There's an obvious cost to thinking about every modeling task or environment as a story. Inevitably, relying on shorthand symbolism is easier and quicker than imagining an entire history behind every poly and pixel.
The time differential may be a lot less than it seems. The actual amount of detail necessary to sell a story can be quite minimal. The mental effort, on the other hand, is considerable.
Artists who like to wade right into a project and start laying down polys will find it uncomfortable to put the building on hold while they ponder a bit of backstory.
If the task seems daunting, though, it's worth remembering that the modeler or level designer doesn't suddenly have to become a screenwriter to make use of narrative detail. The stories don't need to have a lot of depth or character development; they simply need to respect and reward the player's latent powers of observation.
There is one practical drawback to focusing on narrative details. The essential point of a storytelling approach to modeling is to emphasize the individual history -- the "personality" -- of the subject.
In games, unfortunately, we have to manage scarce runtime resources, and many of the assets we create have to be reused. The convincing detail that turns a model into a uniquely believable object can backfire when it shows up again and again.
Asset modelers will have to plan carefully how to avoid undermining their own efforts through repetition. Even environment artists will find that key details will repeat, whether common elements like doors and fixtures or, more often, textures. Balancing the need for reusability with the power of hand-crafted individualizing detail is a tough trick.
One common strategy is to build both individualized and generic versions of the same asset. For example, if you have a lot of stop signs in your city, you'll probably need to reuse them often.
But if the mix is leavened with a couple of variants, such as a bent stem from being hit by a car or a vandalized version with a "'Stop' Eating Animals" sticker, the monotony is relieved and even the generic variants gain a touch of extra depth.
Ideally, the variants can share geometry or texture work with the generic versions so that the resource costs of the whole package aren't overwhelming. Designing assets from the outset so they support cheap color variations, part swaps, and decaling makes life much easier as you balance unique details with unobtrusive generics.
Rigging assets for animation and then "re-posing" them to build variants cheaply is another good investment. Naturally, of course, the amount of energy you'll put into individualizing assets will scale with their relative importance.
You probably want the details of the heroine's car to tell the player something about her and her history, but you probably don't want to spend too much time on the life and times of her toaster oven.
Figure 4: This 4,000 year old Egyptian diorama displays many of the artistic techniques a modern environment artist or modeler would recognize.
Although game technology seems to be at the height of information age modernity, the basic challenges of the working artist never really change. Learning some tactics from real-world modelers isn't an unreasonable stretch for the modern pixel pusher.
We're the latest generation in a line of modelers that goes back at least to the days of the Egyptian Pharaohs, who passed into the next world accompanied by detailed hand-carved dioramas of daily life in this one.
The 4,000-year old diorama in Figure 4, despite its simple execution, still conveys startling immediacy. You can almost hear the commotion and smell the sawdust in the crowded carpenter's workshop.
Though we work in ways that anonymous 11th dynasty craftsman never dreamed of, we're still hoping to achieve the same things. Let's hope we do an equally good job.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was independently published by Gamasutra's editors, since it was deemed of value to the community. Its publishing has been made possible by Intel, as a platform and vendor-agnostic part of Intel's Visual Computing microsite.]