Virtual Realms: Realizing Immersive Narrative in Games

By @Radvantage

Video games are the pinnacle of interactive entertainment. As we approach the final years of the eighth generation of consoles, it is astonishing to see how games have evolved. The technical fidelity that we experience today allows for a relatively robust depiction of the developer’s imagination. It was only about two decades ago when programming wizards first constructed algorithms that were capable of simulating rudimentary three-dimensional graphics. Pioneers of this technology, such as id Software and its lead programmer, John Carmack, utilized a method known as ray casting to display its corridors in 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D. Designers generated levels by placing objects in a grid, with wall textures and sprites drawn according to this rendering algorithm.

Wolfenstein 3D put players in the shoes of Blazkowicz; the game employs first-person warfare within a maze of hidden treasures and Nazis

Unfortunately, a two-dimensional, coordinate-based tiling system is not nearly as intricate as the state-of-the-art, three-dimensional map editors that professionals benefit from today. Legitimate three-dimensional, virtual worlds require intense consideration of visual and auditory stimuli to imitate the sense of place that we experience in the natural universe. Contemporary rendering technologies are a far cry from those early years of 3D, allowing studios to craft fully-realized spaces of exploration. By marrying the artistry of design and technology disciplines, an industry has progressed with game developers laboring as the architects of dynamic, imaginative, and purposeful realms.

Even though modern graphics play a vital role in providing a suspension of disbelief (meeting the standards of current consumer expectations), there is no denying that earlier 2D games have the potential to present meaningful areas that convey purpose and nuance. For example, classic games such as the original Fallout (1997) undoubtedly offer an awe-inspiring world to explore, evoking its brand of retro-futurism through industrial ruins and post-apocalyptic deserts. However, as a consequence of limitations in display resolution, environmental stories were told on a broader aesthetic scale, relying on text descriptions for specific objects in the world or items collected in the inventory. Earlier games had even greater constraints, as programmers were responsible for manually coding every pixel in a graphics asset. Some of the first computer role-playing games, Akalabeth (1980) and Ultima (1981), had expansive (albeit technologically primitive) open-worlds that were created entirely by one person, Richard “Lord British” Garriott.

Ultima was vital in establishing how computer games handle role-playing and exploration

Storytelling in groundbreaking games like the original Ultima were a lot less subtle than today, with sprites that explicitly read “PUB” to signify a building that acts as the town’s tavern. Other occurrences of storytelling can be observed in the game’s bird’s eye perspective; practical symbolism is a very prevalent method in these sprite-based worlds, such as a blue door amongst gray triangles to inform the player that there’s a dungeon in the nearby mountain range. According to game designer Todd Howard, later entries in the Ultima series fundamentally inspired the breadth of interactivity found in the Elder Scrolls universe. The ability to carry items and interact with objects in the world play an important role, especially in the storytelling possibilities of a virtual world. The perspective of these 2D games, as well as the primitive 3D of the 1990s, left some room for the player’s imagination. The expansion of pixel real estate in conjunction with the depth of detail provided in 3D provides a canvas for artists, designers, and programmers to engineer engaging worlds that feel more authentic.

Ultima Underworld, a revolutionary cRPG, influenced a new generation of games that emphasize immersion and interactive systems

Standard world design in the current generation of video games allow for seamless, explorable zones with multiple layers of detail. The current reality is that most AAA game engines support real-time simulations of lighting, shaders, and physics. With the combined efforts of artists, programmers, middleware developers, and producers, teams have the ability to orchestrate digital renditions of fictional and historical settings. Advanced simulation and rendering technologies have also facilitated the role of designers. Even from a player’s point of view, it is apparent that the dynamics of game development have transformed with the advent of advanced technologies. The process of creating games now includes software development kits that accommodate designers with minimal knowledge of a game engine’s complex codebase.

With many editing tools, individuals without programming experience can learn a basic user interface to create detailed virtual locations. The modern separation between designer and programmer responsibilities is understandable considering the scope and technology of AAA games. The abstraction of engine tasks allows for the efficient implementation of playable spaces, capitalizing on the individual skills within a collective of developers. In order to efficiently create functional, immersive worlds, designers should not be hindered by their own tools. Here’s a hypothetical, imagine if Rockstar could only assemble the skyscrapers of Grand Theft Auto Vs Los Santos by manually coding instances of rectangular prisms at specific coordinates, having to constantly locate the file directories of each building part’s texture. As a design process, it sounds a bit like purgatory, doesn’t it? Like your favorite word processor or operating system, it is important that mundane functions are automated through the software.

Looking at Bethesda Game Studios’ Creation Kit, one can observe that the automation of certain tasks expedite the transition from imagination to implementation. The “Object Window” in CK provides an incredible level of efficiency in filtering objects based on terms and categories. Essentially, it is actively promoting a workflow that concentrates on building from the foundation of a concept and/or development timeline. In playing through these well-crafted worlds and studying them through hours of play, it is marvellous to see how intentionally they are designed. Terrain is sculpted in a fashion to guide the player, as the presence or absence of foliage accentuate key locations. These visual components do not exist in a vacuum, many games use their visuals as a gameplay tool to induce a feeling of curiosity in their wayfaring playerbase. The manifestation of the setting must fulfill a variety of purposes to be successful in an immersive narrative. Real life has good graphics, but there is an escapism that draws us to games. Certain systems tend to capture our attention. Environmental storytelling is one of the many methods to capture a player's attention. It allows a setting and a game's dynamic gameplay to fuse together, exhilarating the player's curiosity in moment-to-moment encounters.

The Creation Kit for Fallout 4 allows a space for artists, designers, and programmers to collaborate on massive open-worlds

Fallout 4 (2015)’s Commonwealth is a testament to Bethesda Game Studios’ craftsmanship in world design. Its map is formed from modular pieces, objects, and customizable instances. The post-apocalyptic, action role-playing game features a variety of wasteland environments, pre-war ruins, and disheveled settlements. This diversity contributes to a massive world, while also acting as the context for activities and narrative beyond the game’s scripted quests. Many of the game’s skeletal corpses indicate how victims of the apocalypse spent their final minutes as they succumbed to radiation and atomic hellfire. Standard assets for terminals and notes are completely modifiable, so designers can create new variants rather efficiently.

Handwritten journals, audio tapes, computer logs, turret controls, or even holotape minigames can be stored and spawned into their appropriate place in the world. In the 3D space, players can interact with these objects in a natural way. Notes are completely viewable from the parchment they were authored upon, and animated characters physically sit or lean to control in-game computer systems. There’s a greater fidelity in this kind of experience, with one of the game’s first “discovered story” experiences coming in the first tutorial area, Vault 111. Two-hundred year-old coffee mugs and beer bottles are strewn about the vicinity of a recreation terminal containing a unique holotape game, Red Menace.

Fallout 4's objects have their own customizable attributes, the Creation Kit makes it relatively simple to edit everything from notes to terminals

The Overseer has a memo written on the terminal’s main menu, “Remember, use of the recreational terminal is a privilege. If work performance declines, this privilege may be revoked. Enjoy responsibly”. Another terminal nearby indicates that the security team spent many months trapped below the surface by the Overseer’s decree. Investigating further, logs state that the Vault’s rations were exhausted, and the population eventually revolted against the Overseer. These discoveries lead an inquisitive mind to question the fate of these people, as many details remain unclear. One could conclude that the Red Menace game helped in retaining some iota of sanity in the many months before the mutiny. The supposed heavy use of the terminal may also act as further evidence of the Overseer's lack of control over the population.

Vault 111's Recreation Terminal; key immersive details such as rust, empty containers, and industrial labels accentuate the disarray within this scene

A game’s narrative can be expressed in a multitude of ways. Developers often utilize systems such as cutscenes, companion banter, dialogue trees, encounters, or items in the world to inform and introduce choice. Some of my favorite games usually implement the aforementioned systems successfully within a certain scope, with the arbitrary product of “success” depending on the cohesion between gameplay elements and the overall game design. The average, unassuming player notices these issues, as mechanical inconsistencies have the propensity to interrupt the flow of the experience. Some genres are better positioned to solve this problem, especially the treacherous balance between compelling stories and engaging gameplay.

Immersive sims are a type of game that prioritizes dynamic, choice-based systems. Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Deus Ex are just some of the cornerstone titles within this genre that have amassed recognition and critical success. Arkane Studios’ Prey (2017) draws heavy inspiration from these legendary titles, particularly the original System Shock (1994) and its sequel, System Shock 2 (1999). In Prey, the player can obtain abilities through items called Neuromods, instruments which modify the structure of the user’s brain. Players have the choice to upgrade traits associated with their humanity, but may also learn abilities associated with the Typhon, an alien race infesting Talos I (the game’s primary location). However, there is a particular risk in installing these powerful modifications, as the space station’s security measures will recognize the player as a hostile Typhon if three or more alien powers are active. At a glance, this consequence has an extensive impact on how the player navigates the facility. Since turrets traditionally serve a protective role, its reversal in disposition suddenly alters how players calculate their optimal path through each encounter. This optional compromise in character progression also impresses a greater feeling of authenticity in the portrayal of Prey’s fiction, allowing for choices with gravity in both gameplay and narrative.

System Shock 2 is a seminal title in the immersive sim genre, spawning games like Bioshock and Prey

There is just an indisputable elegance when the gameplay directly meshes into the fiction. Furthermore, it is rational for one to assume that this game’s intrigue is not communicated through a storyboard of disjointed cutscenes. Prey is a profound example of a game delivering a powerful narrative experience without restraining the player, creating an interactive space where story and gameplay are bound together in an enthralling continuum of interconnected gameplay mechanisms, decisions, and atmosphere. Even though Talos I has been under siege by mysterious creatures, Prey’s game design supports an infrastructure of immersive narrative that presents a story by player-motivated investigation. Victims of the Typhon are strewn about, the majority of them having backstory told through various items and logs that delve into the excruciating details of death and loss.

Whether you’re exploring an eerie, space age corridor with GLOO foam-encased Mimics, or discovering the effect of some item or ability, Prey seems to tell its collection of meaningful stories as if Talos I is a real place. In this respect, the setting is further legitimized by its inclusion of hub areas. Sections of the station act as facilities, and each have their own purpose in maintaining the station and forwarding its research objectives. While a space station can’t function as a traditional open-world, Prey distributes branching paths of exploration that thoroughly entertains one’s curiosity. Through use of airlocks, the exterior of the station is entirely explorable as well. Any rules or limitations imposed on the player are based in the fiction’s version of reality, with certain precautions and prerequisites in gaining access to certain areas in the game world. (Note: The EVA suit cannot withstand the conditions of outer space, so no, you cannot leave Talos I and jetpack your way to the Moon. Trust me, I tried.) The team’s commitment to grounding Prey’s gameplay within its own universe is truly commendable.

Talos I's exterior and interior are modeled consistently with an incredible attention to detail

Exploration is predominant in discovering a story naturally. However, games like Prey prove that this exploration does not have to occur in a vast, wide-open sandbox. Though gameplay elements of story-infused open worlds are important in delivering exposition and choice, successes in immersive narratives are not limited by genre. What is important is that the setting is portrayed with depth, while items should be presented with some meaning to the internal rules of a virtual universe. As an art form, games have always been successful in their ability to transport the player to another world. It is also fascinating and productive to contemplate on how designers succeed and accomplish this wondrous task. People that are passionate about games will continue to work tirelessly to develop dynamic experiences that immerse and inspire. I treasure the time I have spent exploring these imaginative universes, and I can’t wait to see where games take us in future generations.
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Video games are the pinnacle of interactive entertainment. As we approach the final years of the eighth generation of consoles, it is astonishing to see how games have evolved. The technical fidelity that we experience today allows for a relatively robust depiction of the developer’s imagination. It was only about two decades ago when programming wizards first constructed algorithms that were capable of simulating rudimentary three-dimensional graphics. Pioneers of this technology, such as id Software and its lead programmer, John Carmack, utilized a method known as ray casting to display its corridors in 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D. Designers generated levels by placing objects in a grid, with wall...
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