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Games in Small Places

Examining the beauty of games that take place in one focused locale.

I've been playing Batman: Arkham Asylum lately, and I'm having a good time with it. The gameplay is pretty fun and all, but what I really enjoy is that it all takes place in Gotham's favorite institution for the criminally insane. I'm usually the kind of guy that isn't really impressed by game worlds, but this one has really taken me in. It's the relatively tight, focused location of Arkham Asylum that does wonders for me. 

Everyone knows that focus is important with gameplay; without it, features seem tacked on. The same can be said of a game's environment. For decades we've played through jungles, ice floes, deserts, and factories, all in the same title. While some games have been able to pull this off through excellent execution, most have failed here. It's hard to make one lava cave look and feel different from those that came before. This propensity toward the generic doesn't happen on purpose - it's just that developers don't usually have the time and resources to fully realize a bunch of different locations. The levels end up lacking soul, and the player ends up a little more detached from the game.

Arkham Asylum has got soul. Regardless of what section you’re exploring, you can tell you’re in Arkham. It reminds me of Bioshock's Raputre, or Pandora's Temple from God of War. These locations are fully realized in every sense. They feel architected and alive. Everything about them is unified. Do you remember Myst's enigmatic island and the creepy chambers of 7th Guest? So much of a game's draw and sustaining energy come from its environment. We can't afford to skimp on it.

Inside or outside, Arkham has its own vibe

Arkham  is fully realized, inside and out

Focus, consistency, and order are ancient architectural goals. Games like the aforementioned prove to me that environmental consistency can be carried throughout most of a title's world. I've been in plenty of design meetings where developers argued that a single location will only bore the player. Obviously this isn't the case if you can design the right location, big enough for fifteen hours of gameplay but conceptually small enough to be fully realized. Within any single game area there's room for endless variation.

Now I'm not saying that every game needs to take place in a tiny locale. It would have been hard to squeeze Fallout 3's untold hours of playtime into the Capitol Building. But it could be argued that by constraining it to Washington D.C., the developers effectively limited the environment to a consistent, identifiable area. The "road trip" approach still really works for many games, but those games have the additional onus of fully realizing each environment without relying on the strengths of the others.

This approach not only helps the player better understand the world, but it helps the developers in executing it. A single locale means many opportunities for asset reuse. Variation is key, but it's easier to create and polish with an established palette. And, as was the case with Bioshock, a singular environment can inform other creative aspects like the game's story. It's much harder to deviate from the game's focus when important parts like environments are unified under one vision.

What we really want is the environment to be a character in the game. Like any good character, the audience needs time to get to know him. We want the player to experience all of an environment's personality, moods, and beauty. Again, this all takes time. I love getting lost in a game's world if it's fully realized. In contrast, it's really off-putting to feel that I'm only experiencing a superficial game world. Who wants to explore a place that can't build upon itself or become its own character? So here's to more games in small places.

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