Genshin Impact is an open-world role-playing game developed by HoYoverse (2020-). Rendered in colorful, anime-style graphics, the game, which has a revenue of more than four billion dollars as of March 2022, remains incredibly popular two years after its initial debut. As players load into the fantastical land of Teyvat, they encounter an in-game world that feels all-encompassing in many ways. Regions within the game are fully outfitted with unique flora, fauna, fashion, culture, and architecture. The game continually expands through in-game updates with new quests, characters, and territories. It feels both immersive and expansive.
The views and vistas that make up Teyvat feel familiar to us because they take inspiration from real cultures around the world. The architecture of Monstadt recalls the built environment of Swiss cities like Bern and German towns like Miltenberg. Liyue approximates the geography of Sichuan province in China. The region of Inazuma evokes Japan. In the newest update, players explore the territory of Sumeru, which blends facets of Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian, and Egyptian cultures. These references to real-world geographies approximate our reality and make Genshin Impact feel comprehensive in its scope. The open-world design of the game provides the player with the autonomy to explore these regions at their own pace outside of the main quest line as they traipse from continent to continent with a growing cast of characters to explore various objectives, puzzles, and bosses.
In his brief meditation on how we understand architectural space, art theorist and perceptual psychologist Rudolf Arnheim discusses the dichotomy of interior and exterior spaces (Arnheim 1966). Arnheim frames them as an antagonism. He argues that one cannot experience both the interior and the exterior of a building simultaneously. Still, he argues that it is the human element that allows us to bridge this difference. He writes, “this dichotomy… is bridged by the mobility of people, who more or less freely, pass from one realm to the other” (Arnheim 1966). While Arnheim is reflecting on actual built space, his description here allows us to think about the actual incompleteness of the architectural experience in games like Genshin Impact.
Despite its open-world environment and the near-constant expansion of the map, there are many surprising limitations in the way that Genshin Impact players experience space. Even though we see architecture, we are not often in a position to consider the relationship between inside and outside because we cannot physically enter many buildings within Teyvat. Instead, most buildings encountered through open-world exploration are simply obstacles or barriers in the landscape. Genshin Impact shares this feature with many other games in the genre. Architecture provides beautiful context and setting but ultimately forms another object to climb on top of or navigate around rather than through.
If buildings in the open-world environment are experienced as one form of closed barrier, instanced dungeons present another. Often uniformly represented as a doorway with a portal, once the player teleports inside, instanced dungeons are often interiors without exteriors. They contain beautifully rendered interior design and immersive visual environments. But the player is often limited in their ability to engage with these interiors physically. Your character cannot walk back out the door once you have entered and, as the climbing function is disabled, walls and platforms you would engage in the open world are nothing more than a backdrop inside.
If architecture can be viewed along a shifting scale of complete blockage to complete passage, as Arnheim suggests, Genshin Impact offers very few occasions where the player can move fluidly between inside and outside to contemplate this spatial relationship (Arnheim 1966). Considering the many ways in which the landscape is incomplete, it is fascinating that the game can nonetheless feel immersive and whole to many through other means.
Arnheim, Rudolf. "Inside and Outside Architecture: A Symposium." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 25, no. 1 (Fall 1966), 3-15.
Genshin Impact. HoYoverse, 2020-.