1 September 2000
Videogame environments have become ever more graphically dazzling over the last five years, but we are only just beginning to see the first shoots of true maturity in their design. It has long been important, of course, to make environments look pleasing. The first two Tomb Raider games were artistically successful arguably more for their architecture than for their heroine: the real hook was the constant jolt to our sense of aesthetic wonder, induced by some of those rooms. The spatial and textural beauty of good videogame environments acts as a kind of reward system, motivating the player to try to reach the next architectural masterpiece.
But there is a lot of laziness in environment imagineering, too: a handful of visual templates, slavishly copied from cinema, get endlessly borrowed and reworked. Do we really need yet another H R Giger-style biomechanoid ship interior, all black-green ribbed curves and slime? Do we really need more stone-walled dungeons with sweating walls and naked-flame lighting?
Why such laziness and repetition? Well, certain visual styles automatically convey certain useful atmospheres. The visual cannot be divorced from the visceral.
Giger’s widely copied biomechanoid style, for instance, evokes modern man’s technological ambivalence. You are a biological organism (Joanna Dark, Jean-Luc Picard, Ripley) fighting the unnatural marriage of biology with machinery (the Skedar, the Borg, the Alien) – yet you have to use machinery, both the PC or console and the ingame weaponry, in order to accomplish your mission. This subtext contributes to the aesthetic style’s pleasing tension and paranoia.
Equally suggestive is another popular environment type: the warehouse. The idea of a warehouse represents the forces of global commercialism, with its stacked and packed industrial goods. Against such impersonal forces in the real world, an individual is helpless. In a videogame, however, you are decidedly not helpless: you are in full, immediate control of your destiny, even in the belly of the capitalist beast. The paradigm of the warehouse shoot-out, then, offers a neon-lit poetics of humanist power.
As well as such buried political messages, an environment style also incorporates a particular set of dynamic possibilities. You can texture your warehouse in moody gunmetal greys and bas-relief, and you can light it dramatically, but frankly a warehouse is still not that visually arresting a place. On the other hand, especially when it is full of rectilinear stacks of crates, it makes a great hunting and sneaking environment, as Metal Gear Solid and Perfect Dark shamelessly attest.
The dynamic logic of the space is crucial. In some games, indeed, the experience of prettiness forcibly vanishes after about five minutes. The gorgeous futuristic medievalism of Quake III, all vaulted stone arches and crazed rainbow lighting, for instance, is rapidly betrayed and made redundant by the speed of the game: stop to admire the view and you’re toast.
So environment designers already have to negotiate the three axes of visual beauty, atmospheric implication, and dynamic logic. Now, the power of next-gen consoles PCs offers two further fascinating possibilities.
First is the recreation of real spaces for the player to romp in. Metropolis Street Racer and The Getaway both promise accurately modelled sections of London, but there is no reason why it should stop at driving games. The crude examples of Tomb Raider II’s pseudo-Venice level, and TR3′s pseudo-London Underground environments, give only a hint of the drama to come. The Quake III engine has already been licensed by UNESCO to create a virtual tour of Notre Dame Cathedral. And the real world is a near-inexhaustible source of such beautiful spaces.
Importantly, this approach will be one way for designers to sidestep the tyranny of sci-fi cliché. The idea of stalking enemies around the Tate Modern gallery, or one of the astonishing new Jubilee Line stations at Westminster or Canary Wharf – these modern cathedrals of light – is infinitely more attractive than another bloody set of steel corridors. Certainly, aspects of real spaces will often need to be “tuned” to accommodate gameplay considerations. But in order to break moulds, designers ought also to attempt the process the other way round – choose a beautiful space, and imagine what kind of new gameplay opportunities it can host.
The other revolution in environments will be one of functionality. Traditionally, solid-looking environments have been rather stupid illusions. Textures slapped onto wireframe geometry don’t “know” how to behave, which has given rise to functional and causal incoherence. A rocket-launcher won’t harm a wooden door; an enemy won’t bounce off a wall but merely stick to it.
Now, I have spent many a happy if totally pointless half-hour in Goldeneye or Perfect Dark, having failed a mission objective, simply going around shooting out glass panes or spotlights. And as environment behaviour becomes more coherent, so that every light can be shot out, every weak door blown up, we as gameplayers will have an ever more persuasive sense of being free agents in the digital world. And as our freedom increases, of course, the political and moral dimensions of the gameplay can grow.
Dead or Alive 2 laudably allows you to smash your enemy through windows or throw her off ledges: strategic opportunities are thereby increased, as they bleed into the use of the space itself. The Geo-Mod engine of Volition’s upcoming FPS Red Faction may well be a seminal development here. Shooting a rocket-launcher into soft ground will make a trench that you can hop into for cover, eh? Outstanding.
Too often today, the experience of playing even a top-flight videogame is one of second-guessing the designers. At the moment, you consider an option – say, destroying the glass case around a switch with a grenade – and then you reflect: “No, that won’t work, because the gameworld doesn’t work that way.” The ideal is for you to be thinking: “No, that won’t work, because the *real world* doesn’t work that way.” Now that will be progress.