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The Red Herring of Real-Life Landmarks
by Ben Serviss on 06/20/13 09:10:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This article originally appeared on

Splinter Cell: Conviction
The White House level in Splinter Cell: Conviction

Making people care about things in games is hard. Not to say it’s impossible – but when most decisions boil down to ‘save the hostage’ or ‘restart the level,’ it doesn’t exactly fill the player with overwhelming empathy. So it makes sense that developers would constantly be on the hunt for ways to increase their game’s emotional resonance for the player.

Yet while there are plenty of ways to cultivate this feeling, one method – re-creating real-life locales in one-off missions specifically designed to elicit emotion from the player – tends to be leaned on as an option that’s so obviously effective, it’s non-debatable.

 Unfortunately, this is hardly ever the case.Unfortunately, this is hardly ever the case. In reality, by painstaking re-creating landmarks from real life in their games, developers run the risk of imposing superfluous constraints, needlessly sacrificing design integrity and investing massive effort for minimal payoff.

“You can get some emotional resonance from a real-life location, but that requires the location to already resonate.” –Andrew Grapsas

The topic of re-creating real environments in games came up in conversation with fellow developers Andrew Grapsas and Coray Seifert. While there is potential for iconic locations to mean something to the player, argued Grapsas, they require the player to be knowledgeable enough about them in the first place in order to carry any meaning.

This is why generic locations like airports, office buildings and parks can often be more resonant than unique, iconic locations, if only for the fact that in every case, there will simply be a greater chance that the player has been in a similar environment. Having that previous experience in a similar space allows for more opportunity to relate.

Max Payne Subway Level
Max Payne's memorable subway levels were set in a fictional subway line.

At the same time, opting to re-create an existing location locks you into the real-life restrictions for the space. Sure, there’s freedom to tweak the area to allow for additional gameplay spaces or different room configurations, but outside of small adjustments, you’re bound to reproducing the structure.

On the other hand, if you use a more generic location with architectural overtones of the target structure, you free yourself up to design a space that suits the gameplay above all.

“That's why semi-generic spaces work well, like an airplane. We can all relate to being on an airplane.” –Andrew Grapsas

Yet even in the best-case scenario when you re-create a landmark that the player recognizes, any measure of resonance you achieve is dashed as the player quickly breaks the iconic structure down to its component parts in terms of gameplay.

The columns of the Parthenon become overlarge cover; the concourse at Grand Central Terminal becomes the sniper zone. Because the nature of gameplay demands that players evaluate their surroundings through a functional lens, the opportunity for emotional resonance is diluted as even the most elegant architecture is parsed into simple geometry.

Contrast this with the scene in Independence Day when the aliens blow up the White House. Since you’re watching the scene unfold purely as an observer, it carries much more weight. Conversely, if you were diving for cover and firing shots back at enemies while it happened, you would be far too busy to have the same reaction.

If the inclusion of real-life locations in games seems like a cheesy Hollywood tactic akin to hiring celebrity voice-overs and well-known screenwriters, it’s because they all share one glaring trait: a lack of authenticity to the game experience.

Of course, while all of these things can be used to great effect in games, if the motivation to use them is counter to the game’s purpose, the lack of authenticity will be obvious.

Fallout 3 Lincoln Memorial
The Lincoln Memorial in Fallout 3 effectively communicated the extent of the damage that happened to the USA.

On the other hand, appropriating real-life environments can lead to great things – as long as the aim is to create an authentic game experience.

The Grand Theft Auto series is notorious for adapting real-world cities as the setting for their games, and it works so well because the decision to go with a specific locale pervades the entire game. The Miami of Vice City, New York of GTA4, and Los Angeles of San Andreas fully inform each game’s mechanics, characters, missions and sensibilities.

To drive the point home, Rockstar’s signature filter of cartoony parody combines with the stereotypes of each city we’ve all absorbed through a lifetime of media exposure to create something that feels handcrafted for each game's specific purpose.

The same can be said for most games that are set entirely in a real-world counterpart, as opposed to a level or two. Sleeping Dogs, the True Crime series, the Assassin's Creed series and the upcoming Watch Dogs all use their source material as a base layer before adding their distinctive gameplay.

Yet you don’t have to re-create an entire city to gain the benefits of real locations. There are vast possibilities in environmental storytelling, but they all require building meaning and context within the game first.

In an early scene in Bioshock Infinite, when Elizabeth opens a tear to Paris, we know that this is Paris because the Eiffel Tower looms in the background, clearly communicating that her ability allows her to open portals to other places. Far from an empty reference, this example shows the potential for effective real-world callbacks – as long as the game doesn’t rely on making references for their own sake.

No Shortcuts

Like most things worth doing, there are no shortcuts to achieving emotional resonance in the player. To do this right requires a conscious investment of the player’s time in order to build the necessary context for a meaningful payoff.

In the end, if given the choice between re-creating a major landmark or building your own space from the ground-up, it’s your call to decide which would lead to an experience best designed for the game’s specific mechanics, pacing and purpose – and not anything else.

Ben Serviss is a freelance game designer working in commercial, social, educational and indie games. Follow him on Twitter at @benserviss.

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Adam Rebika
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Another problem is that the importance of real life landmarks is that it really depends on the culture of the player.
You showed the example of the Lincoln Memorial. While, for an American player, seeing it destroyed can carry a lot of emotion, for me as a French player, it didn't mean that much. The first time I saw it destroyed in Fallout 3, the only thing that came to my mind was: "oh nice, they thought about adding this place to the map... now what can I loot here?". No emotional weight or anything.

Jakub Majewski
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That's inevitable, but I would argue that even to international players, this would have had more resonance than something entirely generic. We might not all immediately grasp what a given landmark represents, but we appreciate the fact that it is a landmark - it adds weight to the game merely by being there. As you said - no emotional weight for you, but you appreciated the fact that it was there. It just made the setting feel a little more real.

Edward Smith
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I agree I didn't even what the building was (still don't know what is important about it). Might of been just a made up building for all I knew.

Chris Dias
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Hell, I'm an American & seeing it only reminds me that the game is set in Washington D.C.
If it was the Statue of Liberty, as a New Yorker I'd just think Planet of the Apes quotes.

Bob Charone
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Theres also a problem of buildings in the US built after 1999, the design is copyrighted

Jeanne Burch
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And of negative publicity when the people who work at the building object to it being used. Manchester Cathedral was used in Resistance: Fall of Man; church officials didn't appreciate that.

James Yee
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Yeah I've seen a few places/events that occur in a game or in movies/TV that my wife just goes, "eh" because they have zero meaning to her. Since she's from Australia she has a completely different set of "cultural hooks" to get to her. Blow up the Sydney opera house or the bridge and she'll definitely pay more attention than the Golden Gate Bridge or the White House. :)

Hubert Rutkowski
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When I was making game 2d top view tactical shooter with friends few years ago, we had idea to place the levels in real world streets of Krakow. The rationale was: the level design was already done, and more importantly: we would get emotional reaction from players who live or been in Krakow. I was personally really excited by the idea of killing my friends near the main square, Bagatela or Wawel castle :)

Years later, I thought about this idea when making a solo indie game (Ninja Cat and Zombie Dinosaurs), and actually put it into practice. Instead of Krakow I chosen Paris, because I read it's the most visited by tourists city in the world. And also because it has very recognizable landmarks, first obviously beeing Eiffel tower. Who wouldn't want to battle zombie Tyrannosaurus Rex on Eiffel tower?

So I went with it it, and what are my experiences? It was harder than I thought, becase at beginning I was torn between making game levels (2d, view from side) realistic or fictional. For long time I couldn't decide where should the action take place: on the street level, with buildings in background, or on the rooftops. And what with the interiors? Later I decided to go with the former. Still, another thing which haunted me was what you precisely say in the article: adopting real world building to become sensible game levels. With certain levels, like Vincennes park or cemetary du Pere Lachaise I had rather free hand, but with Pompidou museum, Luvre pyramid and certainly with Eiffel tower, I had to recreate them rather precisely and somehow pack there interesting gameplay. The desing process was rather painfull (but I'm also very un-experienced level designer). How well did it went, you can judge by yourself:

For the next installments of Ninja Cat and Zombie Dinosaurs franchise (what an epic word :D) I was thinking about choosing another Europe capital, like Warsaw, London or Berlin, but your article has reminded me of this problem I was having, and now I don't know. So far nobody has said to me something like "oh man, the game is set in Paris, and you're playing in Luvre, and Pompidou and Eiffel tower - what a great idea". So perhaps the non-existing emotional reactions were not worth the additional development hurdles.

Emperador Alencio
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Hi there, i see that you are a indie developer. Can i make you a very small interview for my humble facebook page... this is the page: It will be just a few email questions. Thanks :)

Ben Serviss
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Thanks for sharing your firsthand experience with the issue Hubert! You might want to consider using level art and structures that are reminiscent of the real-world places, but tailor the actual level designs to the gameplay. That way you'd elicit some of the emotional attachment without restricting yourself to real-world limits.