Monday, January 12, 2015

Science Fiction Corridors

I've been trying to up my science fiction interiors game for a while, ever since I learned to model interiors. So I guess it's fortunate that I stumbled across this and this and this.

It's a corridor-centric bunch of links, so let's talk about corridors. We can talk other kinds of interiors on other days.

The first thing to realize is that science fiction corridors rarely exist in a vacuum. Or, uh, I guess they're technically more likely to be in a vacuum than any other kind of corridor, but what I mean is that they are modeled on existing visuals.

You can try to create a corridor which "makes sense" for your science fiction environment, but in the end you're creating fiction. You have no specific physical constraints. Your corridors could be made out of Cheetos. But, because your environment is trying to have a specific feel and specific implications, you try to make your corridors make sense for your setting.

In some cases, this is a physical thing. The corridors in 2001 were the inside of a spinning disk, a unique structure that captured the physical idea of spinning space stations. Similarly, the lower decks in Alien's space ship looked just like steam tunnels because they were supposed to be steam tunnels. The organic tunnels in the alien ship in the same movie were that way because it was what organic tunnels would probably look like.

Normally, science fiction interiors (and corridors in specific) are instead designed to feel right. They aren't physically reflecting a physical role in the physical reality of the setting, they're physically reflecting an emotional role.

For example, some corridors in Alien are octagonal, with a lot of weird, puffy striations. It's nonsense to have padded tunnels, but I don't think anyone ever complained, because it fit. It was a disquieting feeling - claustrophobic shape combined with unsettling geometries. Just enough to make everything creepy, not so much that it felt unreasonable.

With this in mind, many science fiction corridors clone from existing architecture a lot more aggressively. Some feel like bureaucratic office spaces from the fifties. Others feel like libraries, or industrial complexes. By punching up real-world architecture, you get both a believable layout and an implicit emotional connection to the source. Later Alien movies used this a lot, not to keep talking about Alien all the time.

Emotional connection is the word of the day, and that's why the actual shape of the corridor is only one of the pieces of the puzzle. Lighting is another big piece. If possible, sound, motion, and interactive bits are also useful in establishing a good emotional feel. As an easy example: sunlight streaming through a big side window can make a hallway seem extremely pleasant, even if the rest of the hallway is unimpressive. A small, blinking console on the wall can give a sense that a hallway exists in the universe for a reason, and is tied to the rest of the ship or station, and actually moves through time with the rest of the universe instead of simply being a prop.

That said, let's discuss some of the basic corridor philosophies.

Basic Shape

In the most general sense, the default corridor is rectangular, like every corridor you've ever seen. With normal proportions, these corridors don't inspire much claustrophobia. It is common to stretch them a bit, which typically makes them feel claustrophobic or restrictive. These kinds of stretched rectangular corridors are frequently used for rigid, authoritarian ships and stations to make them feel unbending.

Because any stretching on any axis tends to make these hallways intimidating, a lot of designers use asymmetry to break up that intimidation. This is typically a canted ceiling on large hallways or rooms. It makes it feel more like an airy loft than a dour government facility.

Tilted walls, both symmetrical and asymmetrical, are sometimes used. By angling the walls outward, you create more space at the top of the hall. Angle them inward for less space. Angling them in will feel claustrophobic, while angling them out will theoretically feel less claustrophobic, but in practice it feels a bit weird. This is why so many corridors in Star Trek are canted inwards, even though that theoretically makes them more claustrophobic, it makes them feel less authoritarian.

Vaulted ceilings are sometimes used to add extra headroom and make a hallway less oppressive. However, keep in mind that these are specifically vaulted, with struts and indents. A smooth curve at the top of the hallway has a very different, organic feel. We'll discuss the difference in more detail later.

A more common technique used a lot is to create bevels or angles on the walls. The secret to these is that the shoulder-height wall, ceiling, and floor all need to be orthogonal, but everything else is open to fiddling. By folding the tops and bottoms of the walls inward, you can create an octagonal hallway. By folding the top of the wall sharply outwards and then upwards again, you can create spacious headroom. Any combination of folds can be used for a variety of results, but in general these either make the hall feel more claustrophobic or less claustrophobic.

Probably the most common technique is to add organic curves to the walls.

It's pretty rare to use circular corridors. In reality, a lot of underground facilities use circular corridors, but in a movie or video game it feels pretty unnatural. Instead, the walls are typically parabolas of any arc you please. Most of the time, these parabolas are both vertically and horizontally symmetrical, with their widest point halfway up the corridor, but that's not required.

The three examples of organic curves on your walls that I would use are:

The Alien ship: a very organic look with large corridors that look like an esophagus or rib cage. You can use organic shapes to get an actual organic look, like this.

Star Trek wobbles between using inward-canted walls and organic curves depending on the set designer, but they both serve the same purpose: to make the corridors seem less authoritarian. This is necessary because the corridors are not decorated, and would appear spartan if they were square.

Many classic 60s movies such as Starcrash actually used angles that were wider than a circle would be. These create a slightly surreal look, and although it's arguable as to whether they create the same impression with everyone, to me they feel like they are under pressure, at the bottom of an ocean.

Wall and Ceiling Struts

Your basic hallway shape is not what you think it is. That is, nearly every science fiction corridor is made alternating segments - the wall shape and the "strut" shape.

There are plenty of science fiction corridors that don't have struts and are simply the wall shape. But these are typically oppressive, nightmarish corridors, and are designed to give no texture to the human eye. They aren't even utilitarian: they are flatly oppressive in the most aggressive way possible.

This is why nearly every corridor alternates a long and short shape - we'll call them "wall" and "strut".

The best example of this is the Star Trek corridor. Whether rounded or canted, all Star Trek corridors have struts. These are fairly subtle, usually the exact same shape as the wall, but simply scaled inwards a bit. If they want the ship to feel a bit more oppressive, the struts are more like supports, angled inward more aggressively at the top. This gives those corridors a heavier, more armored feeling. Either way, the struts are typically colored slightly differently from the rest of the hall - enough to give the hall texture, but not enough to make it feel candystriped.

As a side note, doors in Star Trek are typically flanked directly by struts, which is part of what gives Star Trek doors their unique "strong yet unobtrusive" feel.

Not all struts are what we might recognize as struts. Some corridors simply have two alternating hall segments of similar length - you can do anything you want.

But one thing to keep in mind is that the struts don't have to be the same shape or impression as the wall. Many corridors use struts to even out a more exotic hall shape. For example, if you have a weird, canted-out wall shape, you might use struts that don't cant out, and maybe even create a smooth line for the roof. In this way your alien-feeling primary shape is blunted by a more familiar secondary shape.

Even if you do have an unusual shape, such as a smoothly curved "keyhole" roof, you can make it feel less aggressive by breaking up the profile. To do this, you can simply make the struts a slightly different size.

You can also make the struts noncontinuous. For example, you might use heavy, padded grips as your "struts". They serve the same purpose, even though they don't exist as a separate structure. You could push out the struts, so that your primary walls are actually more narrow. There's a lot of things you can do.

In the end, though, remember that the struts are intended to be part of the hall. If you make them too aggressive and obvious, the hall will feel all chopped-up.

Direction, Connection, and Breaks

It's not just the cross-section of the hall that matters. It's also how the hall feels as you look down it.

Many sci-fi sets use rigidly straight halls because they're easier to build. Similarly, a lot of them use "fractured straights" - halls that go straight for ten meters, then suddenly end in a door. This is because indoor sets can only be so large. We're used to this, but let's discuss some alternatives.

Star Trek pioneered the use of the gentle curve. By creating curved hallways, they made it so that there's rarely more than 10m of hall visible, but rather than end, it just continues on at an angle you can't quite see from here. These gentle curves also made the ship feel more organic and less authoritarian. This is probably also the reason that the doors are always braced between struts: a flat door and a curved wall don't generally mesh very well.

An option that's hard for movies but easy for video games is the vertical curve, as seen in 2001. This curve upwards or downwards also keeps the halls from stretching very far on-camera, but it feels extremely alien.

Of course, this being a game, we can make our halls stretch on however far we want to. We can have miles of hall. But most people are not comfortable with how this looks, since we're not used to indoor areas that large. Even in real life, airports break up their long halls a bit.

One trick here is that our strut placement is typically a function of our maximum view range. In Star Trek there are struts about every 2-3m, because you can never really see more than 10-15m. In longer corridors, the segments are stretched out to give your eye the same amount of texture - otherwise, you lose your visual grip. So as you are walking down a long airport corridor, you'll see the "wall" areas (moving walkways with endless windows) interspersed every 80m or so with a "strut" area (a 5-10m 'room' with no moving walkways). Even though these strut areas serve no real purpose, they give structure to the long corridors.

The same thing is true in sci fi. If you have a 100m long steam pipe tunnel and you can see to the end, then your breaks are going to be spaced out much longer - pipe support braces every 15m, perhaps.

Providing structure to your hall is a critical part of the concept of struts, but struts are also not the only thing that provides structure. Another structural element are "wall breaks". These are areas which break your hall up by radically changing the profile. An example of this might be a rounded sitting gallery, or a glass veranda to let the sun in, or a small arcade. You can also clamp inwards, although this is a bit claustrophobic: computer towers, rubble, lowered ceilings, stairs leading up to a door in the upper part of the hall.

You can also break up your hallways with connections to other pieces of architecture. One handy trick is to simply have an intersection, either a T or a cross. Don't feel the other hall needs to have the same size as your hall: you can have it be much larger or smaller as your needs dictate. But large doors are also possible. Small doors break up the monotony, but large doors are landmarks as long as they are clearly visible. Security checkpoints are also a good way to make intersections seem more prominent - you can turn left, but there's a booth and a dude with a gun and a scanning checkpoint.

Anyway, the point of this is that you need to make your hallways seem like they exist. Long, unbroken hallways are extremely unwise. Use some kind of alternate hall structure (a "strut") to break it up and, if that's not gonna work, use wall breaks and intersections. These are also great ways to give your ship or base a real personality.


Sound is generally not discussed much, but I'll mention it in brief. There are three kinds of sound to consider.

One is ambient sound. What kind of sound do the ship's engines and generators produce? What about the life support? It's surprising how distinctive these sounds can be, and if you like, you can even vary them based on where you are in the ship - engineering has a distinct rattle due to its proximity to the generator, while the quarters has just the quiet hum of air filters. The noise of other crew members or active machinery should also be considered.

Another is footfall sound, or more generally the sound of moving through the space. In general, the louder the footfall sound, the more frantic the player will expect play to be. This is inherited from movies, where if you can hear people walking, it means you're hearing them run from monsters. We can relax that constraint a bit in video games, as the sound of your avatar's footfalls are pretty immersive. But you can go the Star Trek route, where the sound of uniforms rubbing together is louder than the actual footfalls. vip vip vip vip vip vip

The last one is the acoustics of the area. Most shows have studio acoustics because, uh, they're done in studios. No echo or blurring at all, unless it's some kind of cinematic setting. But in our video game, we can easily apply audio effects to create gentle environmental clues. Blurring or echoing is great, as is "wind whipping the words away" and other such effects. You don't have to apply them aggressively, just enough to make the hall feel like it exists.

In reality, footfalls and acoustics are the result of the shape and material of a hall. In video games, however, they're emotional triggers and you can play fast and loose.


Decorations are what the walls are actually made of.

While some hallways are blank and flat, this is usually too oppressive and doesn't give the audience's eye anything to grip onto. Instead, most hallways have a variety of patterns that are applied to various walls to give the audience a visual grip.

In Star Trek these are fairly minimal, consisting of some gentle paneling and an occasional touchscreen. But there's more to it than that, because there's also lights, and most of the Star Trek corridors are defined mostly by their lights. Some corridors are aggressively blanketed in lighted panels from just above eye level all the way around to the other side. Others have recessed lights and LED strips. Either way they have studio lighting: we're not talking about the actual amount of light in the scene, but instead about the fact that the lighting panels themselves are a major component in the decoration of the hallways.

Most other science fiction franchises are more aggressive. Nonfunctional decorative doodles are frequently used, such as complex tile work, lots of touchscreens with different things randomly displayed, random wiggly padding segments, and so on. This sort of noise is easy to forgive, so feel free to play around.

Some harder sci fi franchises try to use functional or semifunctional decorations such as pipes or wires. Lockers, drawers, and other storage units are also very popular decorations, sometimes even being opened or accessed. Older shows frequently have speakers/PA units, button-pads, electrical switches, and other very functional parts, but modern science fiction tends to Apple it up and hide that stuff behind panels and in touchscreens.

One of the things a lot of designers overlook is the importance of giving depth to a hallway. You can get some depth out of your struts, but it's also quite possible to get depth out of your decorations. Grated floors and ceilings are probably the easiest, most fundamental method of doing this. Lights that protrude into the hallway are another way to do it, either hanging from the ceiling or tipped out from the top of the walls.

Grates in general are a powerful tool. If they lie flush with the wall, they imply that there is something behind the wall - air ducts, perhaps. But grates can also be a layer of wall in and of themselves. There's a lot of excuses to put grates in - you can hang wires through them, mount small equipment on them, protect delicate equipment behind them, and grab on to them if gravity fails.

Perhaps a more powerful tool is protrusions - for example, hand rails or similar. These rarely need to have any excuse to exist, and can be either horizontal or vertical with no problems. They can be bare or they can be integrated into the hallway in complex ways, such as supporting wires or having a "rotate to open" lock system attached to them.

When decorating, keep in mind that decorations are repeating themes, but aren't intended to completely saturate a hallway. Especially if your decorations are aggressive, consider alternating them out with other decorations. for example, not every Star Trek hallway segment has a touch screen. There are several varieties of subtle paneling and several kinds of doors it gets swapped out with. Similarly, sometimes they use eye-level variation and sometimes they use floor-level variation.

Even aggressive decorations such as steam tunnels don't simply repeat over and over. The pipes swap in and out. Sometimes you'll have patches of unusual piping. Never enough to confuse, but enough to give the player's eye some traction and sense of depth.

Also keep in mind the difference between square, vertical, horizontal, and akimbo decorations. Star Trek relies mostly on square decorations: nothing too aggressively vertical or horizontal, nothing diagonal. This gives it a regular, reliable, gentle feel.

Something like steam pipes or railings is aggressively horizontal (if running along the hall) or aggressively vertical (if punching vertically through the hall). These affect how the player perceives this stretch of hall. If things are mostly horizontal, the hall feels like a place to move through. If things are mostly vertical, the hall feels like a place to be constrained by. Keep that in mind, because there are definitely parts of your levels you won't want the player to feel like he's just going to move through.

I use the term "akimbo" for decorations that run in any other direction, whether it's diagonally or across the hallway horizontally or any other direction. I don't really have any solid opinion on them, except that they are a lot more aggressive than other types.

There's rarely any need to feel constrained by decorations. They don't have to serve much of a purpose, they just have to fit into the basic idea of the hallway.


Lighting is probably the most important element of science fiction settings, but it's rarely discussed much. Let's talk about it.

In my mind, there are three different schemes of lighting science fiction interiors:

1) Ambient Lighting, AKA "studio light". This bright, soft lighting scheme is ideal for places that should feel inhabitable. It's mostly notable for lighting backgrounds as brightly as the actors, and therefore has a low-drama feel. To see the difference this can make, compare an episode of Star Trek TNG with a movie from the same era. The dramatic lighting in the movies gives the ship a completely different feeling - tense and aggressive. Not all ambient lighting needs to be comfortable: you can do ambient low light, or washed-out ambient brights, or even something like ambient red lights, but any way you cut it this tends to play down the punch of the actors in favor of the sets and scenario.

2) Dramatic Lighting. AKA "movie lighting". In movies, this kind of lighting is typically used to play up the most important element of the scene (typically the actors) while leaving the rest of the set downplayed. In video games, this typically involves light that actually comes from lights and highlights the main avenue of play while leaving much of the rest in shadow... but contrary to movies, darkness is often when draws your attention, instead of brightness. Either way, this lighting is not intended to actively conceal gameplay items, it's intended to create drama and variation. It can involve colored or blinking lights to play up that drama even more.

3) Schtick Lighting. AKA "Doom lighting". This is when you have aggressive light sources that dominate the scene. For example, it's dark except for a flickering, swinging ceiling light. Or except for a light behind a slowly-revolving fan, casting bright wedges of light along the hall. Or even just a game where there's light here and pitch darkness there. The difference between dramatic lighting and schtick lighting is that schtick lighting affects the gameplay: at the very least, the darkness is deep enough to be hard to see into. The light may also indicate something, like the classic of the corridor having intermittent blasts of exhaust fire or whatever, and you have a schtick light to indicate that.

In general, ambient lighting is often considered passe these days, only used for places that are supposed to feel ethereal. Most first-person games use dramatic lighting for the bulk of their game, combined with a small amount of schtick lighting.

Don't forget that brightness and color of light matter. You don't have to put in a bright red light if you want colored lights: gently tinting the light slightly blue, yellow, or red is enough to make the scene feel different. With dramatic lighting, light brightness is a bit of a battle, because it can be a bit difficult to get the light to feel bright at the right distance without washing out the scene near the lights - this is because it takes several bounces to get "good" dramatic lighting, and most engines don't support real time bounced light... well, it can get pretty annoying.

Anyway, that's me thinking to myself about science fiction corridors.

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