This month’s round table is all about relationships, so here I’ll focus on the enviroment and the relationships it has with players and characters.
If there is one thing no game lacks is enviroment, even at the beginning of gaming, with the likes of Pong and Asteroids, the enviroment was always there bringing the context and rules of the world. As the industry evolved new ways of interaction started to surface and the role of the enviroment started to gain depth. It started to mature. I would go as far as saying that nowdays it’s the one kind of relationship in games that we can truly say has improved over time.
The simplest and most analized part of this relationship is the level design, which always takes into account the character’s abilities. Having an impossibly large pit would pretty much prevent all players from advancing and would be considered game breaking. So all enviroments without exception are designed with the characters abilities in mind. Normally every single goal presented to the player is achievable if the relationship is straightforward like most games, but sometimes designers get creative and screw with players expectations to suprise them, so there’s no rule without exceptions (except this one…). Mechanics-wise the enviroment is there to present the fundamental rules of the particular game’s world. Within these rules, the player is free to experiment and interact as much as he pleases, learning in the process. So this new knowledge is then put to good use when it’s time to decide the next course of action. Of course there are some games that are so similar to others that the learning phase is almost missing, nevertheless it’s still there, because no game is exactly like any other (except if they use the same engine… but you get what I mean).
There’s much more to it though, the enviroment is not there to only bring challenges to the player and knowledge to learn, of course not. How bioshock would be like if everything was set in the middle of a generic space station? (Leaving every bit of level design intact). It would most certainly kill all the context* that pours out the crumbling rusted underwater art deco city. So context is a really a powerful feature that can tighten the relationship. Further more it is most often the single feature that distinguishes one game from another, since mechanics are copyed and refined with little differences from game to game.
Survival Horror games tend to rely heavily on the context to highten the relationship. There’s always some kind of limited field of view that brings uneasiness to the player in adittion to the rundown places and eerie music (or even better, disturbing silence). In this type of games sometimes the actual enviroment is out to kill the character with things like crumbling floors, moving statues and paranormal object behaviors. This can be thought of as a master-slave relationship where the player has to be on his toes at every moment if he wants to survive. Being a slave to the enviroment is a powerful experience that is really hard to pull off in other ways, but that doesn’t stop us designers from trying.
There is literaly too many different and interesting types of relationships in this industry and I’m afraid I haven’t even touched the surface (no, scratch that, I’m excited).
* Just to clarify, I’m using the word context here to refer to atmosphere, story and characters.
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