by Sam Katovitch
Video games are, for the most part, about building worlds. These worlds can reflect our own, and many “realistic” games, such as racing games, exploration games, and combat games often do. They can superficially resemble our world, but operate on different principles, or different mechanics to lend them the edge of difference. Video games can also build worlds that never have or could have existed in our universe, with settings in the future, the past, different planets, or even alternate dimensions. Part of what makes these varied settings so immersive and engaging is the graphical and visual languages from which they are made, and the designers of these worlds work just as hard as any architects operating in the real world.
Making a game world takes a lot of work, and if a setting is good, it means a person or team of persons poured their blood, sweat, and tears into making it so. If a world is detailed, engaging, and most importantly believable, at least in the context of the game, it has that elusive quality that is the Holy Grail of video game designers – immersion. A game world that swallows up the player and lets them believe, if only for a second, that what they are doing is making a difference, has that all-important quality.
Conversely, badly-designed settings take a player out of the experience, and a good game that is hampered by a badly-designed or poorly-implemented world is the worst kind of bad experience, especially if the story on its own is engaging. Many independently made (aka “indie”) games suffer this problem, as many are very well written, but all the good writing in the world isn’t going to pay animators and designers enough to create a good world on a shoestring budget.
Video game settings are also very dependent on the player’s suspension of disbelief, and their standards. Games like Doom and Quake from the very earliest days of 3D looked great in comparison to 2D games of their day, but in the nearly 3 decades since those games came out video game technology has come a very long way.
Part of what makes video games so massively popular among mainstream media is their ability to create settings which could never existing in the real world. The architecture of these settings varies massively based on the genre and artistic preferences of the designers and the message they are trying to get across. The ancient, incomprehensible megastructures of Halo or Shadow of the Colossus create a sense of being a tiny, insignificant creature, wandering through the ruins of a once mighty, now fallen civilization; the towering, claustrophobic Gothic spires and ancient cathedrals from games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne contribute to a much more oppressive, deliberately angst-inducing environment. The small villages and bustling, human-scale cities of the Elder Scrolls games are a stark contrast to the cavernous tombs, dungeons, and bandit camps the player explores in the wilderness, and provide welcome moments of relief from dangerous adventures. The oppressive city of Dunwall in Dishonored, on the other hand, is as much an enemy and obstacle to the player as the corrupt city guards and swarms of carnivorous rats the game is known for.
With the growing video game industry came the burgeoning profession of video game environment designer. Designers of video game worlds may not be bound by strict building or zoning codes like designers in the real world, but they have an entirely different set of rules they have to abide by, as nothing breaks a video game’s immersion than bad level design. A video game world has to be just as well laid-out as a major civic or commercial building, because in many situations there will not be signs pointing the player’s way to the next objective. The wayfinding in virtual environments is crucial, since if a player gets frustrated and lost, they are as likely to turn off the game and go do something else as they are to keep pushing until they find the way forward. This does not necessarily mean the environments need to be simple – a great deal of skill is needed to create a game world where the paths are complex enough to challenge, but navigable enough to not frustrate players. On the low end of the complexity spectrum are games like the Call of Duty series, where the levels are linear and progress is restricted almost entirely to corridors so the players keep moving forward, thus allowing little to no exploration or player freedom, to allow greater focus on the game’s story. At the other end of the scale are puzzle games like Portal and The Talos Principle, which have more open-ended levels with the path forward cleverly disguised by puzzles and confusing layouts. There are players who prefer linearity, and those that prefer to find their own way through an environment, but players naturally gravitate to games with the kinds of environments they enjoy.
The worlds built by video game designers may not necessarily reflect our own, but a similar amount of care goes into creating an engaging environment in virtual space as it does in reality. Game designers may not be bound by the laws of gravity, but they are bound by the laws of player consciousness and understanding, and a game with a badly-realized world will soon be laden with negative reviews and critical panning. Thus, video game architecture has to be carefully laid out and curated so as not to take the player out of the experience and ruin their immersion, and most importantly, it has to be believable enough to serve the main point of video games in general – to be a break from the mundanity of everyday life, and a chance to escape into a world of fantastic scenes.
Bloodborne – Research Hall - https://bloodborne.wiki.fextralife.com/Research+Hall
The Talos Principle – Aqueduct - http://www.croteam.com/talosprinciple/
Dishonored – Dunwall Clocktower - https://dishonored.fandom.com/wiki/Clocktower
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Riverwood Village - https://en.uesp.net/wiki/Skyrim:Riverwood
Dark Souls 3 – Lothric Castle - https://darksouls.fandom.com/wiki/Lothric_Castle
Halo 3 – Portal at Voi - http://halo.bungie.net/projects/halo3/default.aspx
Sam has played all these games, but mostly just draws his own worlds now (he’s an architecture student, you know!)