I've been playing quite a few older games recently. Deus Ex, Thief, System Shock 2, Neverwinter Nights 2 and others have captured my attention for many, many reasons. Just today, I tried to go back to a few more modern titles, and found myself running into a mental brick wall.
Specifically, that brick wall was the amount of detail on display. The graphical jump of the newer games was noticeable, certainly, but I found myself surprised at how much re-acclamation I had to do in order to go back to enjoying the newer titles. There's a certainl simplicity to these older titles, much of it the result of technological constraints, that I think current developers, whether artists or level designers, could learn much from.
Level design has never just been about creating great-looking environments, or even ones that are fun to engage with on a mechanical level - a fundamental component of it is in creating spaces that are readable for the player. That is, they must be intuitive to understand even at a quick glance. What does this actually mean in practice?
Looks amazing! Er... so where am I supposed to go, again?
As usual, these are not hard and fast rules for building levels - many developers intentionally break them, purposely confusing or misleading players. Valve, for example, routinely do this in all of their games, especially the Left 4 Dead series, which purposely creates spaces that are cramped, cluttered, and difficult to read at a glance in order to stall players and leave them vulnerable to attack. Horror titles also frequently create levels which deviate from real-world expectations, in order to trick players or createa surreal sensation. However, these are exceptions, and a game built of nothing but misdirection will grow tedious and annoying.
Most games, especially those with well-defined and distinctive art styles, tend to have consistent visual languages that they use throughout to guide the player both in playing the game and in using its interface. The key to good art direction isn't usually just creating visuals that look good, but rather visuals that assist the gameplay and provide the player with sensory cues.
A lot of these are very simple things. Most games, for instance, use a consistent font throughout the entire user interface, and will use the same-coloured text or the same icons in that interface to be readily readable by the player - a good interface will usually let a player go on pattern recognition and muscle memory after a minimum amount of time spent with the game.
However, consistent visual language extends well past user interface or other obvious examples - in my opinion, one of the keys to this that is often overlooked is in creating a palette of level artwork that designers can reuse and players can constantly refer to. Just like different colours can be used to outline which enemies are tougher than others, visually separating less obvious interactive game elements also helps players make split-second decisions.
BioShock uses level art, right down to mundane things like doors and switches, to guide the player and make sure each piece of its levels are immediately and intuitively readable.
What do I mean by this? Take BioShock, a game with one of the most renowned and defined art styles to come out in the last generation. Cutting past the pretty lighting, pixel shaders, and art deco styling, BioShock's visual direction succeeds because it adheres to a degree of consistency that extends from enemy designs all the way to the smallest environmental cues and details.
In BioShock, each gameplay element, whether it's an object central to the mechanics or an incidental environment prop, has one or at most two different looks. The game, for the most part, has only two doors - large, vertically sliding metal doors that signify the boundaries of different level areas, and smaller, horizontally-sliding doors which signify smaller areas, like individual rooms. The transitions between levels themselves (separated by loading zones) are almost exclusively large airlocks. Water on the floor, useful for electrocuting enemies, always has a strong reflection visible even from a distance.
Could BioShock have had a hundred different types of door, each one perfectly suited to a given location? Of course, and it also could have had dozens of brands of ammo dispensor. The pretense of detail and realism is certainly compelling - but by limiting the palette available to level artists, Irrational Games created a game whose visual style was in direct service of not just the gameplay mechanics, but the needs of players in actually using those mechanics. Once you've performed an action, interacted with an object a few times, it becomes second nature - and the key goal of play summarily becomes problem-solving, not mere navigation.
The Perils of Detail
When examining older titles like Thief and Deus Ex, it becomes obvious very quickly that these games are exceptionally readable. A noisy, tiled floor in Thief can immediately be distinguished from a soft, quiet, carpeted floor. In Deus Ex, ventilation ducts, often both enablers for tactical gameplay and safe havens, always use the same texture. The simplicity of the visuals works so well even to this day because they are eminently readable; there is no room for misinterpretation because the levels are clean, focused and consistent.
As I mentioned above, earlier today I went back to a couple of other more modern titles. The first was The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Although I'd put over a hundred hours into the game in the past, it was shocking to me how much time it took for me to get back into the swing of things. Paths through the game world were difficult to read due to the extremely dense vegetation. Discerning which objects in the environment were interactive, and which ones were worth interacting with in the first place took me an extra mental step or two. Picking out enemies to fight was less about looking for familiar shapes, animations and routines, and more about scanning for movement, then focusing in to ascertain the source.
Games like Skyrim are visually impressive, but also visually cluttered to the point where it can be difficult to pick out anything at a glance.
It didn't take me more than an hour to get used to it - but it does highlight how the lack of a readily readable game world can get in the way of gameplay. There are many, many situations throughout Skyrim where the only way to proceed in a given quest is to loot a certain chest, or read a certain book, or kill a certain NPC - and without the ever-present quest markers hovering over the important things, it's almost impossible to tell how to make progress in the game in any sort of visually intuitive manner. These assists exist not because players are dumb and too thick-headed and ignorant to figure out where to go to finish the game - they're there because the only people who could intuitively navigate much of Skyrim are the developers who created the content in the first place.
The other game I went back to was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, for a little bit of multiplayer gaming - and I learned very quickly that it was a far cry from Unreal Tournament. Call of Duty's levels are mostly drab and monotone, making it very difficult to distinguish one area from another at a glance (though this improved in some of the sequels). Many spots are thick with clutter objects and vegetation, making it very difficult to pick out individual players. The constant stream of explosions, smoke and fire throughout the levels is disorienting and obscures other players, available routes through the level, and other important information.
Older titles like Deus Ex are visually fairly simple, but there is no ambiguity in interpreting its environments or scenarios. No more pixel hunting?! 2000, here I come!
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course, when taking into account the fact that Call of Duty intends a degree of realism compared to some other shooters - target acquisition is intentionally a bit difficult, and the chaos of the battlefield can be hard to understand, precisely because the game's goal is, to a degree, to replicate the chaos of real warfare. The challenge of Call of Duty doesn't just come from pointing and shooting, but from being able to cut through all the smoke and fire to understand the battlefield.
Even so, I found myself almost entirely relying on certain visual assists. Without the little "X" that appears when firing at an enemy, it would be nearly impossible to tell you were actually hitting until the enemy was dead. Without the coloured names over team members' heads, it'd be impossible to tell one black-clad, helmet-wearing man with guns from the next. Without the grenade indicator on-screen and the distinctive "ping" noise one makes as it lands nearby, it'd be almost impossible to dodge them. Unreal might not be realistic, but at least I can tell different players apart from one another! The chaos of Call of Duty may be intentional, true, but the reliance on all these user interface elements to distinguish them highlights that the focus on detail and realism is not necessarily conducive to good gameplay.
As I mentioned earlier, I can't stress enough that a lot of these things aren't set in stone - sometimes making exceptions to the standards set, or intentionally creating a game without a degree of consistency, or one that is difficult to read at a glace by "obfuscation through detail", can actually work really, really well. And, while I might have had trouble getting back into some newer titles, I don't want to paint a picture that they are difficult to play or confusing by any means.
Rather, I'd like this to be a cautionary message against creating detail in game visuals for the sake of detail, and realism for the sake of realism. The increasing number of interface assists in most titles, coupled with the desire to continually push the bar in creating highly detailed, cluttered, rich game levels, just doesn't always work.
It might be a simple or even obvious message, but it's hard to play a game when you can't differentiate the important bits from the background scenery, and the result is that even (relatively) mechanically shallow games with simple, linear levels and mission objective markers around every corner can still feel cluttered and overwhelming in a way that actively goes against the freedom in gameplay that was engineered in the first place.