3d artist Johannes Böhm talked about his approach to environmental art, the narrative functions of the levels and the design of urban scenes.
My name is Johannes Böhm and I am senior environment artist currently working at Massive, a Ubisoft studio in Malmö, Sweden. I studied philosophy and history of arts at the Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen as well as Visual Communication at the Academy of Fine Arts in Nürnberg.
The first and most obvious answer for me is that the Environment Art creates the world in which the game is set. Without it, we would just have colored blocks that the player navigates around. The gameplay would still be perfectly functional, but it would be lacking the context.
Secondly, the environment art helps the players with navigation. Through clever composition we as Environment Artists guide the player to where we want them to go. We develop a visual language that the player will learn and that will help them navigate the gameplay space. For example doors that are enterable will look different from doors which are not, the same goes for climbable ledges (remember the hanging ropes from Far Cry 3?) etc.
Thirdly, the Environment Art, especially in modern games does a lot of the storytelling. Cutscenes and long dialogue sequences are less present than in the past and so it falls to us to tell the stories through the environment for the player to either pick up on or ignore.
Tell a Story Through the Environment
The simplest way is to just literally write your story on the walls in the forms of graffitis, but I find this lacks subtlety and it also does not challenge the players, so they will lose interest rather quickly.
I find a much more interesting approach is to show how your story affected the environment and let the player figure out what exactly happened.
If there was a fight in your story, the apartment that it happened in might have moved furniture, the carpets might be all messy, some flower pots might have fallen down, the earth being spilled on the floor. There could be footprints from that same earth on the floor, showing where the people fighting went.
It doesn’t have to be as heavy-handed as this example, but it also shouldn’t be too subtle, otherwise the player will just miss it.
Readability generally is something you should be paying attention to when telling a story through an environment. If there is too much clutter in your scene, no one will figure out what belongs to your story and what doesn´t. Try keeping both your story as well as your environment relatively simple and avoid objects that distract from your story. That does not mean your scene can´t be detailed, it just means the details need to be non-distracting and not stick out too much.
What you want the player to take home is the story you want to tell and not how well you modelled those engraved chairlegs.
Adding the Details
It really depends on the scene and the environment. I think one of the things that help make an Environment interesting is to have a general theme for it. So instead of “generic backalley”, you could go for a back alley with pipes. You would then use a lot of cables on the walls, drainpipes, construction rebar, maybe some very big exhaust pipes etc.
That way, your environment gets more memorable. Especially when you are working on an open world game, this can be hugely helpful both for providing variety as well as helping with player navigation.
For Inspiration, have a look at Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II where he used this technique extensively. Every one of his sets has one defining feature that all the environment art is built around.
General Environment Production
The first step for me is always to decide on a theme for an environment I want to build and what I want to achieve with it. Once I have decided on that, I will start looking for reference and thinking about composition.
Since I am not very good at drawing, I try to get my scene in a game engine as quickly as possible to see how it feels. The 3D Version also has the advantage that you can look at it from all different angles and from the player’s perspective and make sure it works from all angles that the player is likely to approach it from.
At this stage, I try to limit myself to just the major shapes without any particular lighting or colors.
This helps me to focus on just looking at the lines, the shapes and the negative shapes. Once those work well without any color or lighting, I can be sure to have a good base to build on.
From there on, it is mostly just going through the motions of building and placing all the elements of the scene. One thing that is important to me is to make sure that I only add Details where I really need them and not to plaster the entire scene with them.
I am a big fan of clean, empty surfaces. Without them, the entire picture just becomes a big noisy blur of details and your eye doesn’t know where to look.
When you read Interviews with great photographers, they are always talking about isolating their subject and trying to reduce information in their pictures, rather than trying to increase it.
I think that is because they are looking first and foremost at creating beautiful images as opposed to us Environment Artists that often get carried away with crafting every last bit of detail to achieve what we perceive as “photorealism”.
Light for me is one of the most important aspects of a scene. It is what will to a large extent create the atmosphere and it is hugely important to guide the players eye.
That being said, I have never felt that I have a very solid grasp on lighting. It is a very very technical process as well as an artistic one and it requires lots of knowledge and experience. That is why almost every major video game production has dedicated lighting artists. Luckily, I have had the fortune to work with some truly talented lighting artists both at Yager as well as at Massive. When I work on a professional game, they will do all of lighting anyway and I don’t have anything to do with it. If I want, I can give them input on what I want to achieve with the scene and what kind of lighting I imagined and they will take that into account when lighting the scene. It is very rare that I actually place lights in a scene.
When working with personal projects, it is a bit more complicated, but usually I just do some rough light blockout and then try to bribe our lighting artists with a pizza or cookies to help me with the finalization of the lighting during a lunch break or two.
Using Climatic Elements
Having a certain climate can really help pulling your scene together. In Spec Ops: The Line, it was the constant sandstorms that covered everything in Sand, in Tom Clancy’s The Division it was the snow and in my personal project New York Street Corner I used rain.
These elements, when used correctly, can greatly enhance your scene while also saving you work. Sand or snowdrifts can help cover up seams and create transitions in areas that would usually have sharp 90 degree corners and they create natural “empty spaces” for your eyes to rest in.
Rain provides great detail to really show off engine features like reflections (if you add neon lights that reflect in puddles in the street, your scene will almost instantly look cool).
It is important though, if you go for such an extreme climate, to really think it through. If you go for snow, where would you have a full snow cover and where would it melt? If the snow melts, where would the water run to? What parts of the environment would not be covered in snow (e.g. under cars that have been standing on the street before the snow fell)?
Similarly when it rains, where would puddles form? Which parts of the walls would get the most wet and which ones would stay relatively dry?
It really pays off to think about those aspects as they will lead to a much more believable environment.
What I find often separates a great urban environment in a game from a mediocre one is how thought through it is.
We see those environments every day in our lives, so we recognize rather quickly if something is off or seems out of place.
Think about the logic of your environment and how it is all connected. Are your floors the right height? Where are the aircons? Is there anything interesting happening on the roofs (such as water towers or ventilation pipes). Don’t place leakings randomly on the walls, think about where the water would naturally flow and where the dirt would collect. Manholes and drain pipes are usually quite close together. Trees that grow next to a wall will be shaped in a certain way
Cars should be parked according to the signage you place. Trash on the streets will mostly flow towards the sidewalk curb and the gutters and not just cover the entire street. The same thing goes for fallen leaves.
Don’t place elements randomly, have a reason for everything and connect it to other things in your scene.
Johannes Böhm, Senior Environment Artist at Ubisoft Massive