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Building Worlds Upon Worlds: Reality in Games

Updated: Feb 9, 2023

When I was young, I was entranced by science-fiction and fantasy YA novels. I remember spending lunch period after lunch period in the library, devouring stories and characters that became as real and significant to me as navigating the social structure of public school. At the time, the video games that I was aware of and had access to were about "zapping bad guys," and following a preset story and structure. I wasn’t very interested in shooting pixelated targets or winning at Mario Kart — I found fiction far more compelling.

Fiction was an escape from the mundane, from the social hierarchy that I couldn’t belong to, from the influx of hormones and the countless missteps of adolescence, and especially, an escape from consequences. What I liked best was the opportunity to be lost in a new world: a rich, detailed setting that could compete with the frustrations of reality.

I remember reading and rereading Heir Apparent, a novel by Vivian Vande Velde, about a teenager trapped in a fantasy video game, and for the first time, I understood the appeal. The main character was fully immersed in an interactive world that transformed her reality into adventure. She could explore her new world, make the wrong choice, and start over again, with the opportunity to "replay" her choices with better outcomes. I remember thinking, "Wow, if video games were like that, I’d be a gamer, and never look back."

Seventeen years later, video games are much closer to this experience. Since the late 90's and early aughts, the standard of blockbuster video gameplay has evolved from linear storytelling to open world design. Earlier video games were programmed to give the player a very specific set of choices and experiences, but usually only a few ways to accomplish game objectives. Open world gaming cracked open this paradigm by allowing players to be creative in their problem solving, perhaps even sidestepping the designer’s planned sequence of events altogether.

Most famously, Grand Theft Auto III (2001) irreversibly changed the landscape of blockbuster games and launched to critical and popular acclaim. Players had the opportunity to direct their own gameplay, rather than following a strict preset script of objectives. The world of Grand Theft Auto was a textured and nuanced allusion to real world cities, and the combination of player freedom and immersive 3-D setting set a new expectation for virtual entertainment. Not only was this new 3-D world open for discovery, it was engaging enough to be worth exploring.

As demand for "open world" or "sandbox" games increased, the need to create realistic, navigable, and nuanced worlds grew simultaneously. In an "open world" game, players are not bound by set objectives in a certain order. Rather than "playing along" to a prescribed storyline, players can explore infinite combinations and scenarios as they make different choices in gameplay. An expanded set of possibilities requires an expanded and interactive setting, as the world of the game, rather than a linear sequence of events, becomes the structure for player experience.

Designing a lifelike city for virtual reality has its complications, though. In The Getaway (2003), developers promised to create the entire city of London as the setting of this action-adventure game. The technology development was more difficult than anticipated, particularly in the lag time as players moved through the city. Developers scaled down the project twice, pushing the release date by more than two years. Ultimately, they rendered 6 square miles, due to the challenges of creating high-resolution environments and rendering them in a responsive game. Despite the delay and scale, The Getaway was wildly successful: selling over 1 million copies and earning $36 million in sales.

The Getaway (2003) freezes 6 square miles of 2002 London forever within a game. Picture Credit: SCE London Studio via GameTripper

Gaming design involves a delicate balance of creating an expansive, detailed setting that is rich and engaging without overloading the player or the processing system with visual information. Too much detail—the game can’t render images in real time or create a seamless experience. Too little detail, and the game fails to sustain a user’s attention.

San Francisco-based Watchdogs 2 (2016) accommodates limited processing speed by condensing areas of the city that are less relevant to the story, while maintaining texture and detail throughout the game. The topography of the area presented a unique challenge for designers and players alike as they navigate the iconic sloping streets of the city.

Insomniac’s Spider-Man (2018) addressed this concern by breaking the city of Manhattan into segments that can be loaded and unloaded in sequence as the player moves through the city at breakneck speed. This strategy gives designers the ability to increase detail and scope without compromising gameplay.

Marvel's "Spider-Man" (2018) provides an immersive, abridged New York as a backdrop for an engaging narrative. Picture Credit: Marvel via Engadget

With these advances, the world of the game becomes much more than a static backdrop. Visual context is key to the story-telling experience: the aesthetic sets the tone and adds another dimension to the player experience. The landscapes in post-apocalyptic game The Last of Us (2016) are almost literary: changes in weather and geography mirror the story, symbolize character development and foreshadow future events. This sophisticated use of real-world imagery is a powerful narrative tool: the player almost feels as though they’ve been dropped into a virtual world, or a movie.

In discovery-based, sandbox style game play, the world of the game becomes the story. The popularity of open world gaming has continued to soar and impress, with 18 open world games released in 2018. Gaming is also constantly evolving: as virtual reality and immersive technology advance, there will only be more demand to construct and refine an immersive virtual world, and there will likely be a similar explosion of "real" open-world gaming in the near future of the industry as technology allows players to venture deeper and deeper into the game experience.

The use of the real world in video gaming adds another layer of realism that absorbs the player into the world of the game. In an environment filled with distractions, video games need to be even more compelling to engage gamers. Real topography and infrastructure create and inspire tapestries of imaginary universes and simulations of real-world locations: worlds to get lost in.

If you want to put the real world in your own game, large or small, Geopipe can help with entire cities mapped into immersive, interactive environments. Get in touch and let us know how we can help!

Geopipe automatically builds immersive game worlds using AI and machine learning. Here, a view out of a window in New York City's Financial District.


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