Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Environment Design

In a recent Escapist article, game journalist Shamus Young resented the rising cost of development due to money spent on graphics. It’s a view that, as a soon-to-be-jobhunting game artist, I shouldn’t support; that budget is the buoy keeping the employment of fresh game artists afloat. But I can’t help but agree with him – from a visual standpoint, fidelity is not the thing holding back gaming experiences. In fact, it’s becoming one of the obstacles preventing truly imaginative and enchanting game worlds from becoming realised.

Allow me to explain. People need problems. If they don’t have any, they make them… to keep themselves busy. It’s what we do, or else we’d probably still be hurling rocks at animals for dinner. If technology continually moves forward, artists face technical problems: how can I get the most out of this new graphics engine, this new hardware? But hold back the relentless advance of graphical fidelity, and the artists GIVE themselves new problems: stylisation problems, not technical ones. They say: “how can we make our current tech more visually effective? How can we make our levels interesting to look at and play in, not just technically impressive?” They innovate, not in spite of, but because nobody else is doing it for them.

This is exemplified by Shamus’ surprise that with all the new technical complications that come with a new engine, Crysis 2 developer Crytek has taken care to make something that’s stylistically pleasant to look at. All it took to stand out was some colour in the palette. It’s embarrassing that something as fundamental as this has become exceptional. But the developers which think beyond the fidelity problems tend to make the most memorable and enjoyable environments to play in.

This Baldur's Gate 2 level is unique - just like every other level
It will come as little surprise, then, that some of my favourite levels are from games long past their prime, forged in a time when developers weren’t making the same games as one another. I’ve mentioned before that I really adore the hand-painted isometric environments in Baldur’s Gate 2 (2001). One of the benefits of the 2D medium is that there is far less pressure to re-use assets and practically nothing stopping the artist from painting in unique details wherever they see fit. It becomes style-driven. This allowed for massive visual diversity and some really unique environments that made so many levels truly fantastic and magical.

Crooked, twisting trees claw skward from pestulent waters as
winged demons swarm in skies overhead. just lovely.
But in recent games development, competing on a fidelity level is only a distraction; it doesn’t prevent good and interesting environment design. Dante’s Inferno (2010) sports some great environment design. Although very linear, the sheer grandeur of the environments is extremely refreshing and something which could not be accomplished in a two-dimensional setup. Hellish landscapes stretch as far as the eye can see. The sense of scale is astonishing, making the player’s journey truly epic. These environments are populated with all sorts of nightmarish features: impaled corpses twitch on the player’s approach, walls of trapped souls scream and claw to escape, and plenty of set-piece animations really make the levels feel truly alive (in an “everybody’s dead” sort of way).

Lighting is used both to direct the player through the levels and to match the heavy-handed moods of each of the levels. Putrid greens reek of desperation, fiery reds evoke agonising pain, icy blues portray deceit; with a whole gamut of colours to match levels in-between. The game owes much of its inspiration from the source material, The Divine Comedy, but also from other accounts of hell in Christian literature. The benefit of these materials is that their authors were not bound by anything except their imagination, and further, only interpretation can transform them into something visual and real, so there’s plenty of opportunity to get creative, and that’s just what developer Visceral Games has done.

These references to visual impairment are as
ham-fisted as many developers' approach to
visual stylisation
So do I resent technological improvements in game graphics? Yes – I fear they are the blinkers on many developers, blinding their originality and preventing them from taking that step back from their pixel-perfect shaders to see the big picture: you’ve made another brown wall for your brown environment.

It has affected too many developers. But not all. And for those few that open their eyes enough to get it right, it’s worth the suffering.

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