Thursday, August 12, 2010


Today's reveal of Irrational Games' new project, BioShock Infinite, brought me back to a topic I've been thinking about for some time: what we mean by the term "environment" in games.

Like so many others, I've made no secret of my admiration for what Ken Levine & Co. have accomplished in constructing the BioShock universe. I'm certainly not the first to point out that Rapture, Andrew Ryan's underwater city, is the real star of that game - far more complex and compelling a character than the silent protagonist, and perhaps even Ryan himself.

Trust me, I don't want to jump too far down this particular rabbit hole, but if, to use an overwrought and dubious comparison, Metroid Prime is the Citizen Kane of gaming, BioShock is its Huckleberry Finn. Like the Mississippi River in that Twain classic, Rapture - with all its dystopian art deco, sci-fi, Ayn Rand trappings - dominates the fiction and captures the player's imagination. The setting is just as dynamic and alive as the people inhabiting it.

Videogames are uniquely positioned to exploit this tension between the reader (player) and the text (game). The player's avatar is literally inside that world, bringing an immediacy - and more importantly, a participatory quality - to the experience of exploration. Yes, I realize that reading is a participatory act as well, but videogames share authorship with their players (or at least create the credible illusion of shared authorship) in ways that traditionally "authored" media cannot.

In a recent column, Chris Dahlen argues that too little attention is paid to world-building in videogames, both from a design/industry/"author" perspective and from a critical/consumer/"reader" perspective. I tend to agree. For an industry with such remarkable creative talent, there are an awful lot of retreads and "safe" choices when it comes to game worlds. Nevermind that what's "safe" often constitutes some variation on the Roid-Raging Marine Frags a Billion Faceless Enemies or Noble Elf Guild Slays Marauding Orc Tribe themes.

But in his discussion of game worlds, Dahlen seems to be talking about what, to me, are two different elements: the game's fiction (story, universe, characters, etc.) and its environment (particulars of setting, including art style, sound design, lighting, etc.). These are two complementary concepts that maybe can't be easily separated, but I think the distinction is important.

Let's take my favorite game of the last year, Batman: Arkham Asylum. The Batman fiction has been pretty well-established to this point, right? Sure, it's had wildly different incarnations, from the corny comic book capers and campy Adam West TV show in the 60s, to the gritty Frank Miller revival in the late 80s and the slickly dark Christopher Nolan films of today. But certain elements remain fairly constant. Batman lives in Gotham City. His secret identity is billionaire Bruce Wayne. His parents were murdered in front of him when he was a child. He battles a colorful array of criminal masterminds. These elements appear and combine in myriad ways throughout the Batman universe, including in Arkham Asylum. Regardless of the specific differences or similarities between incarnations, and ignoring the relative merit of any particular portrayal of the core myth, the Batman story has certain hallmarks. Those identifying features certainly appear in Arkham Asylum, and to great effect. It's a Batman story, all right, and a pretty good one.

But the reason Arkham Asylum stands out, I think, is because while I agree that Rocksteady Studios nailed the fiction, their more impressive achievement was nailing the feeling of being Batman. And they nailed that feeling because they delivered an environment that was alive, that not only informed and complemented the fiction but also made it participatory.

Let's back up. In Arkham Asylum, the player has command of Batman's usual array of gadgets: Batarangs, a grappling gun, explosive gel, and so on. A sort of night-vision ("Detective Mode") allows you to see cracks in walls, gargoyles to swing to, and other potentially useful portions of the environment. The player thus can interact with Arkham Island in some pretty fun and interesting ways. You can blow up sections of walls, launch across gaps on your zipline, and glide between buildings with your cape. Obtaining new gadgets opens up previously inaccessible areas and missions, much as in the Metroid series. The tools and abilities the player acquires throughout the game also make new combat strategies possible, leading to a sense of progression and variety.

But these factors could be classified more as gameplay than environment. The environment itself - the decaying grandeur of the Arkham facility - is remarkable not only because it is beautifully and faithfully rendered, but also because it begs the player to interact with it in ways few other games do. And the reward for that interaction is making you feel like you are the nigh-invincible badass Batman is supposed to be. More on that in a moment.

First, let's look at the defining factors of the game's environment. The art style of Arkham Asylum features the somber, dark color palette we'd expect from the Batman fiction. The sound design contains perfectly executed little flourishes like the swish of Batman's cape as he dodges an attack and the crack of bone as he performs a brutal takedown. There's also masterful use of props; the halls of Arkham are littered with discarded medical equipment, tiling from the walls lays crumbled on the corridor floors, the fluorescent lights blink erratically, and even the collectibles - the psychiatrists' tape recordings of their conversations with their supercriminal patients - seem to have a purpose. If the game were a play, Arkham Asylum's set designer would be owed a Tony.

But with the exception of the audio logs, none of the elements above can be considered interactive. You can't pick up fallen tiles and hurl them at enemies. However powerfully they might paint a picture of the fictional world, they're essentially set dressing.

Where Arkham Asylum's environment shines is in its focus on making certain pieces of the environment serve the player. The game teaches you early on how to grapple up to gargoyles to hide from enemies. Later you're taught how to knock out enemies by exploding walls as they walk by, string up thugs by hanging upside-down from gargoyles, pull enemies off railings, and perform takedowns by crashing through glass. After being trained how to use Detective Mode to follow a trail of clues in the hallways, the player can then employ it toward identifying threats and planning combat and puzzle-solving strategies.

There are other examples, but the point is this: Arkham Asylum uses its environmental elements to empower the player, not simply challenge him. What would be obstacles in another game become opportunities in this one. A cracked wall becomes a weapon to be exploited, not a danger to avoid. This is why you feel like a badass playing this game, and why its world - its fiction, as supported by its environment - is so successful. There is never any doubt that Batman will take down his enemies and free Arkham from the Joker's control. The player's job is to, like Batman, find ways of making his surroundings work for him.

Game designers take note: please do this more. We want to experience your stories, your worlds. But we also want to be given the opportunity to make them work for us.

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