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
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