The Last of Us is a memorable title for the most part because of the haunting atmosphere that the game is presented in. Assassin’s Creed is a firm favourite of many in large part due to its landscapes and buildings to climb upon. The Metro series’ popularity is entirely bound up in the its bleak, broken and terrifying world given to players to explore. The importance of good environmental design is often overlooked by the general gaming community and these titles are great examples. Some environments are warm and inviting, such as the woods of a Fable game or the country charm of Stardew Valley. Others are dark and brooding, but all are engaging and that is the key to crafting a world worth investing in. Many games however seem to treat their players like the zombies that they rely on to give their game some level of edge — ignoring the world in lieu of side quests and collectable feathers. See my previous article about my thoughts on that.
When I played the first Halo game, I felt uneasy that in the outdoor environments I could always see the ringworld expanding off into the distance and across the sky. I was on an alien world, a world that wanted me dead, regardless of how reminiscent at times to Earth it was. It is the little touches that when brought together with good gameplay make a great game. I want to stress that a bad game with a great environment is still a bad game, but that an environment that cultivates a desire to explore or to learn about it makes a game memorable. These are the games that excite me, that make me ask questions about where my character is or how the world got in this state. Upon entering the world of Bioshock I was intrigued to explore the world of Rapture, but this wasn’t the case in Watch Dogs II.
Sometimes good environmental design is necessary in order to make the world feel authentic. Take the example of 2015’s Alien: Isolation, which replicated the same look and feel of the first Alien movie very successfully and as a result slotted itself comfortably into that universe. The Xenomorph is menacing and a constant threat to you, but the world itself feels strange and old. The androids look “uncanny valley”, the consoles are archaic and falling apart whilst the space station creaks with many wounds. The place looks old and dying, which makes you as a player feel as unsafe as the alien does. This type of environment is mimicked in the Dead Space series. The environments are dark and falling apart, cold and uncaring to match the void outside the Ishimura. The ducts dotted about the place are waiting to burst open and reveal the monsters within, dark corners are teeming with the possibility of ambush. Likewise with Isolation, the world doesn’t ever give you a moment of feeling at peace and so makes the atmosphere all the more intimidating. The actual rushes of enemy movement or the reveal of the Xenomorph is somewhat of a relief, breaking the tension that would be otherwise omnipresent.
The Silent Hill series is often lauded for its good use of environment. The much discussed blessing in disguise that took shape in the fog that hid the poor rendering distance of the first games made for a lonely, isolated experience. A world where all the enemies on a random street in the town of Silent Hill were visible from the offset would be nowhere near as mysterious or terrifying. Silent Hill thrives due to its environmental design making the world seem familiar and yet otherworldly at the same time. The streets and shops, schools and hotels are empty and in states of disrepair, but look as if they are frozen in time, the marks of habitation firmly ingrained. As with many horror games, the terror of the Silent Hill series is not found in its monsters, but the world of Silent Hill itself. Exploring its dark and forgotten landscape is an uncomfortable experience that I will not soon forget.
When moving through the tenebrous world of Darkest Dungeon, I feel a certain level of dread about what I might next be faced with. Many laud the performance of narrator Wayne June, but it cannot be forgotten that the game’s art style is what truly embodies the game. The locations are dark and foreboding, similar to that of Silent Hill, overwhelming its players with images of past battles and minds lost to the ravages of foul creatures. In an industry filled to the brim with grey, brown and otherwise dull environments to explore, Darkest Dungeon instead painstakingly creates a world of foul colours and dark imagery that is both beautiful and haunting.
These are but a few of the games that are defined by their environments. The existence of these titles makes me wonder as to why many games in the industry seem to not put all that much effort into their gaming worlds. To me it is imperative that a game creates an environment in order to be a fulfilling experience, lest it become an experience simply flies by. The environments of games I have mentioned tell a story themselves, making an experience that exists beside the actual gameplay, making the enjoyment factor that much more rewarding. Even an online multiplayer shooter like Rising Storm 2: Vietnam is able to create a great atmosphere for its massive battles by recreating the sweltering jungles accurately, and so it is not simply the job of single player titles to consider the look of its world.
Yet still we have discussions of new features and of more weapons or spells. Developers talk about iconic characters and cinematic frame rates, but we don’t seem to hear about creating interesting environments outside of the indie gaming market. I just hope that we are able to see more games like Bioshock and Alien: Isolation and less titles where the world exists only to fill with zombies or to tack on zombie DLC or ‘zombify’ the player base with zombie-like micro-transactions.