How important is setting?
A reading of this Anton Chekhov quote might suggest that everything that exists should have a meaning to do so. It’s certainly a literary and stage tradition to only introduce things that are really necessary for the audience to understand. That’s perhaps a limitation of those genres, since plays tend to be more about the acting, the characters and the story, and books aren’t a visual medium. Time spent building up the world is time away from making the plot get on with it.
At the same time, if the only things that are introduced are important things, the world can feel sparse and shallow. I’ve been playing the latest Ace Attorney game, the investigations of Miles Edgeworth. It’s a great game, better than the Phoenix Wright games in my book. Even so, there are only a few characters introduced in any given “case”, and it’s usually pretty quickly apparent who the guilty party is just because of the small cast and processes of elimination. It’s arguable that such is intentional, but it does make a story seem a bit overstreamlined (and too easy) at times. Also, when running investigations, you can only examine certain things, almost always relevant to the case. This is also intentional, I figure, since it keeps players on track instead of getting bogged down in unnecessary details that can be interpreted in different ways. It’s investigating on rails, but it works for what they are trying to do.
That TVTropes article rephrases the quote as “do not include any unnecessary elements in a story.” That’s fine for a medium where you can rely on the reader or viewer to fill in the visual and setting gaps, but what of these MMO things and other games where the world itself is a significant part of the art budget and production pipeline? It’s almost worth arguing that the world itself is a character, or each zone is a character. They certainly have their own personality in many games… if a place can be thought of as having unique traits and moods. They are certainly meant to be distinct and to evoke moods.
Crafting a world by hand is a daunting prospect. We can certainly use procedural content generators to fill in the world for us, but even that has technical and artistic limits. Even the real world is procedural, of a sort, but the complexity is orders of magnitude more than we usually want to bother with simulating. So, we have to decide the threshold of detail that we want to bother with for our window dressing.
I like setting and backstory. I’ve always been that way. I wanted to animate for Disney, but found myself wanting to do the extra characters (stage dressing) and backgrounds more than lead animation. In high school, the few times my friends wrangled me into doing something social, I helped with stage setup and the school TV program. I spent a LOT of time working with computers and cameras trying to make some cool blue screen effects for the daily broadcasts. (It never worked out, but dagnabbit, we tried.) I’ve written game design documents that are 80% background and setting, history and sociology. I do more worldcrafting than anything else when I do my own creative work. To me, the setting is the backbone of a well-presented story.
Tangentially, that’s why I still enjoy watching Sleeping Beauty. That Disney film still has one of the most distinctive settings in animation history, and it’s far stronger for it.
Yes, yes, character really drives a story and makes the plot move, but if it’s not set within a framework that makes sense and is interesting, the story loses plausibility in my mind. I’ve been to a handful of stage plays in my life, some with intricate settings, some with sparse props. Inevitably, the ones with more interesting staging are the ones that I remember best. Let’s call it “immersion”, shall we? I want to believe that the play is taking place in a place that isn’t merely a platform with a few spotlights.
Of course, this need not always mean huge attention to intricate detail. Sometimes it just means some well-crafted props, often designed to have multiple uses with clever use of lighting and positioning.
Back to games, then, we do a LOT of this sort of positioning and lighting fudgery. We reuse textures as much as possible, stretching our assets as far as we can. World of Warcraft is a crazily colored place, with a single hallway or tree having several color shifts. The Forsaken capital of Undercity is a colorful place, almost a circus of colors. Even though there are weird skulls and other trappings of Undeath, the place has an almost festive feel. For a bunch of undead grumps, the Forsaken really know how to liven up a catacomb.
A single hallway might shift color a half dozen or more times in the space of forty game yards. Upon closer inspection, though, each ten yards of the wall has the same exact texture, and that texture is even mirrored across each section from left to right. That’s how we get away with having a lot of building geometry without a huge texture footprint. We reuse stuff. To make it more interesting and keep the eye from seeing the pattern, though, we can layer vertex color on top of the texture or position things such that you don’t usually get to compare them in the same field of view. This segment of the wall might be green, that one is yellow, and that one is orange. Break them up with lighting tricks and darker pillars, and boom, it looks different enough that you don’t really notice the repetition unless you’re looking for it (and with buildings, there’s always some repetition in the real world anyway). Since you’re usually prowling the halls on your way to somewhere else, it’s not an issue; your mind just files it away as “different enough” and accepts it.
That’s the threshold we want; “different enough”, which translates to “interesting enough” to read as plausible. The real world is a varied, amazingly detailed place. We don’t have that sort of fidelity in the digital realm… though each “generation” does get more and more detailed (and more expensive to produce).
When you look at a shot of most game worlds from a bird’s eye view, you see the repetition in the ground textures. Sure, critters, trees and other plants, vertex color, lighting and assorted other effects break up the visuals, but we naturally see patterns. Zoom out enough to where the staticy fudge factors slip below our “immediate surroundings” bubble, and the patterns assert themselves.
Maybe we shouldn’t try to directly replicate reality. Toying with stylization can pay off big when you’re trying to sell a place. It need not be realistic, only believable.
In summary, then, I don’t think that we as world crafters have the luxury of only showing the important bits. What would WoW be like if the only NPCs present were questgivers? If the only towns were those with questgivers in them? If the only critters were those who you could slaughter for quests or super special loot?
Those level 1 rabbits or snakes? They are almost completely useless, but they help sell the world. Sure, you may see a wolf take one down randomly (very cool for setting the mood and hinting that mobs have a life beside being loot pinatas), but even that action is window dressing of a sort. The real world is full of moving parts that we will never get to, and that aren’t important to us in any practical way, and yet, they tell us in subtle, almost subconscious ways that we are somewhere real.
If the sense of place is even remotely important to us as game designers, we have to create and implement those things that have absolutely no use in our game world, other than setting the scene.
As with the special effects artists in some movies, it’s a grueling task, ultimately successful when it’s not consciously obvious to the end user. And yet, they will notice it if it’s missing, even if only subconsciously, and then wonder why they don’t feel immersed in the game. Birds in the sky, critters on the ground, gusts of wind… it’s all just so much window dressing.
And that makes all the difference.
Edited to add: Since Callan invoked Tolkien in the comments, Syp’s recent article on the good Professor is highly relevant: