The New York skyline, The Grand Canyon, Mt Fuji, The Alps, The Acropolis, Cueva de los Cristales, The undergrowth of The Amazon Rainforest, Delphi (or the mountain path that leads to it!), the Tomb of Tutankhamun.
What do these places have in common? They are stunning to experience. More than that they are exciting – sheer drops, cliff-faces, dangerous dark passages, precarious paths nature or architecture it its most brutal and constricting it is often at its most beautiful. This places excite the senses, spark the imagination, leave us with a sense of wonder. It follows that these are the most exciting settings for games too, right?
Well, no, not really. Not at all, to be honest, the opposite tends to be the case. These sorts of locations are probably the most common in games, for obvious reasons. A restrictive environment that channels the player through a certain path but is still beautiful has always been the ideal choice for games designers. We’ve seen these sorts of settings time and time again – narrow passages, precarious mountain paths. Apart from when they are really, REALLY pretty (see Uncharted 2) these settings no longer excite us. A good explanation would be that this is just because they are so common gotten used to pyramids and cliffs and tiny, ornate passages. They were fun the first time but now? We focus on whatever is meant to be going ON in these locations (normally dealing with whatever is trying to kill us – and generally killing it back). I have another explanation for why these settings are so impressive in real life – and in film, yet not in games.
What is probably the most lauded, celebrated and fawned over view in gaming? What setting has caught the imagination more than any other? The classic example is Half-Life’s Black Mesa, this setting is the most famously successful in history for the depth of its interaction, but in terms of a single view, that has captured gamers’ imaginations, there is another answer. In my experience of gaming, or more, games journalism and observing friends playing games, there’s only one really stands out:
That moment when you step out of the sewers and you are confronted with that view was probably more responsible for inflated review scores than any other part of the game. Of all the people I’ve seen play it the first time and all the reviews I’ve read, that one moment always seems to have the same effect: wonder. The lake, the rolling green hills, the forest, and, in the distance (far away) those mountain tops. They gasp, then they turn left, then right, and see more rolling hills. Nothing is stopping them from running in any direction, leaping into the water and just discovering this beautiful world. If that moment of Oblivion, that view brings one thing to mind, its possibility. The endless possibilities, all around you. Why is that moment so singular and why do gamers not bat an eyelid at vistas that would set the brain alight if confronted in real life?
Games aren’t real life and real life isn’t a computer game. In life we are used to a mundane world, moving from whatever place to whatever place as we see fit – when we are confronted with the monstrous majesty of nature we are awestruck. It takes us out of our world of small rooms and normal paths and introduces us to something we cannot even comprehend the size of. And the confines of catacombs and the heavily forested, this is the other extreme, tight, intimate places like a little world of their own. Games aren’t about looking at pretty things, they are about interaction, they are toys to play with, situations to manipulate, they are tasks and challenges, puzzles, plasticine and a playmate. In purely game terms (not the only paradigm that matters but the one our attention is mostly fixed on when we play games) the corridor-spaces of the Peloponnese mountain path and the actual corridor of an office block are qualitatively identical (unless the game has a don’t fall off the cliff mechanic). If in a game such as Grand Theft Auto 4 you drive past a huge, brilliant black Sky-Scraper you probably won’t notice it. Maybe if you were in a helicopter you’d stop and consider it slightly less than if you’d seen a photo of the building (then at least it’d be real, but in games we know we are just seeing the image of a skyscraper, we are trained to know its an obsticle with no inside, no reality. It’s big and its in my way, I’ll fly pats it and admire the sun as it shines of its windows). However, if, when standing on a neighbouring rooftop we are tasked with infiltrating the building by any means necessary in the parkour inspired Mirrors Edge, suddenly it is exciting again. Now the skyline is made of ledges and ducts and ventilation shafts, windows and doorways. We are like Bruce Willis in Die Hard – we see the building as an dazzling list of opportunities, different break ins. If as it happens we discover there is only one way in it matters not – we were still excited by finding out how. In a video game everything is interesting by its field of opportunity – a boss monster is scary mainly because we know it is far more likely to kill us than a normal enemy. The corridor-space of the mountain path becomes a tactical playing field, we anticipate how to use it, a single enemy is not exciting unless he can flank us, or shield himself, or perhaps we need to get a headshot or a disarming shot – the field of opportunity may simply be in who shoots first (and who wins), but that is still where our interest is fixed. Not to say a beautiful backdrop is not important – of course it is. But far less than in a scene of a film, where the visual is paramount (though normally plays a supporting role for the plot). What is important is the field of opportunity, and if the setting is a part of that – if, as in Oblivion’s Cyrodiil, or Zelda’s Hyrule Field, the setting IS the field of opportunity itself, then we are engaging with our setting on the most vital, game level.
Most of my blogs could wrap things up by concluding Shadow of The Colossus is the best game ever and this one is no exception. Yes it has the Cyrodiil-like huge open expanse, but in this case that is not where our attention is fixed. We always have a target, and that target is the next Colossus. We know what direction he is in. And when we are confronted with the Colossus, a giant, building-sized monster ready to stop us flat if we agitate it – and we mean to stab it to death with our sword, we feel terror, excitement; all of the right emotions. Metal Gear Solid 2 has a strange section at its finish where the player has to destroy around a dozen identical Colossus-sized nuclear missile armed robots. It is undoubtably the least exciting battle in the entire game – we are given a rocket launcher that can definitely destroy any of them, all we have to do is aim it at one of the three weak points on each of the giant robots and fire. The range of opportunity is three – kneecap, kneecap or mouth. In Shadow of The Colossus we have the polar opposite, when we step up to face those giant monsters the monstrous size of the task is everything – we have to climb its very body, somehow find its weak spot and stab at it with our sword. Oblivion gives us province to explore, Shadow Of The Colossus gives us a mountain to climb – a mountain that is going to try and shake us off and flatten us at every oppertunity. Suddenly it feels exactly like we are about to confront a giant monster.
What do learn from this as designers? Let your players mess around with the environment! Let them find their own way, explore, climb on things and over things. That look we gave as Lara Croft all those years ago, when we walked into that huge underground cavern and we knew we had to somehow get out way to that opening – that is an engaging, exciting setting! Not that exploration is the only paradigm, if the setting is to be forbidding, then make the player be in serious danger if he stays from the path. If whatever you are trying to convey with your setting isn’t within the field of oppertunity (like claustrophobia/tight spaces – think of being terrified of headcrabs back in the vents in Half-Life, or THE DRAGONS in Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight), then you are operating in the tired old “might as well be making a film huh duh” realm and children will laugh at you, point, and say that a lot. Games have wonderful ways of engaging us, and if you aren’t sticking your games full of as many touches like this as possible then, well. You have a fun game with a dull setting.
Even if the setting is an Egyptian spacecraft lodged between crystal caves, a rainforest and a precarious moutain path with a mile drop into a pit of lava.