Sunday, 25 March 2012

Environment Project - What makes a good environment?

Environments in games (and even in real life) have always fascinated me as far as I can remember within my gaming life. Curiosity has always gotten the better of me as I try to dig deeper into exploring and finding ways to break the boundaries of that which separates us from the unknown.

Whilst this fuelled my imagination with limitless thoughts for what could be within that theme and environment, I have never actually thought of how I would go about creating my very own environment. In the past I have thought of what kind of games would be cool and interesting to explore, but to actually build the place, I would have no idea on how to even begin that.
Thinking of places that have been interesting in the past such as exploring a vast and mystical sea shore filled with ancient fascinating sea coves and intertwined waterways, or a derelict city filled with many weather torn buildings would be cool to do, but would be rather unoriginal.

So where to begin? I decided to research into how some current gaming companies go about designing an environment and what factors are important and considered.

Reading the Brink developer diary, the use of colour helps contrast areas of the game between the two warring factions. As the player progresses through the story and enter a new environment, the atmosphere, colour palette and lightning conditions helps the player to understand or wonder about what the story is about and triggering certain emotions, leading the player into the next chapter or event changes, etc.
Ark Security launching an assault on resistance turf. Clearly indicated by colourscheme and theme

It is important that the environment tells a story through details. For example graffiti on the wall or wreckages with certain objects nearby to show that something has happened there before hand, etc.
With Brink, they intended to tell the story with cinematic sequences as well but I personally found the story telling to be very weak. I didn’t follow the story at all with the cinematic, nor was I immersed with environment as much as I usually would. I was however still visually pleased with most aspects of the game’s environments and surroundings.
Left 4 Dead. The safe rooms of each stage show that there are other survivors, showing their stuggles, personalities and adding to the overall atmosphere of the game.

Silent Hill also had their own way of telling a story of a character, which could also be related to the environment. Too much unimportant character details can divert the player’s eyes from the detail that should be noticed. Too much unnecessary detail in an environment can confuse the player or take away a certain feel if detail is lazily and randomly placed or even take away the believability of the game world.

Goldeneye N64. Facility stairwell leading to the toilets
A character can be easily recognisable with even the slightest detail and can tell a story about that character. The same could be applied to environments. The most memorable characters for me are those that aren’t swarmed with lots of little random details and have a clear silhouette such as Cloud Strife and his Large sword and spikey hair, I can recognise all the stages from Goldeneye 64, with very little detail but easily recognisable areas.
Not to say that designs with a lot of random unimportant detail are completely unrecognisable and shouldn’t be done cos it’s bad, I have found a lot of cluttered surroundings very enjoyable to explore and can still show a story. Something just as equally awesome could be done with very little detail.

I also looked into the reasons of what I personally like and find interesting within environments. I find it is very important that the environment fits with the theme of the game and the available actions to the player and how they can interact with the world. A good environment should give clear indications as to what the player can and can’t do. This could be because certain thing has happened in the game such as such and thus fitting with the theme.
Monster Hunter. Shows ambient life within the background that is inaccessable due to the river acting as a barrier. Monster roars and ambient noises can be heard in the background, indicating activity close by but unreachable. This shows that there is a much larger world than just the area you are in (and really makes me want to make me explore explore it!)
An environment reinforcing the role or background of the character, etc. could also give the player a sort of link between the characters and their world. Many games that I enjoy have areas that make me feel like there is a bigger world than there is in the box you are confined in, wanting more (to the point I will try to find a way out or even try to glitch the game and break maps :P).
In Halo ODST, there was one part in the game where you see dead Elites, killed by the Covenant. This indicates that there is an internal war that players don’t see throughout the game, but is known throughout the events of Halo 2 and 3, giving that pleasant easter egg and giving the player some emotional connection to the main Halo series. This gives an indication that there is more happening within the game world than the part you are playing.

A good example of taking away the believability of a gameworld was also from Halo ODST. In previous installments of the game, humans were never able to wield weapons such as the heavy melee weapons like the gravity hammar no matter how hard you tried to make them hold it. In ODST the player is able to wield the gravity hammer just as effectively as the Masterchief and his super human strentgh. Anotehr example would be the player, as an ODST able to regenreate his 'shield' by not taking further damage and waiting. Granted he can't recover his actual health, but humans within the past istallments weren't able to do this.

There is more to designing environments than just making it look cool. It must show many other things that are important. Here are some important key factors that I will be referring to as a sort of guideline for my designing process:
-The environment telling the player a story through important details within the scenes.
-Must be interesting and believable to the game world.
-Shows that there is more to the game universe than what the player is actually able to do, reinforcing the background and theme of the game world.
-Give clear indications with what the player can do and what it can interact with.
-As the player advances throughout the game, the environment should provide a narrative. Guiding and telling the player a story as they progress.
-Letting the player get a feel of what has happened without having to be there to witness it
-Must keep the player engaged and not break the believability of the game world.

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