Worlds for Players: Sets, Concepts, and Consistency

The Witness

The Witness

You make a hallway, put a brick texture on it. Throw in some enemies, test the gameplay and find it challenging. There's an explosion and a countdown to exert pressure on the players. People tell you it’s exciting. It’s ready to ship, right? Not quite. Leave it at this, and you’re taking the dumb-action-movie route, designed to make audiences say ‘wow,' and not much else. Dumb action movies aren’t designed for long-term engagement or emotional investment; they’re designed for spectacle, for a quick and exciting experience. An experience that is, ultimately, forgettable. 

If I’m spending thousands of hours creating a world, I don’t want it to be forgettable. I want it to be meaningful for my players. I want it to draw them in and ask them to connect with it. The worlds that become meaningful are the ones that show us subtleties, the ones that are full of carefully crafted details, each detail with a purpose. The spaces that players explore must have their own personality and sense of character, and then they must use that personality and character to express small stories and tickle the player’s curiosity in the absence of dialogue or NPCs. These stories will be, of course, less clearly defined and more open to speculation than those expressed through dialogue, but they are stories told by the world you’ve created. This gives the world life. Video game locations have an incredible amount of potential, and too often it goes untapped. Today, we’re going to start learning how to tap it, as we dive into set design, concept-focused decision making and the value of consistency. A note of warning: we’re about to go deep into conceptual territory. Hold on to your trousers.

If you want your world to perform, it needs to be dressed appropriately. The objects that you dress your sets with — props, furniture, posters, debris, wallpaper patterns — all need to be carefully selected in order to provide the audience with specific information. Anything from a stack of newspapers, to a framed photo, to the dominant color scheme of a room, can hint at personalities of characters, their motivations, the function of the space, or even in-universe historical background. When dressing a set, depending on the capabilities of the game system and visual style that we’re designing for, we may be expected to consider everything from color and lighting to texture and surface, to the finer points of prop design, and the meanings that each of these will bring to the space. Each of these points would take several articles each to discuss, so let’s focus on the core fundamental principle of set design - consistency.

Absolutely all forms of design require some level of consistency to be successful. Take your favorite game and pick out a room that is important to the plot. Look at the shapes, colors, and surfaces used, both in the architectural structure of the room and in the objects that fill it. Try and list as many examples of each as you can see. Think about the mood that each of these elements creates. What personalities do they suggest? What meanings do they carry? A white teddy bear that’s made of soft, rounded shapes may look friendly and cute. A black knife with a serrated blade may look dangerous. I’m almost certain that the room you’ve chosen is full of objects that work together to create a consistent message. Another word for this message is ‘concept’. We might say that the ‘concept’ expressed by the room is consistent. A workshop location is full of objects, surfaces, and colors that express the concept of ‘workshop.' Oil splatters, tools, iron shavings, a red toolbox, a bit of orange rust. If we wanted to express the concept of ‘a cold, unwelcoming hospital’ we might use sickly green floors, grubby walls, smudged and grimy door handles, and flickering fluorescent lights. Each element here is chosen to contribute to the expression of the desired concept. This consistency is expected by audiences, as it plays on the same processes that determine how they read and understand real-world environments. 

By being diligent and ensuring that we’re focusing on consistency during location design, we not only create a sense of believability and depth, but we also begin to have some influence over the player’s mood and emotions. The hospital above is an example of a location designed to work with other information that the player has collected to tell a story about why the hospital is in that state at that time, while, regarding emotional experience, making the player feel uneasy and uncomfortable. In contrast, the monastery in Jon Blow’s The Witness is a location designed to be a lonely, calm, and serene place. It’s surrounded by trees and full of dappled sunlight, colored with warm reds and oranges, with little bonsai trees and a small trellis-framed garden. There’s some damage to the window frames and other parts of the structure. The majority of the elements work to create the feeling of calm, while the others – the hushed audio and broken parts — suggest abandonment and disrepair, which cooperate to express loneliness. 

The expectation of consistency in design means we can do the unexpected, and occasionally be inconsistent. In my previous article, I talked about how we can use contrast to draw the player’s attention to specific parts of an environment. In the context of set-dressing and working with the meanings of objects, we can use contrast in a slightly different way. If we take a room that consistently expresses a concept, and drop in an object that doesn’t fit that concept, we create a brand new meaning — and a story. Imagine a soothing bedroom. Warm wooden floors, blue wallpaper with little white clouds on it, the evening sun streaming in through a window, a jumble of carefully looked after toys in a chest at the foot of the bed. And a sharp, glinting steak-knife on the ground. 

What we have is a carefully crafted inconsistency: a very soothing environment with an unexpected, dangerous object in it. This is incredibly powerful. Here, the inconsistency is designed to create a feeling of unease in the player. The implicit threat implied by the knife has amplified the contrast between it and the environment. Story speculation begins. Players will likely try to figure out the reason for the knife’s presence. Questions of ‘who?’ and ‘when?’ arise. In the context of the wider plot, players may panic, or rush away to check another part of the house as they start putting pieces together and reaching conclusions. A little story, a little bit of exposition is created for the player to think about. And we haven’t used other characters or cut-scenes at all.

Undertale

Undertale

A recent example and one of doing more with less is the child’s bedroom in Toby Fox’s Undertale. The room is designed to feel soothing, with pictures on the wall, toys, a comfortable bed, and calm, homely music. The inconsistency here is a small box, which contains children’s shoes of all different sizes. This sets alarm bells ringing, and we’re thrown into speculation mode as we try to figure out what the story behind the box is. Easy player engagement with just one prop in the wrong place.

Games with plots need locations. Locations need to have stuff in them — it’s one of the laws of physics or something. If we’re just piling stuff up in a location without thinking about it, we’re not doing the location justice. Ultimately, we’re not doing our players justice, because we’re asking them to explore a half-baked world with little real conceptual direction. Be consistent. That’s all. Be consistent as heck.

And then, just sometimes, don’t.