Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Elements of game design, part three: environment

You could say after possibly reading my character blog or by thinking generally, environment design for games is similar to character design. Yes it is in general terms but there is a bit more to it and I would like to pick up on that in this blog. Environments interest me the most purely because it literally sets the scene and without a level you have no game, without an atmosphere, it has no character, without proper structure, the game is doomed to be a confusing wreck. Developers like to into account, accessibility to areas and usage of the environment nowadays that games couldn’t achieve as much in the past.

Making a level environment look good is one thing, but level design needs to build up something in a way that it is accessible and this gradually became more of a circumstance once games moved on from 2D side scrolling to 3D roaming worlds. To navigate around these levels, set paths such as in the crash bandicoot games simply lead you to your destination in a straight line but you must overcome obstacles in your way. Freedom of choice in your path to reach your goal started in early games, in particular, RPGs. The legend of Zelda series delivered on this but to make the environments even more exciting and appealing, you get signs and maps telling you where you should or maybe even shouldn’t go. Areas are blocked off by obstacles you cannot tackle yet until you gain a certain ability and to add to this you may get NPCs in the area affected by this or the fact that a river is dried out, it affects the environment but changes when you restore it. This adds a therapeutic value to the player’s gameplay or an element of confidence as you get stronger, able to tackle new and difficult areas. Assets became more accessible in that you could use it to your advantage to solve a puzzle or just kick it around for fun. Of course depending on the genre of game, you get different methods of dealing with your environment meaning you get a different experience or feeling towards it. Games like call of duty black ops shape the pathway for you, like when you look at a road ahead, you reach it and vehicles come to block its way so you are forced to take a singular route. This can add intense cinematic value to games making it similar to films.

What I mentioned before about adding signs or messages, assets or actually the environment’s specific location, is where references to the outside world come in. Realism is obvious to point out with its use of photo taken or realistic made textures in a game scripted in a believable human world. Stylisation is realised when you see games similar to World of Warcraft, fully hand painted with unusual buildings and cartoon-like characters. Nevertheless, people adore it because it still may use references from real life and use past ideas then brand them their own making it more believable and balancing its power with realism. Combined with good, accessible gameplay, the environment takes you to places you couldn’t experience in real life or fictional places you find beautiful as if you wish you was there.

One of two favourite environments of mine that stuck in my head is Bioshock. Old fashioned advertisement posters made you know you were in the past but you are stuck in a totally original and obscure underwater paradise bent into destruction due to failed experiments. A result of this had you exploring a damp, dark, misty, water leaked environment with old fashioned radios eerily playing classic music. The constant reminder of the creator in your ear and his pictures and quotes plastered all over the place made me want to carry on playing and find out more even though creepy sounds and strategically placed lighting (or lack of) made it a scary place to be. Frigging love it and I still need to play 2 before the new Bioshock Infinite comes out!


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