A Short Introduction

Architecture is a fundamental part of our reality constantly influencing our lives and actions. It is one of the strongest and most visible signs of civilization and technical progress with representational, spiritual and/or economical functions. It appears in all forms and shapes, styles and decorations, materials, measurements and layout.

Architecture creates atmospheres for the exterior: in the space it takes directly, in its direct surrounding and as a background from the distance. The same it does for the interior, with room structures, lights, windows, materials and colors.

All of these aspects of architecture, and more, apply as much to the real world as to the fantastic ones. Especially in video games they are a fundamental part of world building. The villages, cities and temples shown in a game give the player a visual feeling for the plot, a special atmosphere and a timely setting. Forms and styles in video game architecture focus on showing the function of a building, give a hint to the background story and often on creating an epic scenery.

Especially in role play games with open worlds, buildings play an important role to keep the player interested and curious about the fantasy world, to make them explore it and dive into it. Surely, architecture is also used to design dungeons with different requirements for designers and developers.

To create a convincing world with the help of architecture, references and on different level receptions of real architecture from the past are used. For the fantasy genre it is mostly the European medieval ages that are referred to. However, depending on the plot, to distinguish places, nations and backgrounds more current styles are used for inspiration.

This article will pick religious buildings out as a central theme while using three examples from video game series with an extensive background world, high influence on the genre and explicit references to Europe and Christianity in the plot, in the architecture or both.

The Legend of Zelda

Game History

The Legend of Zelda is a video game series developed and published by Nintendo. The first game was released in 1986 and gave the series its name. Since then, 19 main games were produced and a couple of side games for all Nintendo platforms. The two heroes, Link and Zelda, appear also in many other Nintendo games since then.

With more than 60 million copies sold, The Legend of Zelda is one of the most successful game franchises, influencing culture also outside of the gaming sphere. It gained an important fandom and cult status.

The World of The Legend of Zelda

The protagonists of the game are Link, the playable character, and Zelda, the princess of Hyrule, the kingdom where most adventures take place. The antagonist is the evil demon Ganon, or in his human form Ganondorf, who tries to take over the world by controlling all three parts of the Triforce, a divine artifact.

The history of the background world is rather complicated with a vast number of published games set in different eras, with time traveling and even split timelines. Therefore, the following overview is kept short to give an orientation.

The Creation of the World by the Three Goddesses
Image via Gamepedia

According to the plot of the Zelda games, the world was created by three goddesses: Din, Nayru and Farore, each associated with one aspect of divinity: power, wisdom and courage. After the creation, they left the world but also left behind the Triforce, an omnipotent artifact made of three golden triangles, each standing for one of the divine aspects. Every wish the possessor of the Triforce desires will come true.

The Triforce
Image via Gamepedia

The following eras are affected by different battles to gain control over the Triforce and the efforts to prevent this. After centuries, the human descendants of the fourth goddess, Hylia, who stayed in the world to protect the Triforce, lived in the world now known as Hyrule. To protect the Triforce, it was stored in the Temple of Light in the Sacred Realm, which is an holy place isolated from Hyrule. The only entrance to the Sacred Realm is the Temple of Time with multiple safety arrangements in the center of Hyrule with the Master Sword as the last seal.

The Sacred Realm in the game A Link Between Worlds
Image via Gamepedia

The story lines are very complicated and include time traveling, alternative timelines, reincarnation, the heir lineage of the the goddess Hylia and (probably) different heroes or descendants of the first hero named Link.

The Temple of Time

Ocarina of Time (1998, Nintendo 64)

With the Temple of Time being the only entrance to the Sacred Realm, it is an extraordinarily important place for Link to visit several times in order to do some time traveling.

The Temple of Time in Ocarina of Time
Image via Gamepedia

The temple is located in a little park in the city belonging to Hyrule Castle. The player can only see the front facade of the temple with the entrance. It is dominated by a tower with a spire, stepping forward from the building. It includes the entrance portal in a round arch. Over the portal there is a double arch arcade with a round or rose window on top. With distance, the main tower in the middle is flanked with two smaller square towers on the edges of the temple. Their height reaches to the top third of the temple’s, and they are connected to it with an ascending wall. On the left and on the right, there are also two double arches on the same level. The entire building is made of one kind of brownish stone and besides the arches and smaller openings it is not decorated. The golden Triforce crest is embedded in the tympanum.

The first hall
Image via Gamepedia

The interior consists of two halls behind one another. The first one is a wide hall, supported by eight or nine edged pillars and illuminated by high colorless or grisaille windows. The floor is tiled in a black and white chess pattern except for a middle part in white, leading from the entrance to a small altar at the other end of the building. In the middle of the hall there is an hexagonal platform with the Triforce sign and other symbols. Behind the altar there is a ramp with stairs which leads to a stone portal, crowned by another golden Triforce symbol and some decorative ribs leading to it. During the first part of the game, the hero has to collect three artifacts and place them on the altar. After completing these quests, the Door of Time opens to the second hall.

The main hall
Image via Gamepedia

The ground plan of this important hall is a central building with nine sides. It is illuminated by at least one pointed window. In the middle of the central arrangement there is another, bigger hexagonal pedestal with two steps. In each corner there is the symbol of one of the sages to find, surrounding another, smaller pedestal with the Triforce crest and the Master Sword sticking out in its middle.

Like successive layers, the building and the pedestals with the different, important symbols are arranged around the sword: Starting with the nine main walls, via the six sides of the pedestal to the three sides of the Triforce with the one sword in its middle.

Twilight Princess (2006, GameCube/Wii)

The complete exterior of the Temple of Time in the game Twilight Princess from 2006 is never really shown, only as ruins. However, the interior is a highly sacral, new version of the previous temple. The hero stands on the top of a representative stairway, leading down to the longitudinal entrance hall. At least three big pointed windows with stained glass in grisaille on each side illuminate the interior. Between every window there is a pilaster, consisting of three channeled columns, ending in a relief capital, where the pointed vault begins.

Temple of Time in Twilight Princess, interior of the first hall, (c) 2006 by Nintendo

The plinth area is horizontally decorated by slim ornamental stripes and a wider marble area, followed by a bas-relief. It depicts a scene with seven people in antique robes heading to the right of the viewer. The fourth person from the left is holding a pole or a scepter while standing frontal and looking to the right. The figure at the very right is holding a vase or an amphora. This relief plate in beige is repeated all around the hall between the pillars and under the windows and also on the architrave over the portal at the end of the hall.

Temple of Time in Twilight Princess, interior of the first hall with wall details, (c) 2006 by Nintendo

The floor consists of polished marble with a darker pattern on the outside and ivory-colored in the center. In the middle of the hall there is a round inlaid work with different decorations and a golden Triforce in a golden square in the middle of it.

Between this and the portal at the end, two smaller decorative medallions are placed with guards standing on top of them.

The portal leading to the hall with the Master Sword has here a monumental, antique round arch with low pillars of the same design as the ones in the hall. Furthermore, there is an architrave and a large tympanum field filling the round arch with crest of the Hyrulian royal family (the sign of the goddess Hyrulia combined with the Triforce). Straight lines follow latticed the pointed roof with their meeting point on the top of a small passage. Between the passage and the pillars the wall is only decorated with some inscriptions.

Temple of Time in Twilight Princess, interior of the second hall with ciborium, (c) 2006 by Nintendo

A stonelike baldachin or ciborium with a bell under it stands in the center of the following room. The entire color scheme and decoration is reduced and stonefaced. Patterns and forms repeat from the entrance hall like in the portal on this side, in the relief band and in the pillars. Two half reliefs with Gothic tracery in a pointed arch are eye-catching.

Temple of Time in Twilight Princess, interior of the second hall with the skylight, (c) 2006 by Nintendo

The sanctuary of the temple is an octahedral chapel-like arrangement, built by lower pillars holding pointed arches. At least three arches are filled with colored, ornamental stained glass windows on plinth area. This whole central arrangement is illuminated by skylight and it is followed by the eight sides of the arches and filled with stained glass windows, too. The skylight has the form of a round vault and is ornamentally decorated. Directly under it there is a low pedestal, also with eight sides, bordered in dark stone, tiled with light marble and decorated with a white crest of the Hyrulian royal family. Another square pedestal with the sword holding appliance is slightly standing out.

Temple of Time in Twilight Princess, interior of the second hall with the Master Sword in the apse, (c) 2006 by Nintendo

Comparisons

The exterior design of the temple in Ocarina of Time evokes a resemblance with smaller churches on the European countryside at the end of the 19th century. As the whole composition is reduced to geometric elements without any significant decoration, a romanesque appearance seems to be intended. However, it is more important that a general religious or sacral stereotype and not a specific building is shown. Through this choice of design the temple is defined as a special and holy place.

Aachen Cathedral, interior of the octagon by Charlemagne, around 800 with the mosaic decorations of the 19th century, (c) by Velvet under CC BY-SA 3.0

The locked chamber with the important Master Sword is the culmination of this architectural strategy: with a central-oriented room it reminds of representative octagonal monuments, such as the cathedral of Aachen, partly built by Charlemagne around 800 A.D.

Pantheon in Rome, interior with vier of the vault and oculus, finished around 125 A.D., (c) by Xea under Public Domain

This building follows Italian examples and recurs to monumental central buildings of Antiquity, such as the Pantheon in Rome. It was representing an architectural ideal and Charlemagne tried to establish a continuity with the Roman Empire also in architecture while using spoils from Ravenna and Rome in Aachen (translatio imperii).

Cathedral Saint-Denis, first gothic ambulatory, before 1144, (c) by Beckstet under CC BY-SA 3.0

In Twilight Princess, the central room with the sword is clearly sacral and with the glowing, colorful stained glass windows and the light orchestration definitely inspired by Gothic cathedrals.

Notre-Dame-du-Travail, Paris, chapel with art nouveau skylight, 1902, (c) by Mbzt under CC BY-SA 3.0

On the other hand, the skylight is a more modern addition. Some churches at the turn from 19th to 20th century were built with modern materials like visible steal beams and industrial oriented interiors. The decoration was influenced by art nouveau and Jugendstil with glass in the apse.

Les Galeries Lafayette Hausmann, Paris, interior with the skylight dome, store opening in 1912, (c) by Gind 2005 under CC BY-SA 3.0

Big stained glass domes in the same styles are known from famous department stores like Galeries Lafayette in Paris, designed by Ferdinand Chanut and inaugurated in 1912.