Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Digital Ground Beneath Your Feet

By C.T. Hutt

Look up. Now down. Look at the walls surrounding you or the landscape in the distance. Disregard the people and things and consider the space. If you were a stranger to the area you are in now, what would you think of it? Does it seem comfortable? Familiar? What was this space designed to do? Was it designed at all, or does it exist naturally?

The programmers who create environments are unsung heroes of the game development world. While we often overlook something as banal as the ceiling tiles in the head-crab-infested hospital in Half-Life 2, or the water stains on the walls of ruins in Fallout 3, these minute aspects of the gaming world add immeasurably to the experience of a given title. The environment of a game is a character unto itself and unlike many facets of the medium, I believe that environmental design has been one of the greatest successes in game development history.

Shadow of the Colossus stands alone as simply one of the finest games I’ve ever played. The opening credits set the story as one of love lost, and the desperate struggle of a young man to get it back, no matter what the cost to the world, or to his own spirit. After being handed the task of killing the mighty colossi that roam the lands, your character steps out onto a vast plane, devoid of any signs of human life save for some dusty ruins. Truly massive though the colossi are, it takes considerable time to locate them in the expansive world. During the search the player has ample time to take in the scene around them. Empty would be the best way to describe the land the developers created, as empty as a broken heart. With no other characters to interact with or enemies to fight, the profound solitude of the environment is overwhelming. It sets the scene perfectly for a game as sobering as it is beautiful. And the colossi are environments to themselves, walking, living landscapes.

The strange combination of futuristic technology and old-timey decor that surrounds a player in Bioshock is overshadowed with every step by the feeling of being underwater. Not comfortably underwater mind you, but suffocating. The environment of BioShock makes the player feel as though they are dragging out the last gasp of air in drowning lungs for hours. Everything, and I do mean everything, in the environment is affected by the water. The bolts in the walls look rusty and ready to snap, the woodwork is swollen or rotted through, and everywhere you look there are puddles of brackish seawater. All these things and more are none-too-subtle reminders that the ocean does not welcome intruders and that a watery death is only ever moments away. Even if you weren’t being stalked by mutated horrors and soulless abominations, the environment in BioShock is absolutely terrifying.

It doesn’t take a huge studio or a multi-million dollar budget to create an immersive and engaging environment. The expansive woodland in The Path by Tale of Tales is a stylized version of a few acres of pine you might find behind your house. Aside from the interactive aspects of the game what makes the environment in The Path truly interesting is its subtle enhancements to reality. The light streaming through the trees, the peculiar twists of branches, it all seems very common, very real, but at the same time enhanced, altered into something more than the everyday. It took me some time to identify the feeling, but after a while it came to me. The environment in The Path is like that of a memory, sharp as a razor here and there, but soft around the edges. For a game covering themes such as the pleasures and pitfalls of innocence lost I think this was an excellent aesthetic choice on the part of Tale of Tales.

While certain aspects of gaming have been slow to evolve (story, character development, etc.) the medium as a whole has produced some incredibly immersive environments. It makes sense: aside from interactivity the greatest difference between a video games and other art forms is the worlds they take us to. Many great directors over the years have been praised for using the settings of their films as characters. Think of Ang Lee’s long shots of rolling landscapes in Brokeback Mountain or Stanley Kubrick's careful, slow pans over bright, empty outer space in 2001. But a film can survive on good characters, a fine script, and an environment that doesn’t ruin the moment.

Perhaps what sets video games apart in this regard is that the player controls the shot, not the director. The environment needs to be so much more detailed, so much more fully realized, than that of a film, because the player will push the boundaries. They will try to get behind each fa├žade, jump off every cliff, and explore every corner. Through necessity, then, setting and environment in video games has become one of the greatest strengths of the artform: whether it is the colorful spheres of Super Mario Galaxy or the burned-out, corpse-riddled wasteland of Fallout 3, video games have done a fantastic job of building compelling worlds and environments.


1 comment:

  1. I agree. Environment is a key part that seems to be overlooked at times.

    Portal had a great environment, too. That's a good example of synthesizing narrative with its environment; everything you needed to know about what you were doing was given to you. No need for cutscenes or literature crammed in a locker.

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