Monday, April 14, 2014


I'd originally intended my last post on virtual verticality as the introduction to some musings on the scarcity of strange environments in computer games, but I ended up rambling about Homeworld again. So it goes.
In any case, the very condensed list of industry-approved settings for computer games (warehouses, vaguely medieval towns, prairies) reflect not only the industry's limited imagination, but its ethnocentrism. The vast majority of game designers are city-dwellers hailing from temperate climes (whether it's Vancouver, Oslo or Seoul) and their creations reflect their own bias. We're quite comfortable with the image of a glacial lake but we can't imagine our characters traversing a small cenote. We're familiar with the notion of a hill fort, but we never get to see such forts atop isolated tepuis. We're quite at home imagining our vampires bouncing around fire escapes in New York, but not across the terraces and rooftops of Marrakesh.

Exotic locales have diminished as computer games became standardized. Before Skyrim and Cyrodiil, the Elder Scrolls series made a name for itself by throwing the player into scenic Vvardenfell province, composed of alien features like muck farming, egg mines, silt striders and netch overlaid with an entire culture clash inspired by European imperialism in the far east (complete with an "East Empire Company" and opium-trading in the form of skooma.) Before Dragon Age's standardized medievalism and prayers unto the Maker came Planescape: Torment's trash warrens and D&D's alignment-based cosmology.
But these were always outliers. Games for the most part have and will adhere to the same all-purpose tropes. Vaguely medieval (or if modern, militaristic) societies, temperate lowland environments, urban industrial or castle-centered settings. Some of these elements have become so predictable that we've long ago stopped noticing how utterly nonsensical they are, as the famous crate review system demonstrated long ago. Aliens in SciFi games just as in SciFi movies are almost always little green men or orcs with lazorz.

Game designers certainly seem to have some nagging feeling of their own lack of imagination even as they pump out more and more copy-pasted warehouse and castle adventures. Occasionally they do make some half-hearted attempt to diverge from their own norms, as a condescending concession to the starved specter of creativity. And when they try, whether through reticence, lack of practice or lack of research, they always fall short.

For these examples I'm gong to do something I don't often do and praise LotRO, at least a little bit. Despite the game's many flaws, it's always benefited from inspired map/world design, and when it came to extreme environments, the designers have shown they are at least aware of what the right choices would be.. even while making the wrong ones.

Let's start with caves.
Likely the most common "alien" environment thanks to D(ungeons)&D's influence and the convenience of enclosed spaces which eliminate the need for backgrounds, caves most often look entirely too artificial. For one thing, they're always flat. Ignoring tidal caves and lava tubes, this is very unnatural, as most are formed by the flow of water. Caves are not subway tunnels. They should be uneven, uncomfortably narrow with sudden expanses of empty (or not) reservoirs. They should be jagged, meandering and uncomfortably claustrophobic. Strangely enough, the long-dead City of Heroes got all this quite right while still keeping its narrowest spelunking nightmares playable.

Another issue is the lack of cave fauna. Despite Tolkien's inspired portrayal of Gollum's troglodytic devolution, this is one feature which game designers seem reluctant to expand on, never bothering to create new creature types for underground adventures. Again it's a virtual world which provides a positive exception. While I endlessly deride and vilify LotRO's take on Moria (and in terms of cave terrain it fell flat) the Water-Works zone was filled with troglobite takes on various creature types. It wasn't much, but at least they took the time to re-skin various mobs to suggest subterranean adaptation: more reptiles, amphibians and creepy-crawlies, fewer mammals, some examples of atrophied eyes or lack of pigmentation, giant axolotls instead of regular giant salamanders... it was at least  something, damnit.

And what about deserts, oceans and polar regions?
Many game worlds make use of the exotic imagery of desert locales as a backdrop, especially when flying carpets are involved, but few dare to make use of these as playable areas. Kudos to TSW for the clutter of al-Merayah, small as it is.

To some extent, this makes sense. Barren landscapes are barren. They're dull, by themselves. Whether it's a desert of sand, of waves or of snow, it just doesn't fill the screen in the way an immersive interactive experience should. I see two main ways to make use of such environments despite this.
For one, LotRO's Forochel zone exemplifies the main requirement which gives emptiness a presence: make it BIG ! Trudging through the trackless northern wastes can make reaching a hot spring, a cave, a vilage or the edge of the taiga that much more noticeable. Players always complained about Forochel's size and all the running about they had to do but as the anecdote goes "the journey is part of the gift." A good persistent world makes you feel small.
By comparison, the problem with most games' implementation of deserts is that they're never big enough to notice. Players are never allowed to stop, look around and realize "wow... I'm in the middle of freakin nowhere" so the choice of tan instead of green for ground color doesn't amount to much. Take Planetside 2's Indar continent for instance. Though aesthetically it could easily fit the bill, the overly-rapid pacing of the game, the lack of any practical (traction, temperature) repercussions for different terrains and the fact that there's always a military base within sight range renders those lovely wasteland renders irrelevant.

Older games like Fallout made much better use of such environments, but this was seen more as an unfortunate side-effect of technological limitations in portraying "busier" environments than a real choice. If the video cards of the time couldn't render trees at more than 0.3 frames per second, you may as well choose a desert for your game's setting. Still, I must admit I miss the old experience of tromping through a couple miles of flat terrain in Mechwarrior 2: Mercenaries and finally seeing my objective jutting up from of the horizon. Ridiculous, yet oddly immersive at the same time.

Games set in outer space best exemplify this issue and also that of physics.
In terms of emptiness, well... empty space is empty. In order to make it interesting, game designers always go entirely overboard, slathering that "space" with colorful nebulae, never letting you get far from a planet, condensing asteroid fields until they look like gravel driveways, etc. Unfortunately this again ignores the necessity for contrast. The emptiness of space itself makes the few objects you find that much more important. A good virtual world makes you feel small, and one of the best features of games like EVE or Homeworld was always zooming out, and out... and out... until your mighty warship shrank to a tiny figure.. and out, until it shrank to an insignificant point lost in that immensity of star-dotted night "out here in the black" as Firefly jargon put it.

An oasis in the desert, the edge of the taiga in the tundra, a port in a storm, a planet in space... it is the sand, the ice, the sea, the black, it's contrast that lends them their poignancy. Don't just tell me this chapter of the game is set at a desert oasis. Show me! Make me cross the desert before getting there. Make me feel that grit.
Another point is that a game's physics engine and its environmental effects must be adaptable enough to make you feel that alien environment. Space makes this concept the easiest to grasp, because our mind jumps to zero-g, yet most games set in space ignore physics almost entirely, with maximum speeds and ups and downs just like our monkey brain expects. However, this is not just an issue with space. Walking in snow should feel different from walking on grassy soil. An arctic chill or a scorching desert sun should have some impact on your character. The rocking of the waves should interfere with your maneuvering at sea. All these little details would go a long way toward making these otherwise "empty" environments much, much less dull in themselves, and likely make you want to reach port all the more. Contrast, again, is key.

I won't get into some of the weirder ideas for game settings. We could have pretty much anything... deep-sea volcanic vents? Entire games set in an ocean perpetually in storm? Jagged mountain ranges among which we could flit from peak to peak like condors? Exaggerated tides covering and uncovering parts of a map?
If you'd like to see creativity in action, here is a case-in-point. The short-lived Insects Infestation mod for Half-Life 2 featured a map called "Dead Cow." Yes, you fought inside the rotting carcass of a cow.

So don't even try to tell me you can't think of any better game map than a box-filled warehouse. Play Dead Cow, then we'll talk.

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