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August 24, 2008

Week 4 Discussion: The Game Environment & Second Life (SL) worlds

Filed under: ECU MInT,GDT3102 Writing for Games — steve @ 2:57 pm

Discussion topic: What functions or uses does environment design have in the overall game design process?

The game environment is the canvas upon which all the elements of the game are brought together in a unified manner. It translates the game’s back-story through its visual metaphors; it provides the reason for the Player to exist; and it determines the means by which the action evolves.

The design of the game environment can be likened to the stage on which a play takes place; or the set on which a motion picture is filmed. It places the spectator in a world they can understand based upon their existing knowledge of the real world. Carson (2000, ¶ 9) described the way of achieving that last point as follows:

… this is done by manipulating an audience’s expectations, which they have based on their own experiences of the physical world. Armed only with their own knowledge of the world, and those visions collected from movies and books, the audience is ripe to be dropped into your adventure. The trick is to play on those memories and expectations to heighten the thrill of venturing into your created universe.

The need for unity in the game environment cannot be over stated – unity enables realism and realism enables the suspension of the Player’s disbelief. One factor I have personally found that has a strong bearing on the architectural style of a game’s environment is the light sources chosen. Lighting, whether it is a burning wooden torch or a low wattage halogen lamp set-up places the spectator at some stage in man’s technological advancement. Yet there are examples of game environments where wooden torches provide the lighting yet the NPCs and the Player are running around with plasma rifles and the like. Even though a flickering wooden torch emitting smoke, the crackling sound of fire, and a soft warm light, can promote a very desirable atmosphere of suspense, the incongruous contrast of technologies employed (light VS weapon) starts raising questions of belief in the environment and therefore the Player’s place in the imaginary world.

That is not to say one should not play on the belief systems that the Player may hold, but rather that one should be mindful of how far to “stretch the truth”. BioShock (2007) for example fashioned its world on a pseudo Art Deco style set in the 1960′s rather than the 1920 to 30′s. Yet this was believable – a different world than that which we normally perceive as reality – yet constructed in such a way that it was believable none the less. We might remember attending an old Art Deco styled theatre some time in our youth and there are still examples of this architectural style in existence to this day. It is certainly conceivable that in some form of the 1960′s that Art Deco was still a predominant style and that modernism never took hold due to its more sterile, colder design.

One might also have seen Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) where, though obviously set in some near distant future, the technology employed appeared to be 30 years or more behind the current state of technology at that time. Yet this did not distract from the narrative – in fact it helped support the narrative of a dysfunctional world that, although portrayed as highly ordered and planned, was representative of how technology does go wrong and defeat our dreams and ideals…

But, it might be asked, what is reality in any case? In the words of Lacan (1977) “This is how the world is struck with a presumption of idealization, of the suspicion of yielding me only my representations. … How can one deny that nothing of the world appears to me except in my representations?” (p. 81). In other words, we make our own reality – what we get is not necessarily what we see.

To sum up this response to the question asked I again refer to Carson (2000, ¶ 3) on environmental game design:

Take me to a place that:

  • Lets me go somewhere I could never go.
  • Lets me be someone I could never be.
  • Lets me do things I could never do!

Yes, exactly – but make me feel that all this is possible within my own preconceived senses of an imagined reality! Let me believe that I am actually there; let me believe that it is possible. Most of all let me accept that this world, whatever it may be, is a logical extrapolation of the world that I currently think that I know. Test the boundaries but don’t throw them in my face. Provide substantiated reasons why I might be able to leap over tall buildings when no else can; why I am faster than a speeding bullet or more powerful than a locomotive; why I can change the course of mighty rivers and bend steel in my bare hands… Don’t assume that I, the Player, is cognisant of those powers just because you gave them to me- let me understand how I achieved whatever powers you, the designer, have elected to reward me with and why they are applicable and beneficial to the world and the narrative respectively.

Finally, if I am able to identify with my environment and are therefore rewarded with “powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man” then I have a reasoning on which to base my newly found skills or powers. If it turns out that I am indeed Kal-El/Superman, or whatever the Player’s avatar may be, then let that become apparent through the back-story that evolves with the exploration and understanding of the world’s environment. Then my own personal place within that environment can be imagined within my own means and therefore be more readily acceptable as an identifiable presentation of my own, preconceived,  world.

 

Second Life (SL) Worlds

Using SL sims as ready-made environments for a 2 to 5 minute machinima (machine animation) introductory cut-scene/prologue for a proposed game narrative “Psycho-Ego“.

One of the issues with SL is that although one can turn off most of the on-screen navigational items one’s own SL avatar label remains on screen (problem solved 10-09-08: check preferences to turn off labels). Changing to “mouselook” changes the view from 3rd to 1st person which removes the avatar label, however four white pixels replaces the label in the centre of the screen.

Removing the menus is another issue for both the SL menu (top of the screen) and the Windows task bar. Changing to full-screen in SL bumped down the resolution leaving a blank, black screen and then crashed the application so one is uncertain whether that would remove the various menus. However, if running SL on a 16:10 wide-screen monitor then cropping recorded video back to the standard 16:9 WS ratio should remove those menu items. SL states that the window size on a 16:10 full HD monitor is 1920 X 1140 (not including the Windows task bar one assumes) so it would appear that 100 pixels are available to be cropped.

Recording the SL might be possible via the video out on the GPU into a DV camera, or straight into a video in on TV card for example. Either that or attempt to use a screen capture utility though one suspects that frame rate will be an issue (note 10-09-08: not an issue when recording PAL dimensions – except it is 4:3 format). Maybe there will be time during the study break to try this out… maybe…

SL’s World Environment Editor [World|Environment Settings|Environment Editor] provides a useful means to set the environment’s properties such as sun position, colour, fog, animated clouds etc. If one is able to find the appropriate looking environment then it is possible to tweak the lighting to achieve the right atmosphere. Often the environments in SL are overly bright and as the textures generally are not that flash things tend to look cheap and dated. Changing the lighting intensity does wonders to hide some of the rough edges.

 

Links to some SL environments with very brief descriptions:

The following worlds as linked to in Second Life (SL) are discussed in reference to the development of a treatment for a prologue of the proposed game narrative “Psycho-Ego – the knowing of the self” as opposed to their application to game genres in general:

S.I.C. (Science Innovation Company)  - http://slurl.com/secondlife/sick/220/114/28
Touted as containing Blade Runner-esque streets S.I.C. could be described as “sick” – that is really good, not really bad. Unfortunately while experiencing that environment I kept hearing a couple of guys, who sounded extremely enthusiastic about SL, discuss what type of gun to wear and whether it was worth paying x Linden dollars to purchase said gun/s. Very annoying – I couldn’t find where to turn the voice chat feature off so I simply escaped that ‘world’ for another one…

This world did not seem to be immediately relevant to the Psycho-Ego concept, yet on further reflection it would provide a perfect juxtaposition to a more symbolic ancient, perhaps decadent world, to portray the sensation of hustle and bustle – a chaotic and complex world – assuming that there were enough avatars occupying the streets.

Botanicalhttp://slurl.com/secondlife/Straylight/138/87/24
At the midnight World environment setting this SL location could be used to represent a dream like state of consciousness. While quite scenic in parts there are areas with fog and lava that could well be symbolic for a tormented, unconscious mind. Vast areas of water could be used to represent the collective unconscious.

On reflection this was the most useable world for the Psycho-Ego treatment – very adaptable with the use of mid-night lighting along with the areas of fog, lava and water having strong representational links with Jungian psychology. Botanical was also a quiet environment which should enable the recording of sequences with little to no interuptions by stray avatars.

Visit Mexicohttp://slurl.com/secondlife/Visit%20Mexico%202/121/71/32/
Interesting “ancient” looking Mayan stone temples which might be suitable in portraying a regressive unconscious mind. The jungle itself was not that vast or dense which is a shame – more atmosphere one feels is obtainable in the Botanical sim. Monkeys, leopards, bats and horses were notable – horses could be rented for free and then ‘attached’ to the avatar and ridden.

Hmmm, the possibility of riding horses must have an archetypical link is some form – no doubt referring to transportation, direction and the ability of going somewhere that one desires. This could perhaps be of use to the Psycho-Ego prologue “dream sequence” – especially the ability for the horses to fly when riding them as such in SL. This requires more thought…

Whispering Rocks Public Parkhttp://slurl.com/secondlife/Deulchangil/18/234/23
Contains on “old church” ruin as well as other ruins which might be useful for a dream sequence once the SL environment has been edited.

Now, this world provided a particular visual representation that I was looking for – a ruin of some kind and in this instance it was an old church. Could be very apt for a symbolic, archetypical dream sequence for the western, Christian minded soul, however it is not universal enough which raises concerns to its imagery.

We were warned that SL could take up a large amount of our time – too true – I spent about 5 hours trying to find some half decent worlds for the machinima. In that time I probably could have built what I was after in Sauerbraten – assuming I knew what it was that I wanted. However SL does have some nice customisable environment features which would be quite time consuming to achieve in Sauerbraten. Then again, the ease of building environments in Suaerbraten combined with the high quality lighting, rendering engine and frame rates that Sauer provides certainly makes it a worthy choice for the development of scenes for the machinima if such ready-made scenes are not readily available in Second Life.

 

Reference list:

BioShock. (2007). 2K Games. Retrieved August 24, 2008, from http://www.2kgames.com/bioshock/

Carson, D. (2000). Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3D Worlds Using Lessons Learned from the Theme Park Industry. Retrieved August 24, 2008, from http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20000301/carson_01.htm

Gilliam, T., Stoppard, T., & McKeown, C. (1985). Brazil. Retrieved August 24, 2008, from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088846/

Lacan, J. (1977). The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. London: Hogarth Press.

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