The Environmental Dimension
The environmental dimension describes the world's appearance and its atmosphere. You've seen that the physical dimension defines the properties of the game's space; the environmental dimension is about what's in that space. The environmental characteristics of the game world form the basis for creating its art and audio. We'll look at two particular properties: the cultural context of the world and the physical surroundings.
The cultural context of a game refers to its culture in the anthropological sense: the beliefs, attitudes, and values that the people in the game world hold, as well as their political and religious institutions, social organization, and so on—in short, the way those people live. These characteristics are reflected in the manufactured items that appear in the game: clothing, furniture, architecture, landscaping, and every other man-made object in the world. The culture influences not only what appears and what doesn't appear (a game set in a realistic ancient Egypt obviously shouldn't include firearms), but also how everything looks—including the user interface. Cleopatra: Queen of the Nile is an excellent example of a game's culture harmonizing with its user interface; see Figure 4.8. The way objects appear is affected not only by their function in the world, but also by the aesthetic sensibilities of the people who constructed them; for example, a Maori shield looks entirely different from a medieval European shield.
The cultural context also includes the game's backstory. The backstory of a game is the imaginary history, either large-scale (nations, wars, natural disasters) or small - scale (personal events and interactions), that preceded the time when the game takes place. This prior history helps to establish why the culture is the way it is. A warlike people should have a history of warfare; a mercantile people should have a history of trading. In designing the backstory, don't go into too much depth too early, however. As Chapter 3, "Game Concepts," warned, the story must serve the game, not the other way around.
For most game worlds, it's not necessary to define the culture or cultures in great detail. A game set in your own culture can simply use the things that you see around you. The SimCity series, for example, is clearly set in present-day America (European cities are rarely so rectilinear), and it looks like it. But when your game begins to deviate from your own culture, you need to start thinking about how it deviates and what consequences that deviation has.
The physical surroundings define what the game actually looks like. This is a part of game design in which it's most helpful to be an artist or to work closely with one. In the early stages of design, you don't need to make drawings of every single thing that can appear in the game world (although sooner or later someone will to have to do just that). For the time being, it's important to create concept sketches: pencil or pen-and-ink drawings of key visual elements in the game. Depending on what your game is about, this can include buildings, vehicles, clothing, weaponry, furniture, decorations, works of art, jewelry, religious or magical items, logos or emblems, and on and on. See Grim Fandango (Figure 4.9) for a particularly distinctive example. The game's culture influences constructed artifacts in particular. A powerful and highly religious people are likely to have large symbols of their spirituality: stone temples or cathedrals. A warlike nomadic people have animals or vehicles to carry their gear and weapons they can use on the move. (Note that these might be future nomads, driving robo-camels.)
Nor should you neglect the natural world. Games set in urban or indoor environments consisting entirely of manufactured objects feel sterile. Think about birds and animals, plants and trees, earth, rocks, hills, and even the sky. Consider the climate: Is it hot or cold, wet or dry? Is the land fertile or barren, flat or mountainous? These qualities, all parts of a real place, are opportunities to create a visually rich and distinctive environment.
If your world is chiefly indoors, of course, you don't have to think about nature much unless your character passes a window, but there are many other issues to think about instead. Where does the light come from? What are the walls, floors, and ceilings made of, and how are they decorated? Why is this building here? Do the rooms have a specific purpose, and if so, what? How can you tell the purpose of a room from its contents? Does the building have multiple stories? How does the player get from one floor to another?
Physical surroundings include sounds as well as sights: music; ambient environmental sounds; the particular noises made by people, animals, machinery, and vehicles. If you think about the sounds things make at the same time that you think about how they look, this helps you create a coherent world. Suppose you're inventing a six-legged reptilian saddle animal with clawed feet rather than hooves. How does that creature sound as it moves? Its scales might rattle a bit. Its feet are not going to make the characteristic cilp-clop sound of a shod horse. With six legs, it will probably have some rather odd gaits, and those should be reflected in the sound it makes.
The physical surroundings play a big role in setting the tone and mood of the game as it is played, whether it's the lighthearted cheerfulness of Mario or the gritty realities of the Godfather series (see Figure 4.10). The sound, and especially the music, will contribute greatly to this. Think hard about the kind of music you want, and consider what genres will be appropriate. Stanley Kubrick listened to hundreds of records to select the music for 2001: A Space Odyssey, and he astonished the world with his choice of "The Blue Danube" for the shuttle docking sequence. You have a similar opportunity when you design your game.
Every designer must decide how much detail the game world needs—that is to say, how richly textured the world will be and how accurately modeled its characteristics will be. To some extent, your answer will be determined by the level of realism that you want, but technical limitations and time constraints will necessarily restrict your ambitions. No football game goes to the extent of modeling each fan in the stadium, and few flight simulators model all the physical characteristics of their aircraft. Detail helps to support the fantasy, but it always costs, in development time and in memory or disk space on the player's machine. In an adventure game, it should, in principle, be possible to pick up everything in the world; in practice, this just isn't practical. As a consequence, the player knows that if he can pick up an object, it must be important for some reason; if he can't pick it up, it isn't important. Similarly, in god games, it's common for all the people to look alike; they're often male adults. Bullfrog Productions once designed a god game with both male and female adults, but there wasn't enough time for the artists to model children as well. People simply were born into the world full grown. Lionhead's Black & White, on the other hand, managed to include men, women, and children.
The camera model you choose, and the way that the player moves through the world, may influence your decisions about the level of detail. For example, in a small stadium such as the Wimbledon tennis courts, the athletes may be conscious of specific people in the crowd, so it makes sense to model them in some detail. In motorsports, however, the spectators will flash past in a blur, and there's no point in putting much effort into their appearance.
Here's a good rule of thumb for determining the level of detail your game will contain: Include as much detail as you can to help the game's immersiveness, up to the point at which it begins to harm the gameplay. If the player must struggle to look after everything you've given him, the game probably has too much detail. (This is one of the reasons war games tend to have hundreds rather than hundreds of thousands of units. The player in a war game can't delegate tasks to intelligent subordinates, so the numbers have to be kept down to a size that he can reasonably manage.) A spectacularly detailed game that's no fun to play doesn't sell many copies.
In describing how your world is going to look, you are defining a visual style for your game that will influence a great many other things as well: the character design, the user interface, perhaps the manual, and even the design of the box and the advertising. You actually have two tasks to take on here: defining the style of things in your world (that is, its intrinsic style), and also defining the style of the artwork that will depict your world. They aren't the same. For example, you can describe a world whose architectural style is inspired by Buddhist temples but draw it to look like a film noir movie. Or you could have medieval towns with half-timbered houses but depict them in a slightly fuzzy, Impressionistic style. You must choose both your content and the way in which you will present that content.
Both decisions will significantly influence the player's experience of the game, jointly creating a distinct atmosphere. In general, the style of depiction tends to superimpose its mood on the style of the object depicted. For example, a Greek temple might be architecturally elegant, but if its style of drawing suggests a Looney Tunes cartoon, players will expect something wacky and outrageous to take place there. The drawing style imposes its own atmosphere over the temple, no matter how majestic it is. For one example, take a look at Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm (see Figure 4.11). All the locations in Naruto are rendered in a flat-shaded style reminiscent of the comic book that inspired the game.
Unless you're the lead artist for your game as well as its designer, you probably shouldn't—or won't be allowed to—define the style by yourself. Your art team will have ideas of its own, and you should listen to those suggestions. The marketing department might insist on having a say as well. It's important, however, that you try to keep the style harmonious and consistent throughout your game. Too many games have been published in which different sections had wildly differing art styles because no one held and enforced a single overall vision.
All too often, games borrow settings from one another or from common settings found in the movies, books, or television. A huge number of games are set in science fiction and fantasy worlds, especially the quasi-medieval, sword-and-sorcery fantasy inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons, popular with the young people who used to be the primary—indeed, almost the only—market for computer games. But a more diverse audience plays games nowadays, and they want new worlds to play in. You should look beyond these hoary old staples of gaming. As Chapter 3 mentioned, Interstate '76 is inspired by 1970s TV shows. It includes cars, clothing, music, and language from that era, all highly distinctive and evocative of a particular culture. Interstate '76 has great gameplay, but what really sets it apart from its competitors is that it looks and sounds like nothing else on the market.
Especially if you are going to do science fiction or fantasy, try to make your game's setting distinctively different. At present, real spacecraft built by the United States or Russia look extremely functional, just as the first cars did in the 1880s, and the spacecraft in computer games tend to look that way also. But as cars became more common, they began exhibiting stylistic variation to appeal to different kinds of people, and now there is a whole school of aesthetics for automotive design. As spacecraft become more common, and especially as we start to see personal spacecraft, we should expect them to exhibit stylistic variation as well. This is an area in which you have tremendous freedom to innovate.
The same goes for fantasy. Forget the same old elves, dwarves, wizards, and dragons (Figure 4.12). Look to other cultures for your heroes and villains. Right now about the only non-Western culture portrayed with any frequency in games is Japanese (feudal, present-day, and future) because the Japanese make a lot of games and their style has found some acceptance in the West as well. But there are many more sources of inspiration around the world, most untapped. Around AD 1200, while the rulers of Europe were still holed up in cramped, drafty castles, Islamic culture reached a pinnacle of grace and elegance, building magnificent palaces filled with the riches of the Orient and majestic mosques of inlaid stone. Yet this proud and beautiful civilization seldom appears in computer games because Western game designers haven't bothered to learn about it or don't even know it existed. Set your fantasy in Valhalla, in Russia under Peter the Great, in the arctic tundra, at Angkor Wat, at Easter Island, or at Machu Picchu.
Art and architecture, history and anthropology, literature and religion, clothing fashions, and product design are all great sources of cultural material. Artistic and architectural movements, in particular, offer tremendous riches: Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Palladian, Brutalism. If you haven't heard of one of these, go look it up now. Browse the web or the art, architecture, and design sections of the bookstore or the public library for pictures of interesting objects, buildings, and clothing. Carry a digital camera around and take pictures of things that attract your eye, then post the pictures around your workspace to inspire yourself and your coworkers. Collect
graphic scrap from anywhere that you find it. Try old copies of National Geographic. Visit museums of art, design, and natural history if you can get to them; one of the greatest resources of all is travel, if you can afford it. A good game designer is always on the lookout for new ideas, even when he's ostensibly on vacation.
It's tempting to borrow from our closest visual neighbor, the movies, because the moviemakers have already done the visual design work for us. Blade Runner introduced the decaying urban future; Alien gave us disgustingly biological aliens rather than little green men. The problem with these looks is that they've already been borrowed many, many times. You can use them as a quick-and-dirty backdrop if you don't want to put much effort into developing your world, and players will instantly recognize the world and know what the game is about. But to stand out from the crowd, consider other genres. Film noir, the Marx Brothers, John Wayne westerns, war movies from the World War II era, costume dramas of all periods— from the silliness of One Million Years B. C. to the Regency elegance of Pride and Prejudice, they're all grist for the mill.
Television goes through its own distinct phases, and because it's even more fashion-driven than the movies, it is ripe for parody. The comedies of the 1950s and 1960s and the nighttime soaps of the 1970s and 1980s all had characteristic looks that seem laughable today but that are immediately familiar to most adult Americans. This is not without risk; if you make explicit references to American popular culture, non-Americans and children might not get the references. If your gameplay is good enough, though, it shouldn't matter.