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The Consistency Of Game-Worlds

A quick look at the readability and predictability of videogame environments using Assassin's Creed and Uncharted 2 as examples.

On a purely aesthetic level, the repeated usage of art assets has advanced a great deal since the copy-and-paste days of tile-based games. More often than not, a simple rock can now be viewed from multiple camera angles, its body can be scaled and rotated along three different axes, lighting and shading can be used to illuminate or obscure it, texturing tricks can be employed to differentiate its surface from that of other rocks, and particle and shader effects can enhance it with extra visual flair.

These techniques prevent a game-world from coming across as a clearly defined series of asset-stamps. Of course the base assets can still be spotted if one looks hard enough, but, at least at a quick glance, they make for visually varied environments.

As the quantity of the base assets increases, though, and as more and more of them are individually edited, the scenes these objects compose become increasingly unique. This borderline hand-sculpting of a game's world creates very pretty visuals, but it also introduces issues of recognition.

The somewhat recycled but easily parsed world of Assassin's Creed...

To illustrate this, I'll use the original Assassin's Creed and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. The first title is an open sandbox while the second is a fairly linear experience, but both games contain their fair share of environmental traversal.

With Assassin's Creed, it's incredibly easy to assess any given location, and by extension the player's available actions. This allows him to waltz into a previously unexplored area, cause a bit of havoc, and make a quick getaway. Every ledge, beam, outcropping, etc., is instantly recognizable, and their functionality effortlessly parsed.

In Uncharted 2, on the other hand, every part of a level tends to be uniquely structured. This results in some impressive vistas, but prevents the player from instantly recognizing how he can interact with their individual components. Of course the game is tightly structured and pretty forgiving, and tends to separate its platforming from its combat, so split-second assessments are rarely necessary. Humans are also very good at grouping and categorizing objects, so the assets' visual permutations are fairly easily digested.

This aesthetic variety does become more of an issue, though, when the player incorrectly guesses at the properties or functionality of an individual object.

...and the visually stunning but mechanically ambiguous world of Uncharted 2.

It might seem a bit odd that all the ladders in Assassin's Creed are pretty uniform, but once a ladder is encountered, its purpose is clear for the rest of the game. The player never debates whether he can climb a ladder positioned at a steep angle, or whether such a ladder can hold his weight. There are also no ladders with missing rungs, or ladders adorned with ornamental cloth, so there's never any risk in performing the climbing action itself.

Such drastic visual tweaks often require substantial alterations to the assets' physical properties, e.g., the crumbling ledge can't be grabbed, the steep slope must initiate a custom scaling animation, the angled column needs to be walled off by an invisible wall, etc. These special cases not only have the tendency to break the suspension of disbelief (why exactly can't I hop over a dinky fence when I can effortlessly jump across a giant chasm?), but they can also foster bugs and glitches.

Large amounts of customization need to be meticulously tracked, and their combinations are significantly more difficult to predict, test and smooth out. As an example, during my playthrough of Uncharted 2, I managed to clip through a piece of architecture that had no collision checks associated with it, and climbed up to an area I clearly wasn't supposed to reach. Both cases resulted in Nathan Drake promptly falling to his death (the second one even took him outside the bounds of the map itself).

These seams in the game-world are quite jarring and break player immersion, and, in my opinion, highlight how a more basic but consistent setting can actually appear more elegant and believable.

Radek Koncewicz is the CEO and creative lead of Incubator Games, and also runs the game design blog Significant-Bits. 

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