I don’t have time to travel extensively, and New York City (where I live) is made of pigeon feathers and concrete, so I need to rely on video games to transport me somewhere fantastic, like a castle.
Video games have always loved castles, first forming them from gray blocks, like in ‘80s Wolfenstein, then from slightly more textured beige slabs, like in the appropriately titled 1991 city builder Castles. Now, video games have castle options; they can explore fantasy through pixelated nostalgia or push the boundaries of our PCs with imagined wrought iron, carved facades, sparkling spools of sunset untwisting all over it. These are the castles I want to focus on in this slideshow, which I’ve stocked with games’ spectacular concept art.
I’m not saying that elaborate video game castles are inherently better than their blocky, ‘80s-inspired compatriots. But there is no experience quite like walking up to these behemoths, walking through them, or observing their massiveness by skirting around on something like an Elden Ring horse.
You understand video game castles from existing concepts of historical architecture, but real castles were designed to be impenetrable, some of them testaments to God, some of them inhabited by only a select group of people for a select part of history. They’re already larger-than-life, somewhat unknowable.
Video game castles heighten the mystery, ironically, by allowing you to step in and look around, but to only see something conceptual, exaggerated, which could only exist in the virtual world. Elaborately planned and fully interactable, I think these kinds of video game castles provide the pinnacle of hyperreality, “the generation by models of a real without […] reality,” as sociologist Jean Baudrillard defines it in his seminal treatise Simulacra and Simulation.
It’s the best. These castles make me think of Emily Dickinson—“Rafter of Satin and Roof of Stone – / Grand go the Years, / In the Crescent above them -”—regardless if a game shuffles me toward its version of strawberries-and-cream Cinderella’s Castle, like Peach’s Castle through the various Mario games, or a doomed heap of curving stone, like most of the airless Gothic buildings in Bloodborne. I’m thrilled to be there and play make believe.
Keep clicking to do the same. I will be cheating, a little, by showing you the stunning concept art for some of video games’ most impressive castles instead of screenshots of how they appear in-game. But think of it as another way to keep the magic flowing.