søndag 25. mars 2012

Environment design

As I am writing this, I am sitting outside in the sun with a gin and tonic. It is a sunny day, and we’re sitting in my friend’s driveway around his kitchen table, which we have moved outside. We’re all doing work on our laptops of some sort and anyone who sees us can see we are students. This is my environment right now. In our real world, environments can vary enormously just from one part of a city to another, not to mention across borders and continents, but in games, we tend to stick with environments with an overall theme that tie them together.

I would argue that often, the environment is perhaps the most important aspect of a game. A game would be very meaningless without an environment for the character to move around in, and while characters are important and interesting too, exploring an environment is the most important part of a game.

A game environment has four purposes, according to the “What happened here”-lecture.
1. To constrain and guide player movement trough physical properties and ecology (ecology: enemy and item placement)
2. To use player reference to communicate simulated boundaries and affordance
3. To reinforce and shape the player’s assumed identity while playing.
4. To provide narrative context.

In some games, you’ll be held up by NPCs lecturing you at length on the game world. This is boring and forgettable at best, annoying and frustrating at worst. It’s better to let the player partake in the world and then puzzle together the pieces themselves versus exposing the story; show, don’t tell, and this is why:

- It’s active. The player is invited to be curious about the world and discover the story, and they get to come to their own conclusion. Active participation leads to feeling investment in the game world.
- Each player is an unique person with their own unique views and experiences, which will lead players to interpreting differently. The interpretation then gains a personal flavour. The player fills in the gap and has space to imagine.
- The players get to pace the story themselves. They are pulling the narrative as opposed to chasing it, which makes the game more immersive and reinforching. They are making the story happen.

Just giving people visual clues for what has happened works because we are hard-wired to fit visual elements into a larger framework, making us draw conclusions. This is the law of closure at work. We can give the player visual clues trough object placement, and how NPCs behave and dress.
Every small storytelling event should echo the premise of the game at large, be a part of the large chain of events. This is a self-reinforcing loop; the premise spawns events, events remind the player of the premise.

Sometimes the message should be unmissable, though; you can use the environment to telegraph gameplay hints, so that the player may prepare for the hinted event. This makes the player feel clever and observant.

The environment should be all over consistent. Breaking the internal logic within the game universe ruins the believeability of the universe, destroying immersion.

With this in mind, I am now tasked to design an environment and a few characters to go in it. I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to do since the start of this project.

I want to design an open world game based on an old comic concept of mine. I’ve written a little for it and I have very little visually worked out, it’s just a concept and a story that has tumbled around in my head for a while.
I imagine the genre would be an action adventure game with focus on exploration, the sort of game where you run around taking on quests and solving everyone’s problems. I’d like to work towards current gen platforms like 360 and PS3.

The environment is a nordic one, with nordic-based fauna and flora. Tall, craggy mountains, fjords, pine forests, lakes. Being from Norway so there is plenty of first hand experiences for me to draw from.

The friendly characters you’d expect to find here are nomad tribes. I don’t want this to be some viking-thing because people would immediately think “Skyrim.” I want to research inuits, sami, mongols and russian nomad people for inspiration for how they look and dress. They would live in the low-lands and congregate around bodies of water.
The enemy characters you’d encounter would be mountain men wearing masks. I would want them to look strange and inhuman, if not entirely evil. They’d be predators hunting the cattle of the nomads and maybe the nomads themselves. They would be the most common in mountain areas and rarer in the low lands where the nomads live, creating a natural reason for the player to stay away from the mountain until he is ready.

I would want there to be flashy magic combat. I find that incredibly satisfying and cool, so I imagine the protagnist could be a sort of shaman character utilising nature-based magic, maybe some sort of animal spirit thing. In a lot of native beliefs you have this nature spirit thing so maybe actual animal spirits might be fun to feature in the game.
I would also want the character to be lithe because lithe, fast characters are fun to play.
For travel, I figure there should be some sort of mount so that you can travel longer distances without getting bored of travelling. Horses would be the obvious choice, but maybe they could ride big goats or reindeer or something. Choice of mount should be reflected in what kind of animals they herd as well, and what materials they dress in.

To the drawing board.

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