Friday, 16 March 2012

Environment Design in Games

When creating a level you need a focus and a goal to work with. Let’s say you see your dog run away, he’s booted over the fence and is running off in the horizon. As you step outside to run after him you notice the entire neighbourhood has become over run by giant people-eating frogs.  Not 2 seconds later you see the dog pound county van drive past with your dog yelping out the barred window at the back of the van. So you have your focus, your precious dog who clearly loves you that much to run away while giant man-eating frogs appear, and your goal, go rescue your dog from the county pound before he gets put down amidst and amphibian take over.

You start at your house which I will call base. You have the county pound which I will call GOARU! To plan this level you have to take into account where it’s set, the features in this area and the enemies that appear in it. So we can have the first section as your street. The next section can be called side alley, we can then move onto main street and then so on with a few more streets leading to GOARU. I linear map would lead you straight where you need to go which is fine but some games studios like giving you the option of exploring while confusing yourself before you finally give up and restart. In the short version you’re given the focus and goal at the very start of the level before you are directed around the level by conveniently placed buildings and turned over cars. Also enemies tend to spawn in the areas that lead to the goal signalling you’re going the right way if you no such building or car exists.

The way a level is decorated can be done a number of ways but it all must fit the theme of the game. As mine is about a boy finding his dog during a frogoplyse then a generic American neighbourhood is what you would stick down. Nice pretty houses with their white picket fences and 2 people carrier cars parked side by side in the driveways. You’ll have the nice orange burnt over tone showing it’s almost sun-down which the few crumpled and burning houses fit nicely into as you just notice the smoke first before the horrifying damage.  As you enter different streets or alleys these lighting conditions would change and the general openness and style would change. For example in the alley way you would have a small cramped, confined area that is much darker, not quite so orange as it’s overcast by the surrounding houses. You would have cold, silver trash cans lined and a couple of screeching cats clinging onto the high fences as you run past. You might also have a little mini boss here. If you were to go out onto the main street you would have a much wider area to run about in. You could have a central park area where a lot of frogs would be frolicking in the local fountain with the orange over tone appearing here. You’d have much taller buildings, business buildings, little local shops all burning. You would have that one street that wouldn’t be blocked off but it would be placed on the other side of the park so you HAVE to fight those damned frogs!

Generally levels point you in the direction you need to go and may have a few little places you can skip around in till you get bored.

Now as for the atmosphere, we pretty much know what that is. The orange over tone of the whole thing and the burning buildings signal a spiral into darkness and chaos. Linking fears to darkness is a strong emotion most people feel and adding a tone that’s on the way to darkness but not quite there reflects are certain hope in the game. That hope being you, the hero that will defeat the dastardly frogs and rescue your ever so loyal dog.  Another atmospherical attribute invasion games like to put in is a sense of isolation. You haven’t seen another living person in a while, you start to think you are alone and only you can save everyone. You can put in a nice emotion jerking area where you meet another person but they do something so stupid your emotion just boil horribly and you go on a rampage of destruction.

I think there is always some sort of balance between keeping it stylised and realistic. Generally things that are stylised tend to be based on realistic objects anyway because, as a recurring theme in most other design areas, you need something to connect with in order to pull off the feel. As we have giant frogs in a real world you can get away with stylising it as of course the idea of the game isn’t real at all but you can connect with the little features of realism such as the American homes and neighbourhood layout. Don’t get me wrong though there are plenty of games that are completely realistic and have un-realistic storylines but I think it really depends on the nature of the story and the style of game you want to make.  For example we have frogs in this little creation of mine. You would make it realistic because it feels as though it as has this sort of comic book kids feel so you maybe something based on the cell shading would fit if better but say you replaced the frogs with zombies then you can go all out realistic because zombies are real. They may not be brain eating and grey but they certainly exist so creating a realistic environment would suit it more.

An example of an environment that I quite liked was in Resident Evil 5 in the village of Kijuju. Now I have a complete fear of zombies but what I thought was great about this environment was how well it represented a poverty stricken area. The way the houses and buildings were created reminded me so much of the townships I used to pass in South Africa and the way the colours just blended together like a dead earthy area made it all the more fitting. You had the areas you could explore but you also had the directional areas that pushed you further in the game.

Now the only thing that really threw me off and which quite frankly pissed me off was the addition of white enemies. I’m sorry you don’t see THAT many white people in a black township like that. I know there was a big argument about it when it was getting made that it was racist but how can it be racist when that’s what the country looks like!? As much as I loved the way the environment looked and felt like an actual township the atmosphere was completely broken when I saw that many white enemies. So although the design of the level was great the atmosphere wasn’t there and sense of realism wasn’t there. Sadly I don’t know who the level designer is and I’m not going to scare myself again to find out who did it but they know who they are. I’m giving you my evilest glare Mr Level Designer.

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