While we are primarily a tabletop wargaming blog we sometimes offer up other topics, from music to video games and anything else that really falls under the “art” bracket, because really, that’s what all these things are. Now, for today I have something to express that I have been thinking about a lot recently, however, being a lowly IT Manager I am completely unqualified in the arena that I want to talk about. Good job this is the Internet then, where people with no qualifications on the subject matter can offer forth their opinion in a spirit of wisdom and understanding. It’s almost like being a critic, but without the wisdom and understanding part.
Referring back to an earlier post where I talked through virtual worlds, whether literary or audio-visual and their ability to suck us in with an immersive experience. In the video game context that I want to use the primary method for this is the level design. No matter how awesome the story, if the environment around you doesn’t feel right then things start to jar. However, some poor environments can be overlooked if a good story makes use of what is there. I reckon that we therefore need to start off with an example; look no further than perennial MMO giant World of Warcraft, a virtually seamless world where you can walk from one end of a continent to another without seeing a loading screen. Certainly one of the features that has endeared me to the game over the years, I don’t think at the time of release any other MMO allowed you to go through the game world in such a seamless manner, I came from EQ where you’d warn your guild you were “zoning” if they were going to be talking about stuff while you switched areas and had to load.
Even in such a seamless environment with varying climates as you walk around the place there are a few things that stick out to me. Azeroth is a living and breathing world, filled with magical creatures beyond count and home to a vast array of humanoid species. So, let me ask you, do you really believe that each of those civilisations can acutally live in large numbers in their capital cities? Hopefully you can see what I mean, while cities like Silvermoon, Stormwind and Ironforge seem like they could harbour a large number of people, the designs and layouts of the others do not make that impression, at least to me. I cannot believe that the entire civilisation of Tauren can live on such a small pinnacle of rock as Thunderbluff is. I would imagine that there are thousands of Tauren for a world as big as Azeroth, sure they have outposts here and there but none of those look like they are habitable either. I think quest hubs are a great show of bad design, they are there to show a collection of people who never move and just serve up quests. None of the camps that I can think of from the top of my head actually look like people could survive in them. If you look at a game like Vanguard or Age of Conan the cities there really are sprawling and you can imagine a good number of people living in them.
For me, badly laid out towns, cities and villages break my “immersion” I am reminded that I am playing a game and even though these fantasy worlds make their own world I will still apply preconceptions from real world examples when I am playing. If I do not register a place as fitting within those parameters then my suspension of disbelief is broken.
Another game where this comes into relief is Mass Effect 2 that I have been playing recently. Here is a game with a fantastic world with a Codex that breathes huge amounts of background into the universe with believable characters and a moving story. I find it very easy to engage with the Mass Effect series and Bioware games in general. However, at certain times the level design leaves a lot to be desired, while in general each of the places that you visit you can imagine expanding beyond the areas that you can physically walk around, sometimes the way you are guided through specific areas and seem to be “on rails” sours the experience. In ME2 I have recently been completing the loyalty quests for my crew, I only have Jacob left to do, having successfully completed all the others on my first male Shepard, the Paragon option I use. I like these quests because they expand upon the characters history, they are short so they don’t detract from the main mission and you can quite happily spend a little time just hammering these out and seeing what happens and what options you get. Yet some of the levels you go around just seem out-of-place. While you are walked through a lot of areas to get to objectives things you can see in the periphery work in their favour, going through the Migrant Fleet fighting Geth feels like you are on a ship, however, going through the “labs” on Tuchanka doesn’t feel the same.
I put this, rightly or wrongly, down to the quality of level design. As I said before I am not a level designer, I have no creative input into these processes but as a gamer I know what feels right and what doesn’t. Generally not all levels are going to be stellar in terms of their quality but it’s one of the most unfortunate aspects of gaming that you get involved in a story or a world and you come across something that rips you back into your seat and reminds you that you are a fleshy human sitting in a chair in a living room or study plugged into a video game. Not that I have a problem with our world, it is certainly a unique creation filled with wonder, we humans just end up trapped into a very small part of it.
I’m also not espousing that all games should have a huge and open world where you can go anywhere or do anything, I kind of like being walked through things in Mass Effect, it means you are always headed towards your goal and not getting lost. However, I’d like to think that eventually we can get to a point where a world really feels lived in through all its environments, this may be one of those holy grails of gaming when we talk about immersion and there are certainly games that give this a good go.