The feeling of intimacy in level design

I’m not much of a gamer so I don’t get much into video game aesthetics, but the danger of remaking FF7 is you’re going to invoke the ire of fanboys. And despite some amazing feats of translation from the art of 1997 to modern resolutions, they managed to fuck up the most important setting that gave FF7 its magic: the slums of Midgar. The aesthetic of the original was a red light district in a cramped root cellar where the sun never shines and the neon signs are never off. The new one is a sprawling barrio around Albequerque where the sun is too bright and reflects off the light-colored sand while you collect rat pelts for no damn reason.

There’s an aesthetic category that’s been completely lost since the runaway success of World of Warcraft ruined all triple-A games forever. All level design is either a giant open-world sandbox of copypasta textures or a linear path through some cinematic rail-shooter Disney ride. The latter at least has potential. But back in my day we knew the way you make great settings is by making the player sneak around in air vents, venture down dark alleys, and break into the shopkeeper’s dresser drawer to read his diary. Ultimately, everything I could say boils down to delivering to the player the same feeling about the map that they’d get from a lover’s body: they get to enjoy the sight of it while touching and interacting with every bit of it multiple times for about twenty minutes.

Consider a typical open sandbox map and how the player interacts with it while following those abominable mission markers:

This is like the experience of flying into a random foreign city for a training seminar, sleeping in a name-brand hotel for the regulation six hours, and then flying out again without bothering to learn the name of the language they speak in whatever country that was.

In contrast, consider the original Wall Market. To start with, just take in the fae ambience of the color palette:

Now let’s imagine the typical path Cloud takes around this map:

Which of these experiences is going to leave the player with a feeling like they’ve been to a real, existing place? Which will leave an impression? When I look around and see a bunch of tweaked-out, sex-crazed Americans running around chasing easy money and shiny lights, which one am I going to remember and think “I feel like I’m living in X in real life?” The original Midgar, of course.

I’m not saying you can’t have beautiful sprawling vistas or the sense of being in a big world. FF7 pulled both of those things off while keeping the sense of place intimate. When you climb up a wire out of Wall Market it’s basically one of those rail-shooter paths with the aftermath of Third Impact in the background:

That’s kind of hard to see if you don’t already know what it is so here are a couple of better examples from my favorite game, which does this trick exceedingly well:

FF7 achieves the feeling of being in a big world with the world map, to give a sense of scale. But the world maps back then were super boring, so I’m not going to tout that as a good solution. I think HyperLight Drifter had the right idea there too, by putting wilderness sections between cities. I also liked how in Morrowind if you wanted to fast travel you had to buy a train ticket.

Yahtzee’s always preaching about his precious immersion, so consider this my contribution to his school of philosophy. To produce a feeling of immersion in the world of the game, the locations where things actually happen have to feel intimate.

I wonder if this is the real reason I’ve become interested in point-and-click adventure games. The settings have to be like this by definition of the gameplay, and the golden-age JRPGs of the PlayStation era have a lot more in common with Monkey Island games or Riven than they do with World of Warcraft.

About Aeoli Pera

Maybe do this later?
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1 Response to The feeling of intimacy in level design

  1. aiaslives says:

    You need to play Grimoire : Heralds of the Winged Exemplar.

    Best game ever.

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