Advancements in the World of Level Design

The first step taken into a brand new land: Something that can be so overlooked once it’s taken and yet so crucial towards your attempt to immerse yourself and resonate with this brand new terrain. Many a games have climbed the ladder of standards that has been set towards delivering worlds of exquisite composition, ones that stretch beyond the bridge of interaction and cross over into the realm in where you’re embarking on a journey.

The freedom of travel can sometimes be more daunting than it can be liberating, and the same applies to the virtual trekking of video games. With technology increasing each generation and providing more resources for developers to take advantage of with their cyber paintbrushes, the question isn’t exactly whether or not we’ve peaked the concept of an intricate world to play the epic set piece in our latest interactive media, but rather how it will be designed to reflect the balance of player interaction. Worlds are only being created to be bigger and bigger, but does “going big” truly represent the feeling of a living, breathing world?

There are three elements that help influence the “immersion” within the worlds of games that we play. These same elements help compose lands that have met universal acclaim, and can be found examining a few games in particular that deploy their own different takes to a living world formula, but first some detail to these elements.

The first is presentation. The next is navigation. And finally, interaction, the trickiest of them all. Why, you ask? The magnitude in which it’s implemented can make or break the experience when the other elements are slighted because of it. Imagine the analogy of the element of interaction being represented by the steps you would take on a bridge. Certain games providing that open world take -- sandbox games as they’ve been called -- are made of routes, buildings, and shelters twisting and turning about in ways that would make an ant farm blush. Playing through the streets, roads, or what have you, each game attempts to go further than the last contemporary to intricately emulate the feel of entering a virtual civilization where NPCs make up the native residence, tending to their everyday fictional lives, completely unaware and independently functioning despite all the ways to interact with them. The interactions, however, are limited. We as players are aware of the confines that we have to interact within (most of it involving some depth of conflict). In face of the usual small palate of actions you’re appointed with, interaction alone cannot sell a living breathing world in a game.

Presentation is the easiest to nail. Visuals and sounds act as the railings of to the bridge and help guide you in the world. The distant wales of a siren from an urban city alley, to lush foliage that crumples and shapes around your feet in your stride across the jungle. Presentation plays the role of initial incentive, and will always be the first memory that comes to mind when reminiscing about the world in question. Navigation is an entirely different beast, and one demanding the utmost care in the balance of maintaining an elaborate course requiring engaging exploration, while avoiding any possibility of needless frustration. Blazing your own paths and determining the best plot for course is dependent by your understanding of the level design. The architecture making up the land is crucial to make sure that it’s capable of developing a relationship with the player, and avoids alienating anyone who takes point on its virtual soil.

 In the first Mass Effect you pilot the M35 Mako, a vehicle with about as much control as a refrigerator on roller blades. Despite the vessel's shortcomings, the different planets that you came upon were fully realized locales with implicit miles and miles of ground to cover in order to reach your objective. The intended appeal of discovery for these interstellar lands fell flat though, and the experience was hampered because of it. Barren wastelands and fields lasted with little or no trace of native life, and was differentiated by color palette swaps or minor environmental differences consisting of foliage or fauna. The minimal efforts behind the presentation and interaction are reduced to waypoints visited within your limited area of reach, which completely squanders the potential Mass Effect possessed to compel the little space explorer in all of us. Overall, the game lacked essential elements that make up a living, breathing world.

Final Fantasy XIII places you in the land of Cocoon, an elevated planetoid orbiting the land of Gran Pulse below. The many areas of Cocoon are made up of corridors of set paths, and with no way to deviate from the set path other than nebulous back tracking. The presentation boasts an immaculate detail, the visuals ooze with incredible production value as you find yourself staring off into the multiple perspective that make up the city depths of Sanctum, the crystalized Iceland of Lake Bresha, or the exotic tropics of the Gapra Whitewood. The world of Final Fantasy XIII pre-Gran Pulse is splendor to behold, but not one you feel a part of within its unfolding.

Like a rollercoaster ride at an amusement park, there’s an exhilarating viewpoint of the world around you as you zoom around in a rollercoaster. But that’s just it -- you’re being driven around in this world that you ultimately have no real effect on. Passing through from point A to point B, you’re simply a tourist within the land Cocoon, doing nothing more to move you than preparing your anticipative leave much like a scenic drive that has overstayed its welcome on the road. Without any proper stimulation to navigate the lands you visit, you aren’t living in a breathing world, but simply sightseeing it instead.

Suda 51’s No More Heroes set out in the fictional city of Santa Destroy, California, a city-inspired urban wasteland where the titular protagonist, Travis Touchdown, takes residence within a motel in the heart of the city. An open world sandbox designed hub world, Santa Destroy fails to engage on nearly every level. The static makeup of city streets and its robotic citizens do little more than mimic the complexity of an animated backdrop to a stage within a 16-bit platformer. Navigating through the city, whether on foot or driving the Akira influenced “Schpeltiger” bike, becomes a chore before the hour’s end. Where Final Fantasy XIII suffered from the restrictive focus of its world direction, Santa Destroy suffers from the complete lack of it. The city’s architecture is mashed in such a lazy way as it if was only designed to meet the bare minimum of the standards involved for an open sandbox world and it’s cryptic interaction.

All of these failed attempts have been recognized and remedied in sequels to some extent, but they serve as an example of a failed attempt at an immersive world within a game. It's because of these shortcomings, however, that developers have advanced even further towards reaching the perfect world that plays a role deeper than any of the characters in it. Games like Bioshock and the dystopian Rapture had labored efforts behind each individual accomplishment of the aforementioned world. Most recently we’ve had the newest Elder Scrolls game, Skyrim, deliver a living, breathing world so articulate within its presentation, navigation, and interaction. The meaning of escapism can never truly justify the therapeutic descent of charting this mystical land. Sharing the experience with others within an empty land like Journey, invigorates the primal human instinct of tribal migration and motivates you into searching deeper into the land to discover more and more life.

While we’re years away from simulating a truly artificial world in our games, we’ve come a long way to determine the formula for such a task at its central core of components, and it’s only a matter of time before we embark a true worldly expedition.


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