By Cliff "Cliffy B" Bleszinski
he elevator in our building is painfully slow, so the other day I decided to take the stairs to our second floor office. I figured, since I'm on my ass the majority of the time, it would do me some good to run up a couple of flights several times a day. However, upon entering the stairwell, I was overcome with an immense sense of Déjà vu. The walls… The fluorescent lighting…the concrete…I felt like I had run through this space before.
Then, it hit me. I remembered running through this place with a pistol and a security guard by my side. Our stairwell here looks just like one of the early environments in Half-Life! I had recently played through "Day One," the OEM version on a friend's PC, and the resemblance was uncanny.
Now, this realization can be viewed in several ways. It can be taken as a compliment; one could say that Valve has done such a meticulous job recreating an office-like environment that game playing geeks everywhere are tripping out when they go to work every day. (Well, everyone except those ION guys…) It can be taken as an insult; one might assume that a stale office stairwell is not a particularly stimulating place to shoot aliens, and it is not in fact difficult to create in 3d.
However you take it, I can now thank Valve for making my arrival at work every day extremely surreal.
Now, with my little anecdote out of the way I have a confession to make.
I enjoy fantastic worlds more than realistic Earth environments.
There. I said it. These days, I feel like I'm coming out of some sort of gamer closet, admitting something like this. Not only do I prefer playing games that take place in mysterious or fantastic locales, I prefer building and designing them. Would I enjoy fighting military personnel in an office park? Not really, I'd rather travel to a parallel dimension and find alien weaponry with which to hunt down Alien Grunts.
(Now, I hear there is a whole "Alien World" section of Half-Life that you get to infiltrate later in the game… This sounds closer to my cup of tea!)
Magazine editorials are touting "real world environments" as the Next Big Thing. The criteria for hiring level designers lately seems to be whether or not they can perform virtual carpentry by building a bookshelf in a level, instead of constructing fantastic and strange architecture that has never been seen by human eyes. If I want to see a bookshelf, I'll go home or to the library. If I want to see a bank, I'll go down the street and make a deposit. Show me something I can't see every day! Give me the SunSpire! Show me the Skaarj Mothership, which I must navigate with a flashlight as I'm running out of ammo!
I had my huge epiphany when I was last at Disneyland, before I moved. (When you live in California, you usually go once or twice a year to the House of Mouse. Don't ask.) My fiancée and I were waiting in line for the Indiana Jones ride and, much like our office's stairwell reminded me of Half-Life, this place reminded me of the Temple of Vandora, Shane Caudle's ancient ruins level from Unreal. I looked at the hordes of people who paid $34 (a head) around me to experience this environment, and realized that if I ever have to make a "real" environment I'd probably shoot myself.
Think about it. Every day, you're seeing "normal" places. Where do most people go to on vacation? Places like the Caribbean, Lake Tahoe, or the Grand Canyon. Why? Because these places are more appealing to the key human senses of sight and sound than any day to day locale can ever be. Take a look at the room you are currently in. How colourful and interesting are the walls? Chances are they're painted white, or have some tacky wallpaper. I refuse to believe that this is more interesting than ancient rock face, or crumbling stone walls, or vine covered rotting wood. What kinds of sounds are there to hear in an office environment, the humming of fluorescent track lighting, or the dripping of the coffee maker? I'll take the roaring of a waterfall or the sounds of exotic and strange animals echoing through eerily lit caves. What are you going to uncover in a desk in an office? Perhaps some magical paper clips? Give me a hidden treasure chest that contains a holy relic that might bestow me with super powers.
When we were all children, where did we want to explore? The local old barn or those caves back in the woods, or the decrepit abandoned Victorian home that was allegedly haunted, not the school we went to every day or the office that Dad went to! I find that the best gaming experiences are the ones that emulate what was enjoyed when we were all children - Deathmatch is essentially a super violent version of Tag or "Smear the Queer." Capture the flag hasn't changed that much from Gym class now has it? Stick with what was enjoyable when you were knee high to a grasshopper and you'll make a compelling gaming environment.
On the same note, I think dirty environments are more interesting than pristine places. I don't like super clean locales in games. I don't think the current batch of engines are good enough to make a brand spanking new plaster wall look appealing to the eye. Whenever I work with texture artists they are always astounded by how I keep asking them for "more dookie" on textures. I demand dirt, so cover that iron wall with rust! Peel that fresh plaster away and put some water stains on that stucco! Grungy textures are far more interesting to the eye because there is so much more going on. The traditional office environment is kept clean (well, except for those pizza boxes -you know who you are!) and seems awfully boring compared to the dark, dingy, mysterious castle.
I realize that there are hordes of developers out there who really enjoy making chairs, desks, and linoleum textures. I also understand there is a certain John-Wood excitement to blowing up FBI agents in a shopping mall. But I cannot tell a lie. I like fighting monsters on their turf instead of our mini-mall-covered landscape. Keep making your pristine "real world" environments, fellow developers.
I'll keep working on the Other Side.
- Cliff Bleszinski is a game designer on Unreal for Epic Megagames.
|Credits: Guest Editorial logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. This Guest Editorial is © 1998 Cliff Bleszinski. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited and not nice.|