[In a Gamasutra analysis piece, writer/professor Michael Abbott draws from his recent experiences with Assassin's Creed II and Demon's Souls to contrast the effects of realistic environments versus artist-conceived backdrops.]
One moment in Demon's Souls
remains planted in my memory deeper than any other, and it has nothing to do with defeating a boss or acquiring a prized weapon.
I was cautiously winding my way through the Valley of Defilement, gingerly traversing rotted planks of wood, peering through a dank mist for poisonous bugs and deranged goblins, and carrying 10,000+ hard-won souls (the game's currency) with me. It was a big mistake.
I should have played it smart and returned to the Nexus, cashed in my souls and leveled up. But curiosity about an unexplored region got the best of me, and soon I found myself knee-deep in a decrepit, plague-ridden swamp with too few healing herbs and no clear idea how to get out.
Health slowly draining and vaguely aware of a sloshing menace in the water ahead of me, I knew that dying would mean losing everything I had worked hours to acquire.
I needed a moment to stop and think, but Demon's Souls
offers no pause button. It was then that I noticed my hands - sweating, wrapped in a death grip around my controller. I was scared.
It's been a long time since a video game did that to me. When I reflect on how and why it happened, I realize that the defining component of Demon's Souls
isn't its bosses or RPG elements. The thing that makes Demon's Souls
such a scintillating experience is its environments.
To be sure, the game has its share of nasty creatures, mostly pathetic, moaning wanderers who seem desperate to be relieved of their misery. But in places like the Valley of Defilement, the environment itself challenges the player in more dastardly ways than its inhabitants. One slip, and you're dead. One overlooked hole in the floor, and you're finished.
Mismanage your inventory in the swamp, and the plague will get you. Darkness, disease, and blind leaps to landings you hope will be there - all can lead to your demise. Even Demon's Souls
' rats threaten less with their bites than their ability to divert your attention from the ledge you'll fall off trying to kill them.
Worse (or better, if we're measuring clever design), other players can alter your thinking about the game's locales by leaving messages intended to "help" you. If you encounter a player-posted message on a cliff-edge encouraging you to jump, will heeding it yield a valuable prize or plummet you to your death? The uncertainty is unsettling, but also, somehow, deeply alluring.
Discovering ways to turn the game's environments to your advantage (locating safe spots or ideal sniping locations, for example) provokes an impulse to share your knowledge with others, and the game's rating system promotes messages that players consider helpful. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit to leaving a message or two luring other players into an ugly fate. Why should I be the only one who suffers, eh?
It took time for me to fully appreciate the impact of Demon's Souls
' environments on my experience as a player. The game's notorious difficulty can stifle analysis. In my own case, the game subverted my natural tendency to stand both inside and outside my gaming experience.
It's hard to be analytical when you're fighting for your life. Demon's Souls
also has a way of enveloping you in its systems, luring you into hours of fiddling with your stats and massive inventory, which can be neither sold nor traded.
The Assassin's Environment
The genius of Demon's Souls
' environments was finally thrown into stark relief after I finished it and moved on to another game: Assassin's Creed II
. Acknowledging the stark differences between the worlds these two games depict, I can't resist comparing them.
When I learned that Florence would serve as one of Assassin's Creed II
's major settings, my excitement for the game grew. I know the city well, and I was curious to see how the game would render a 15th century version of it. Having progressed far enough in the game to roam, I did what I'm sure lots of Firenze-philes do: I headed straight to the Duomo.
It's a credit to the game's designers that even in its compressed form, the city is laid out realistically enough to find one's way to the Duomo by relying on familiar landmarks. Along the way, I marveled at the game's colors and textures. Even the sky seemed just the right shade of blue. Arriving at the Duomo, I walked around the Basilica, mouth agape, amazed by the fidelity. I climbed several surrounding buildings for a better view. I handed my wife the controller so she could have a look. We both smiled in amazement.
And there my love affair with AC2
's virtual Florence ended. I returned to playing the game, and the city receded into its role as a backdrop. To be sure, it's a beautiful, astonishingly faithful (and climbable) backdrop...but as game environments go, it's hardly more than that. One can walk its streets full of people, visit vendors, and pick up side missions, but the experience feels scripted and automatronic.
Progressing to Venice and other locales feels like a cut-and-paste operation; aside from city-specific features, it's more of the same ambling groups of monks, prostitutes, citizens, and vendors. The opportunity here - imbuing a vibrant Italian city with life and bringing that energy to bear on the player - takes a back seat to a conveyor belt experience with map marker missions. Beauty, in this case, is truly only skin deep.
Postcards Vs. Immersion
Of course, one might suggest that dynamic environments simply aren't necessary in a game like AC2
. It is, after all, a third-person action-adventure game, and exotic locales need only function as backdrops in such games. But such thinking is needlessly self-limiting. Demon's Souls
, an action-RPG similarly situated in a fixed set of genre conventions, demonstrates the value of upending such conventions by creating a game world that outshines even its most outrageously fiendish bosses.
By designing all of its five environments as dynamic, self-contained worlds, each visually and sonically distinctive and each requiring different strategies from the player, Demon's Souls
jettisons the notion that an RPG (particularly a Japanese RPG like Demon's Souls
) must place all its genre chips on bosses, quests, and stats.
Assassin's Creed II
seems to want to deliver an open-world experience to the player, but for the most part that world is look, but don't touch. The game offers two awkwardly implemented city tours (the first carrying a box through Florence for Leonardo Da Vinci; the second a walking tour of Venice courtesy of Alvise da Vilandino).
But these introductions serve little meaningful purpose since the only real rewards for exploring are locating hidden chests, feathers, glyphs, and other collection-oriented gameplay add-ons. Despite their extraordinary visual presentation, these great Italian cities usually function as little more than labyrinths for acrobatic chase sequences.
Imaginative artist-conceived game worlds can draw players in and entice them to explore the unknown, accentuating discovery of a landscape unbound by the limits of verisimilitude. Demon's Souls
' crumbling derelict world visually reinforces the sense of despair and moral decay that defines the player's experience in Boletaria. The world itself feels alive and unfixed, a hostile force to overcome.
Assassin's Creed II
's Florence, Venice, and Rome aren't meant to convey menace, and they exist to serve a very different game. But aside from provoking astonishment at the power of a game engine to render accurate re-creations of real places, it's hard for me to feel connected to these virtual places. I can appreciate the technical achievement, but I'm hard-pressed to understand how that achievement serves Assassin's Creed II
as a game, aside from offering the player a lovely set of postcards and a birds-eye view.
[Michael Abbott is writer and host of the Brainy Gamer blog and podcast. He teaches theater and film at Wabash College, as well as a seminar course devoted to the art and history of video games.]