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Beauty in World Design

The great video games, the games that transcend their platforms and that people keep playing long after technology has left them in the dust, I believe, are games that players find beautiful.  Aesthetics and atmosphere as much as gameplay sets these games apart.  Beautiful games provide a sense of transportation to and immersion in another world, creating a lasting experience that stays with you long after you’ve logged off or powered the console down.

Let me make it clear that beauty does not equal graphics.  It goes far beyond how accurately rendered a pattern of headshot wall splatter looks.  Nor am I talking about exhaustive options for customizing your avatar.  It’s not about how many different haircuts you can give your blood elf warlock.

What I am talking about is depth and completeness of world.  The best games weave together music, visuals and gameplay to create a reality that feels intrinsically organic, like it rose naturally on its own.  When the right balance is struck, and the player is presented with a well-designed world that is as pleasing to be in as to play in, the result is awe.  Awe and delight, because your world engages players on a primal, emotional level.

You’ve experienced what I’m talking about if you’ve ever sat down to play a game and found yourself going virtual sightseeing instead.  Or if you ever delayed completing a game because beating it would mean losing access to all the parts of the world you’ve unlocked. Or if with every replay you’re secretly hoping that this time around you’ll magically find a way beyond the playable edges of the map and get to explore more of the world you love.  Such a world is one where you want to spend your time, not just your time gaming.

A beautiful game world does not exist merely to provide the player a path through the game.  It is a fully realized entity in its own right, one that gives the impression of existing whether or not you’re playing.  These are living, breathing worlds, land/sea/space-scapes that extend far beyond the boundaries of the game, places we long to visit again and again and that we think about when we’re away.

Visual realism, oddly enough, is not key to creating this sort of experience. Some of the most compelling game worlds ever created were done with graphics that pale in comparison to the top of the line games of today.  The Infocom games of old existed entirely in text.  Dark Castle wove a gorgeous gothic tapestry entirely in non-sidescrolling 2D black and white.  Yoshi’s Island gave us a crayon-sketched world apparently drawn by children—and we loved it.  I don’t even need to touch on Braid.

The only games I’ve ever played to 100% completion—found all the banana birds and DK coins, or collected all the pieces of heart—were games I found beautiful.  I played them to completion not because I was pursuing achievements, but because I didn’t want the game to end.

As an example, I’ll cite a game that not everyone loves, but that is unarguably beautiful: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. A lot of players who prefer the teenage Link didn’t care for the young protagonist or the childlike, cartoonish look of the game. I understand that.  In fact, I had the same sentiment at first.  That all changed the moment I set sail, and watched the starting islands dwindle and vanish in the distance.  The attention to sensory detail—the creaking of wood and rope, the rhythm of wind and wave, the bobbing on the swells—none of which contributed directly to gameplay—made the world suddenly, starkly real.  I was transported.  In that moment, it was me riding that little red boat across the endless oceans of a drowned world.

Once my wife asked me why I spent so much time on the water.  “You’re not playing,” she said.   “You’re just sailing around.”  “Yes.”  “Why?”  I had to think about it for a moment before I answered.  “It makes me happy.”  An emotional reaction.

Beauty in world building is essential for creating a connection with players.  It gets to the root of why we play.  Yes, there are games we play merely for escape or to vent aggression, or to keep our brains and thumbs busy while we wait for the bus or for our shift to end.  But there are also games we play because we connect with them, because they capture us on an emotional level and transport us in the manner of our favorite books or films.



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