Friday, August 12, 2011

One With Nature: Character-environment interaction in games

What makes a game immersive?

Versimilitude in games has always been a big factor in the creative process.
Without this factor we'd lack such industry standards as dynamic lighting, HD graphics and physics engines.

It's everything from the way the characters stands on low settings to the way the light breaks through the leaves of trees on Ultra.
It's how it sounds when you swing a sledge hammer into a zombie's face and it's the user interface itself.

Every facet of design factors into our own suspension of disbelief, and cultivating a feeling of versimilitude can change a game from a mediocre FPS to an industry standard.

Here's looking at you, Half life 2.

Environment design is always a very important facet of cultivating versimilitude, particularly in conjunction with a game's UI.

It's this facet that allowed games like the Splinter Cell series to stake their claim to the bloated FPS market, held aloft on the back of a man wedged 10 feet in the air, feet propped against opposite walls of an alley way.

Splinter Cell in particular makes good use of its environment, allowing players to alter lighting conditions, cut through fabric barricades, hang from pipes and generally aid themselves in evading discovery, or perhaps allowing them a whole new dimension of places to attack enemies from.
Meanwhile Fallout 3 stalled gameplay for 2 hours to get through a plywood fence guarded by 8 year olds.

Later Assassins' creed games also love using environmental interaction as a selling point, attacking from above and below, reinvigorating an already drying franchise in terms of gameplay prospect.
Stabbing someone in the face can get old quick, despite popular belief.

Crytek engine games also love to use environments to their advantage, such as hurling enemies through shacks in Crysis or starting bush fires in Farcry 2, saving both games from being really quite terrible in terms of gameplay and design choices.
That said nothing will save Sniper: Ghost Warrior from being near-unplayable, but I'll save that for another time.

However there are many games that ignore this aspect and suffer greatly for it.
The gamebryo engine games, from Oblivion through to the newer Fallout games, all suffer from very unintuitive interaction between character and environment, particularly basic movement and item placement.
It feels more like your character is running on an invisible treadmill and using its ancient power to glide across the landscape than actual foot propulsion.
It doesn't help that the engine's graphics REALLY didn't age well and that even to begin with every character looked like a spitting image puppet with leprosy.
Thankfully for Bethesda the modding community came to the rescue, salvaging all 3 games from all of the annoying little issues that quickly become a tidal wave of irritation, like firing tear gas into any given audience for the Glee movie.
New Vegas in particular cleaned up rather nicely, since it was by far the better of the two in terms of lighting and design, even if it was still terminally underpopulated and had even more bugs than its predecessor, but unreliability in game engines is a topic for another time.

Any game, no matter how tired and leathery the game's premise has been worn over the years from overuse, no matter how many cliches are used, can be salvaged with a decent engine that allows more in depth use of the environment.
Dead rising 1 & 2 are good examples of rather dry games that were saved by player-environment interaction at its most basic level, weaponry aquisition.

The real problem within the industry today is a combination of the idea of 'safe' investment and efficiency problems with the more popular Operating systems games can use, leading to a lack of processing power.

Games that really gave me hope for environment use were titles such as Bad company, Assassins creed brotherhood, the Crytek games (barring Sniper:GW) and especially Bulletstorm, which based its entire premise around the idea, though failed to innovate quite enough.

Giving players the chance to use a situation in new and creative ways is one of the best ways to improve player satisfaction.
There is little more satisfying than bursting through a wall via C4 in Bad company and killing a larger group of opposing players, luring the remnants into the building, then blowing the remaining supports, crushing the rest beneath a pile of rubble.
This gameplay facet is also extremely effective when combined with locational character damage, such as the crippling system in Fallout: New Vegas or the severing system in the Deadspace series.
On one occasion in the former fo the two I played a stealth throwing/melee character inspired by the film "The Hunted." and was playing the new vegas bounties mod (I fully endorse the mod, it's excellent).
One boss difficulty fiend with a high end weapon in heavy armour, on very hard difficulty, vs me, my ghillie suit and my throwing hatchets.
Sneak-strafing from building to building, disarming and crippling him with hatchetts was the most cathartic session of gaming I've ever had, primarily because it felt more cerebral than just playing a game like Black & White and setting fire to entire villages because I could.

Innovation is a major basis for catharsis and catharsis is, in turn, a major base for enjoyable gameplay, particularly in the already very bloated and festering FPS market, which pretty much has its own dogma by now.

If the medium's to advance, one major, viable route it most likely has to exploit is the one I've discussed here.
We've already made great leaps forward with titles such as Bad Company and Red Faction: Guerilla.
If we can make the system work more fluidly and on smaller scales then we could have games that easily rival Minecraft in terms of pure replay value.
If Minecraft, a game still in its Beta when it became a cult smash hit, making millions in the process, can make use of this factor, then why can't the rest of the market?

Misanthrope, signing out.