Environments make up the largest portion of the visual portion in any game, both on screen and in terms of the time and effort it takes a team to create them. Unfortunately, this sheer quantity means that where character models are scrutinised, a large proportion of the content that goes into the game world is taken for granted, even through the it’s this background content that has the largest impact on how the game looks. Character models are often continuous throughout the game, but areas are seldom visited more than once, meaning it would be impossible, not to mention impractical, to individually model every rock, tree or wall throughout an entire world. Luckily, by managing resources it’s possible to reuse assets, to create multiple environments on a larger scale, without multiplying the workload.
When designing the environments for a game, there’s two parts to keep in mind. On one hand, there’s how the environment actually looks – how it creates a believable backdrop for the game world, and how it sets the mood for whatever is happening. On the other hand, and equally important, is how the player will navigate through the level. These two aspects of game environments have to coexist: they’re both equally important, but sometimes run contradictory to each other, and often some compromises have to be made.
Buildings are generally not designed to be difficult to navigate – there are some rare exceptions, but there are only so many levels you can set in bank vaults or inside pyramids. Some levels will have to be set in places where logically, you should have no problem getting from A to B – or if you wanted, from A to C, D, or E. However, simply walking along a pavement to get to your next goal doesn’t make for a fun game, even if your character is getting shot at.
The simplest way to direct a player in the way you want them to go is to simply prevent them going anywhere else. Many linear games simply have one set path to follow, and the player progresses by solving puzzles or defeating enemies to move along that line. There’s nothing wrong with this, but if the design of the environment suggests that you should be able to go a different way but can’t, it breaks the immersion. For example, there may be walls that you should be able to climb, water that the characters spontaneously drowns in, or even an invisible barrier.
What you’ve created has to be functional within the game engine and the mechanics, which can be anything from puzzles to platforming to combat. The features of the environment which enable these have to fit into the aesthetics, but at the same time need to be obvious. Simply telling the player what to do or where to go - for example with an ingame map or a marker above an objective - is reliable, but breaks immersion. It’s much better to integrate directions into the world itself, with signs or simply objects which it is logical for the player to try to use. However, you then need to give interactive objects consistency; for instance, the player won’t think to kick down a door without prompting unless it’s already been shown that they can break certain objects. There also needs to be a visual clue that the door is one of those objects – this is where aesthetics and mechanics intersect.
The need to guide players through the game world applies to both linear gameplay and open world, with the latter being used more locally; the player chooses the order in which they follow the paths, but in the long run they still take the same route through individual sections of the game. Open world games generally include areas that are more realistic in the way they are laid out, such as in towns, as unlike the more linear sections, they aren’t supposed to be an obstacle course.
Often in game levels you are prevented from backtracking by a one-way obstacle – for example a ledge that you can’t climb back up, or a door that only opens from one side. Most often, this is used to trap you in an area with enemies, but is also sometimes used as a transition between different loading areas, in which case a cut-scene might be used to explain why you can’t go back.
The same technique can be used in reverse to improve pacing. In Skyrim, dungeons usually double back on themselves, putting the boss room near the exit, but with a one-way obstacle forcing you to take the long way around the first time. This means the player avoids having to run all the way back through the dungeon to get out again. Assassin’s creed uses this in yet another way; once you progress far enough in a platforming puzzle you unlock a new route up, so that if you fall down – and survive – you’re not forced to go through the entire puzzle again.
It’s essentially a save point; but built into the environment such as to be unobtrusive. It’s not that the player doesn’t know exactly why it’s there, but they don’t have to take themselves out of the environment by going to a load screen or even remembering to press a quicksave button. The more you can hide the fact that what you’re playing is a game, the easier it is to keep up the immersion.
Abrupt changes in scenery are often used to signify a change in objectives; for instance a transition between platforming and combat. Not that the environment itself can’t be the focus. Even if the majority of the game environment is simply a stage for something else, there’s nothing more inspiring than small moment where you turn a corner and emerge somewhere truly visually stunning. Players seek out those moments, and environment can tell a story just as well as the characters.
Sections of environment based on discovery also can provide useful breathing points. It’s all about pacing; if you want the main focus to be the environment, you have to time it so that those critical points of discovery coincide with a lull in combat. If the player is having to fight enemies, or is racing forward to complete the next part of a puzzle, they won’t notice what is around them.
There’s going to be players who take the straightforward route, who never see the game world from any perspective other than the path that leads most directly from A to B. There are also those players who are going to explore every corner of each level and scrutinise every texture. You can’t make the game environment perfect, there has to be a balance between quality and quantity.
Using assets that can be repeated and reused is the most logical method of creating a variety of areas efficiently. It’s also a way of keeping the design constant. That said, it’s important that different places are distinct enough, otherwise not only will the player notice it’s possible for them to get disorientated. It’s also best that there’s a large enough pool off assets to draw from that the player only notices them being reused if they’re looking for it. Going back to Skyrim as an example; it’s very obvious that all of the minor inns use exactly the same building, to the point where if it feels like you’re going back into the same building every time, and it detracts from the feeling of being in an immense and diverse world.
Even something as simple as lighting can greatly change the mood of the environment, and it doesn’t have to use more unique assets. Recolouring assets is also a way of adding variety, although it can be fairly obvious if not done sparingly.
Environments are probably my favourite aspect of games, and I have a soft spot for contrasting organic and inorganic forms. That is, I love games that feature a lot of plant life, especially when it’s combined with architectural structure. The environments are often the part that endears me to a game, and it’s the part I spend the most time admiring as I play.