Incidentally coinciding with the release of Wrath of the Lich King, The Big Picture has an amazing collection of photographs from Antarctica. Looking at the beautiful Antarctic landscape made me think about landscape in relation to video games. My conclusion:
Uninhabitable lands make for the best video game levels. They allow for vast variety (lava, ice, futuristic dystopia…). They give artists an avenue to show off provoking and outlandish interactive environments. And, they provide the most enjoyable gameplay. Not convinced? Hit the break for an analysis.
Aren’t populated cities just as enjoyable in a video game? Consider three kinds of populated areas: Futuristic cities, modern societies, and primitive civilizations. What makes these areas fun to play? The buildings may look interesting, but it’s the struggle against the elements that give each city its unique look.
Primitive civilizations exist in direct defiance of the wilderness that surrounds them. That wilderness attacks the player and gives the game its challenge, while populated areas provide rest or comfort to the player. The first few games in the Crash Bandicoot series are prime examples of this first game type.
Utopian societies make for very boring action games. Games set in “modern times” focus on social/puzzle gameplay rather than environmental interaction. (The Sims never struggled against their environment). Even then, gameplay tends to borrow elements of wilderness VS society – gameplay in Sim City was mixed up by natural disasters.
Dystopian cities are as uninhabitable as the primitive civilizations. Like the “primitive city” games, dystopias push the player into an unfriendly atmosphere. Ignoring any “clean” look the game may have, dystopias are probably the least inhabitable video game levels. Portal provided pristine levels, yet these levels were designed to murder the player.
Is it any wonder that action games tend toward dystopias or primitive civilizations? Post further examples in the comments.