Fallout 3 and Skyrim environment artist Noah Berry shares his thoughts on the power of details in complex open level design.
Noah Berry continues his series of articles for 80.lv. This post is devoted to the overview of the macro environments. The artist talks a little about the details on modern open world games and the main power that drives this pursuit of perfection. No, it’s not GPU.
Over the arc of my career, I often pondered the growth of complexity and detail around the resulting game worlds created, and within the realities of making them. That scope of awareness as a developer and as an artist, with any undertaking along the way, unwaveringly expanded and grew so universally, it would often seem to teeter on the brink of dwarfing, if not severing connection with distant intentions and origins seeding the whole endeavor. There would be many pauses along the way to marvel at how micro scale detail would continue to flourish and pervade – where that scale of information was once wholly new, and unprecedented in its own right – while the breadth of the larger world within which it was found intrepidly climbed onward to new heights once only dreamed of.
In somewhat mirrored contrast with a creation staple – starting with the broad strokes, then iterating on down into smaller detail – a longer cycled trend occurred, encompassing an inclusive shift in development focus and awareness from the small scale, to the very large, within the evolution of open world building. Starting out, most of a creator’s time and attention was on the player’s immediate surroundings, where sight lines and distances were modest, and much of the resulting creation process was in articulating and describing detail for smaller scale props and items – cups, plates, furniture, plants, trees, buildings, and similar foreground surfaces.
This was due as much to the maturation of hardware and software, as it was to the maturation of crafting games. Each step along the way, even within the larger steps of project-spanning time increments, carried forth memory of losses, successes, and unmet desires from all previous efforts. This more moment-to-moment focus on the flow of history kept the forward momentum going along the way with this universal trend towards expansion, making open world spaces bigger and broader over time, with the detail richer and deeper, down to pixel levels.
For Morrowind, one of the first titles undertaken, the detail levels to which NPC interiors were presented to the player, with their fully realized clutter and various prop arrangements, was covering new ground to a degree that well superseded what the series’ previous installments could accommodate. I can recall much time spent meticulously lining up reflection highlights embedded into art used as kitchenware props and tabletop sundries, so that they might visually synchronize with local light sources.
With more recent advances however, this type of light interaction behavior is instead dynamically simulated and presented to the player for a bit of extra visual nuance. Rather than a need for the world builder to have such specific object positional awareness, entirely new layers of texture information and modeled detail are rigged and incorporated into even the simplest of in-game objects, to more thoroughly interact with the increasingly complex world simulation. Yet, the resources and effort that goes into those new layers of information, not to mention the software needed to create them, could rapidly outpace the time and effort an individual artist once undertook, within an a span of a project, where there has never been enough time – from even the earliest days – to create everything desired and envisioned.
This same avenue of thought and intention would apply to raw art creation, as well as the more functional, interactive aspects of game and level design. In Morrowind’s case, forays were made into the custom tailoring of city and town spaces so that they reflected some of the natural environments they were are a part of. A coastal, marsh region, for example, would contain ramshackle hovels visually textured and constructed to appear cobbled together from the local swamp tree wood supply. Functionally, the structures would be designed and arranged around stilts, due to the fluctuating tides within the area, and to introduce some elevation as navigational interest for the player, within an otherwise flat environment. Home interiors would also reflect these qualities in their contents and layout, such as with fishing paraphernalia strewn about to represent the local culture and industry, or with water surfaces underlying the slatted floorboards, offering unique opportunities for layers of sound design detail, serving to further bridge artificial gaps between interior and exterior spaces.
Outside, the landscape would take shape around the denizens and their dwellings, with pathway terraformed, brush-cleared terrain eventually giving way to wilder slough. The environment influences the details, and the details, in turn, reverberatingly shape and affect their environment. Causality becomes a bit muddy, apart perhaps from the artist’s point of entry, and something akin to the resting state of the world being created begins to surface.
This recursive influence was true at increasingly larger scales as well, perhaps even fractal in its nature. As attention turned from items and scenes immediately in front of the player’s view, expansive, open world sub-regions and environments now needed to react to, and influence each other within their own broadening vistas, out towards an increasingly articulated horizon. For Skyrim, mountain range shape and form was taken into consideration, at least visually, not only with their look and feel regarding texture, surface, and component structure on micro to midrange scales, but with their flow and influence upon the world at larger macro scales as well.
Where a glacially carved, pine forested valley would spill downward and give way to open tundra, then back again into increasingly snow covered landscape flowing in a northerly traverse, effort was made to get a sense for how the underlying geology of the upheaved, exposed mountain rock would push, pull, and morph around the massive, leaden forces driving it all from underneath, deeply in foundation and operating at continental scales, shaping the world at large.
It is tough to say, let alone know how this might affect the player’s experience tangibly, if at all, but merely having such large panoramas and open world features in view calls attention for their need to lovingly resolve and merge into even the smallest of foreground elements, and also inversely so, with the player’s view ultimately being a window into this simulated recreation of a grander, reciprocal dance of influence.
Looking back upon this whole journey, I am reminded yet again of various themes that have gently surged and swelled up to the surface over the years, calling attention to themselves every so often in subtle, shuddered echoes, clearer within the stillness born from such reflection and contemplation. As it is, of course, a unique subset of life, the voyage of building an open world reveals analogues for human experiences like creation and birth, inward introspection intertwined with outward exploration, awareness for all things influencing each other, and all via this process of summoning forth, and describing a brand new world made in creative facsimileof this existence, from within ours.