sewer drains. What is the process for building a world that is so connected?
Antonov: I'd like to point out a difference between City 17 and Dunwall. City 17 and Half-Life 2 have a huge scope. You travel a lot across a lot of space, which is, in a way, frustrating. Because if you take a feature film, if you take Tim Burton's Batman for example, you see about four matte paintings of Gotham City and then you have close-up shots, and it's two hours. Half-Life 2 was about 20 hours of urban exploration, where we have to do a lot. Too much.
So, my idea and conception for Dunwall was to reduce the scope and increase the density of experience. So, you can become a rat, you can go through a hole under the table, you can play it as a human, you can go anywhere. Anything you see, you can go to and access. So the level of detail was much higher and the city was much more claustrophobic. So you don't travel as much, but the experience is much denser. I think this was the starting point. It's a chaotic mess of a city, and it's beautiful in its own way.
Do you think that meticulousness you all went through to create this world, to make everything make sense, is why that game grabbed people so much?
Antonov: Absolutely. Because, again, that's one of the things you don't necessarily rationalize when you're a gamer, but you feel it. And the attention to subtle detail is more important, because when you have a supernatural event like magic, or when you have a combat situation or horror, they stick out much more. Because you relax when you see really consistent detail and you feel at home, and then the supernatural element hits you much harder and the gaming experience is much stronger.
You're working for Darewise now. I'm curious, when you joined Arkane is was to work on new, interesting projects, is that a similar philosophy you took when leaving AAA development and going independent?
Antonov: This is sort of a personal career question you're asking me. I like to alternate. What's happened historically in my career is that I work on indie projects, I freelance, and every once a while, I will do blockbusters. And sometimes I go and work for animation and film. So, I think when we're flexible and change fields and industries and sizes of projects, things feed off each other. What I really do, and what I'm really interested in, is creating new sci-fi worlds, or rebooting IPs and giving them a new size and a new dimension of science fiction.
Right now with Darewise, we have an opportunity to launch… a new editorial line of projects that's going to follow our upcoming game Rokh. And the company's very interesting to me, not only because it's in Paris, but because it has an interesting business model inspired by the golden age of Hollywood, which is pure executive production. We create the concepts, we write the stories, we launch the project and we find the best studio possible to produce it and the best partners. But we're concentrating on making very powerful IPs. I joined Rokh midway through the project, but we have a whole list of IPs that are going to be very interesting and you'll hear about them soon.