The element that brings everything else together, story and character, and makes them truly come alive, is the environment. It is the one factor that brings out the full mood of the game entirely.
Let’s further discuss environments, and not only in games, but also in books and movies. Environments can be absolutely anything, and look like anything the person puts their mind to, with any number of variations. So long as there is imagination, the environment can only grow. It is one of the elements that put the main character in place. The environment can be simple, and contrast the character, or reflect the current mood of the character.
Early on, the environment in games was no more than very simple, textured shapes and corridors meant only to guide the player in a path through the world, while providing minimal setting. But, as technology progressed, the environment became one of the most important and integral parts of any game, and serves several purposes. Again, the most basic use of the environment is to guide the player, to make it obvious where and where not to travel. A simplistic example of this is found in DOOM 3, and Halo: CE. DOOM 3 consisted mostly of small, rooms and corridors, leaving no freedom on where to travel, and generally guiding you to the final but. But, it served its purpose extremely well. The level of detail in the environment allowed it to work. The tight corridors make you feel claustrophobic, and because of its detailed design, could allow a demon to attack you from almost anywhere.
In Halo, the environment was beautifully sculpted and detail, and gave the illusion that the level was vast and open, when it was merely guiding you in the same manner as DOOM. The lovely backgrounds and sky-boxes, of forest and mountains, gave the environment the feeling of being completely open. This is one example where the scale of the environment affects the gameplay. It may be a linear game, but you have much more space to maneuver and strategize.
A game that broke these boundaries in a good way was Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl. This massive sandbox-style game presented the player with the opportunity to go almost anywhere they wanted, in any order, and complete missions as they desired, while being able to use the environment to their advantage. The setting was huge, and portrayed the post-apocalyptic feel almost perfectly, and captured the Chernobyl meltdown quite well.
Environments are there to set up the mood and atmosphere for the game. They can bring out emotions of power, feebleness, fear, or happiness. For instance, in Dead Space, the environments in most of the game worked against the player, to keep them on edge, feeling uncomfortable, and scared. The amazing sound and lighting effects bring out the mood even more. Walking down a corridor with the lights flickering, going out, and then suddenly coming back to life with a monstrous growl makes the player ready their weapon to defend themselves. In the end, though, it turns out to merely be the environment playing mind games with the player, to keep them constantly alert.
As stated before, environments aren’t only important in games. They’re an even bigger factor in movies. And so, let’s discuss some of my favorite environments. As a big fan of old western movies, I love the way in which Sergio Leone captured the Wild West, something classic, but not new or fantastic. However, the overall feeling it creates is incredible. George Lucas’ Star Wars (4, 5, and 6) captured so many different environments wonderfully, that your eyes were always pleased with the result. As you watch, you don’t realize it, but everything in the environment, the character, the lighting, and the mood, are all connected in a great way.
Color is a major key to movies and games, specifically with the emotions they evoke. For instance, black and red are commonly signs of evil, but they can also represent passion and love. White and blue are signs of goodness and freedom, but they can also be cold, and represent a sterile environment, such as a hospital. A good director that captures these elements is Ridley Scott. In his famous Alien, the environment is mainly white corridors, almost like a hospital. The level of sterility gives you an uncomfortable feeling in your gut. In Blade Runner - by far one of my favorite settings – Syd Mead creates an epic city that captures both old and new with a lovely dark, noire feeling to it. The overall decay and darkness enhances the mood of the story.
As an artist myself, I love capturing a combination of old and new elements when I design an environment. Looking at the past, I see that everything that I need to make a future design is already being influenced by the older designs, and all I need to do is reach out and grab it.