Environmental Storytelling, Part II: Bringing Theme Park Environment Design Techniques to the Virtual World
April 5, 2000 Page 3 of 4
Please Ignore That Man Behind the Curtain
Another unfair advantage stage and screen have over computer environments is their ability to transport an audience with little or no visual content. In the play "Our Town," by Thornton Wilder, the audience is given an empty stage with several metal folding chairs and a ladder as the only set pieces. What's worse is that they are told that these meager props represent an entire midwestern town, with all its buildings, trees, and landscape. Amazingly, the audience unanimously agrees to this, and happily projects onto these items whatever the director desires them to see and experience. The ladder magically becomes a tree, a rooftop, and a church steeple, all in the audience's own imagination!
Now, computer games have had their years of metal folding chairs and ladders too. We have played tennis with only a handful of pixels, and shot down asteroids in only 8 colors, but today's audience has become a bit pickier, and savvy to the tools of our trade. The gamer who anticipates triggered AI actors is also aware of badly tiled textures, obviously placed platforms, and 128 x 128 pixel crates for pushing around. After exploring an environment for awhile, the player is pulled away from the immersive qualities of your world and starts to view it as just so many cubes, doorways, and ledges. They may be inside the most amazing Aztec ruin, hung with vines and theatrically placed shafts of light, but having solved the puzzles before this one, they ignore the finery and hunt solely for the telltale signs of the puzzle designer. They know that game designers like to work within set parameters, such as 128, 256, 512, and that their character may be limited to jumps of a set distance. Rather than using their wits to navigate your Aztec temple, they are using their knowledge and experience of its limitations to solve your puzzle. One could argue that this is enough, and is part of the gaming experience, but if you have the opportunity to pull your audience into your story, rather than allowing them to sink to what they have learned from other computer games, I say go for it!
Tomb Raider does a fantastic job of creating impressive vistas with very few polygons, although sometimes the telltale hand of the puzzle designer is still visible. On the other hand, Quake 3 Arena will periodically sacrifice architecture for pure game play functionality.
Environmental Storytelling's Bag of Tricks
One of many environmental storytelling tricks, used by writers of everything from novels and movie scripts to self-help books and political speeches is, during the course of your story:
where they're going,
Tell them where they are, and
Tell them where they've been.
At times you might think that you are repeating yourself, but it never hurts to gently remind your audience why they are there, and where they are going. This can be done with a cut scene, interaction with an in-game character, or by having the game player stumble on something that reminds them of why they took on your adventure in the first place. This little bit of nudging does not have to take up very much of the game players' time, but strategically placed reminders throughout your game will keep them on the right track and make them less apt to lose interest in where they are going.
Speaking of where they are going... it doesn't hurt to give them a clear idea of their destination (if there is one). In the case of the Blizzard's Diablo, it is right on the box! From the moment you pick the game up off the shelf, you know who you are after, and having defeated him, you have the sense of having accomplished something. I have heard of another game which had a goal of reaching the illusive and climactic "Pleasuredome." Now the "Pleasuredome" had little to do with the actual game and once you got there, there wasn't much to look at. That was almost beside the point, considering the prestige achieved among your friends by boasting you had actually been there!
Forced Perspective...... Use It!
In the computer world, size is relative. As long as the poly count remains the same, it doesn't always matter how big you make your buildings. Just because you can create "real world" scaled environments, doesn't always mean you should. Disneyland's Main Street USA is famous for its 5/8th scale buildings. They didn't design these small sized buildings to save money. They used the scale change to create charm and contrast the size of Sleeping Beauty's Castle at the far end of the street. How you design the scale of an environment can tell you a lot about the people who exist there. If the buildings are small, their inhabitants might seem vulnerable, compared to a bigger structure in the distance. To reinforce the relationship between an oppressive ruler to his subjects, you could scale down the size of the buildings of the village in contrast to the gigantic scale of their ruler's nearby mansion.
Something to keep in mind while you are designing is, in the case of a first person perspective, your own scale is sometimes hard to determine without some familiar object sitting next to it which the viewer can relate to . While visiting the giant rocks of Oak Creek Canyon on the road to Sedona Arizona, I sat and sketched a rock formation just beyond the parking lot where we were sitting. As I sat, a woman walked past me heading towards the same rock. While I sketched I watched as the woman got smaller, and smaller, and smaller until I realized that the rock I was sketching was the size of the Chrysler Building, and the woman was the size of a pebble at its base. Another incident happened while watching a friend play EverQuest. While watching, I pointed out a spider not far from him. I said, "Hey, there's something you can bash!" My friend informed me that he would be doing no such thing, and as he approached the beast I realized that it was the size of a small two bedroom house and two game characters were valiantly waging war with it! Without the presence of the two figures, like the woman standing by the rock, I would have never been able to relate to either the rock or the spider's actual size in space!
Although you are working in a 3D environment, it is sometimes helpful to utilize some of the same tricks that 2D artists and filmmakers use. If you are approaching an architectural element that is important to your story, you don't necessarily need to reveal it all at once. In fact, it can be much more dramatic if you only give your audience small glimpses of it at first. Guide your audience to small windows or gaps that will allow them to see only a fraction of the overall environment. Carefully crop these views so that the window frames this larger subject, in a way that alludes to the majesty of the whole, without giving it away. This is a powerful tool to allow your guest to start anticipating what lies ahead, without giving it away entirely. In the beginning of the movie "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," our hero Charlie stands outside the closed gates of Wonka's mysterious factory. Like Charlie, we are given an opportunity to begin to wonder about what lies just beyond the iron bars. Although we never again get a good look at the whole exterior of the factory, we almost don't need it, because our imaginations have filled in the blanks for us.
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