Saturday, 24 March 2012

Environment Project - The hard beginning

Designing an environment is something I always thought I would enjoy doing, I don't know why I've never come close to ever doing it before. Maybe I thought I would like doing it because I really like other people's environment art, I tend to find it really interesting, eye catching and fantastic. A good piece of environmental art can set the scene for the rest of the world and what you might expect to be going on in it.

However, now we have a project to design an environment and the people that inhabit it I feel abit 'rabbit in the headlights', I don't know where to begin!
I've tried sitting about and drumming up some ideas in my empty head but nothing seems to be very interesting or worthwhile pursuing. :-/ Hmm this is going to be harder than I thought.

First things first I guess, coming to grips with what environment design is and why it is so important.

I started by reading the various PDFs we had available and I must admit I found some of them rather hard to stick with. One I did find really interesting however was the "What happened here - story telling through environment" PDF. 

The in-game examples it used are all from games I've played it this made it easy to understand and relate what the writer was going on about. Before reading this I had a general idea of what 'environment' referred to but never really thought about it so deeply. While playing a game I often run through most of the level not paying much attention to the surroundings or thinking about what they might mean, but this is a good thing. If the environment has been designed well we don't need to think about things too much we instinctively read and understand what we are seeing. The example made of Bioshock demonstrates this well I think -

"Theres a lot of subtext and associations here.
-ATMs are associated with money and represent other people's savings
-Trashing an ATM (or stealing from it) is frowned upon by society
-Splicers represent social ideals gone wrong
-Water reminds us of Rapture's setting

While playing Bioshock I will have seen this scene and interacted with it but not sat and scrutinised it, it fits perfectly into the setting and story of Bioshock and I could instantly read the meaning of what had gone on. If the ATM had been something else, say a rock, I would have questioned the situation and it would have had a negative effect that detracts from the believability of the game.
This scene wasn't needed within the game but it was there as added effect, interest and a deepening of the immerse Bioshock world! Awesome.

What the PDF also pointed out and really made me think about was the idea of 'avoiding disconnects', again something I have never thought about, but upon reflection have often encountered within games.

"Here's another example that we really like a lot:

Somebody built a ramp in the sewer system and tried to play Evil Knievel.

But… can we play Evil Knievel?

What does this moment say about the game? Fallout 3 is a game heavy on traversal. Does this example remind us of things that we can't do, drive around the wasteland on a motorcycle?

Once again, the example is probably okay, because Fallout 3 never communicates the possibility of drivable vehicles elsewhere in the game, and the bike looks sufficiently broken."

I again agree with these statements, while playing Fallout 3 I noticed various broken vehicles around but never expected to at any point be able to use one. This allowed them to be there, creating a more believable world, while not irritating me as a player by not being able to use any of them.

A game I can think of which doesn't do this is Stalker. The game world is large with expansive zones of not much, requiring you to run quite long distances. The game had vehicles about but not that you could use and this annoyed me and distracted me from the game. I couldn't help but think it was all abit stupid that I have to run miles, often slowly due to heavy stuff,  thinking why couldn't I use a vehicle? It always felt abit wrong and irritating.

Other people must have thought the same because it wasn't long before people made a mod that allowed you to use vehicles to get about!

Populating a game with things that make it believable and interesting yet avoiding making us question what we can and can't do within the game must be difficult yet very important task.

So a well designed environment is an important part of the game that does alot more than just looking pretty! So I come to guidelines or rules for creating that all important environment:
 - The environment creates meaningful play by guiding the player through the level allowing or dening access to other areas.
-The environment communicates with the player, helping them to understand the purpose of an area.
- Communicates the boundaries of the game and expectations of what we can and cant do.
- The environment sets a scene which reinforces the identity of the player.
- The
environment should further the story as the player advances through the game, providing narrative context.
- The environment should provide the story for the game where the player can read, understand and assume what has happened without the need to be shown it.
- The environment needs to be compelling and interesting while at the same time believable and indicative of a larger world outside that of what the player sees.
- The environment should be immersive and avoid things that may disconnect the player from the believability of the game.


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