Thursday, 21 April 2011

Elements of Game Design Part 4: Environment

I recently played 'Splinter Cell: Conviction' by Ubisoft
The first level is set in Malta, in the city of 'Valletta' to be exact. 

(1:45 onwards)

Watch these videos and study the architecture around Sam.

Actually when I first noticed this environment, I wasn't playing. It was Inez.
I was on my PC, writing. It was only when I looked over to the TV and noticed the buildings and the streets, that I realised it was Malta because I have been there, once, on a college trip. 

Me - "Holy sh*t! Is this level in Malta or something?" 

Inez - "Yeah, that's right" 

Me - "Whereabouts in Malta? Is it Valletta?" 

Inez - "Yep" "How did you know that" 

Me - "I've been to Valletta, Is there a Port or a Harbour behind you?" 

Inez - "There is!" 

Me - "Wow, that is freaky" "Someone's done their homework" 

It was something like that, I may have cursed more. I realised that I was going to be completely distracted now because of this discovery. There was only one sensible course of action. 

I had to turn off my PC and take notice of this game. 

This is the Level Design for The Marketplace in Valletta
It is a very short stage, basically a corridor design. 
What disguises you from this are the obstacles placed before you and the clever use of low lighting (Only a few areas are lit up).

In this instance you are compelled to go forth. Being channelled forwards by the story line and the construction of the level. 

In other games, such as 'Borderlands' and 'Fallout 3', you roam wherever you choose. (As long as you are equipped to handle it) ;D
We know this as an 'Open World' game environment.

These games differ from Splinter Cell because you are not playing an established character, you are playing as an empty vessel. You determine what kind of player you want to be. 

In Sam Fisher's case, he has to find out the truth about his daughter. Each stage is constructed to direct the plot forwards. 


When you look at the image below doesn't it just direct your attention straight ahead? 
The placement of the tables and chairs on your right, present an obstacle to avoid. 
The presence of a wall on your left gives you no alternative route, plus it's littered with people. 
Even the road markings and the buildings themselves creates lines of direction. 
This is an essential technique for Level Design

When you find yourself here -
Look at the people on your right, sitting at the tables.
Some of them are staff from Ubisoft Dev Team :)
The designer has to consider any dynamic action in the level that could cause the player to become disorientated and confused. If there are too many things in the environment, the player will become frustrated. Everything must be composed to maximise the gameplay and the atmosphere of the setting.


As with most games you acquire devices (or skills) to help you navigate through approaching perils and obstacles. 
In Sam Fisher's case he gains EMP Grenades, C4 Explosives , Sticky Cameras and a Snake Camera. In the first level he improvises a mirror in the absence of his Snake Cam

Each following stage makes use of these new additions to his arsenal. 
Alternatively you can usually approach the level from a different route to the same end. 

This is important in designing the challenge curve of a level. It should never be catered to one style of play. No one plays the same. 

One unique addition to this game is the projected 'objective text' upon the environment 

This helps maintain the 'flow' of the game so your never unsure what you should be doing and where you should be heading.

One thing I love about video games is that if you see a 'Red Barrel' you can guarantee that puppies going to blow up! It is a consistency that speaks to the player subconsciously. 
A common element helps tie-in the gameplay for the player.

This probably annoyed Inez immensely when I watched her play through a 'Flash Back' level set in Diwaniya, Iraq. 

Me - "You know.....those red barrels will probably explode if you shoot them" 
Me - "You can kill those guys with just one shot" 
Inez - {-_-} "Really" 

Me - "Its red" "Red barrels always go Boom!"

Inez - "Ooh! That was cool!"
Me - "There is another red barrel there!" "And there!" "On the roof!" "Shoot! Shoot!" \{*u*}/
Inez - 'sigh' "Ok, shut up!" \{>-<}/

(I'm trying to dig out my photos of the trip, but I've grabbed these images from
Just to give you a taste of what Maltese architecture looks like

Valletta, the capital city of Malta is a strange place to visit. Essentially it was designed as a fortification for Knights. 
The size of the stairs and streets were specifically designed to accommodate Knights in heavy armour.

Aerial View of St.Julians with Portomaso
St Julians - I believe I stayed in the right hand side
of this image, one of those big square hotels.

Auberge de Castille, Valletta, Malta 2010
Auberge de Castille - Valletta
These were the Inns for the Knights of St John in the 16th Century

Okay, this image of Auberge de Castille illustrates Ubisoft's attention to detail. 
Notice the design of the windows and that every window has green blinds. If you have watched the videos above like I asked, then track the second vid to 3:58. 

Half of the windows you see in Valletta have blinds, green blinds. 
A majority of the doors are green too. (It may be some association with the Knights of The Green, I'm not sure)

In the 16th century Globigerina Limestone was used as the main construction material in Malta. That is what gives Valletta this sandy colour. Unfortunately it doesn't fare well against the sea breeze. 
It can corrode. 
skyline, Valletta, Malta 2010
Baroque style of architecture

Here we go - you can see these details within the first 10 seconds of this video.
Globigerina Limestone, green blinds and another detail I noticed on my stay there, lots of bin bags! They had streets lined with bin bags, very strange.

In my opinion, for this particular level the realism was high. 
Malta has a slight dusty feel it. And you can see this around the floor as you venture through the stage.

A typical Valletta street

Although it is a relatively short stage in the game, it brought back memories of my trip instantly. 

My memories of Malta are seeing lots of cranes and lots of cats. Everywhere.
I remember we were all walking down to the Harbour, taking in the sights, rounded a corner and it was like west side story of the cat world. 
We had obviously entered into a cat only zone. Honestly. It was a cul-de-sac of cats. 

I tried to play it cool and sit on the nearest wall, amongst the felines, ignoring the hissing and moans. 
No sooner had my cheeks touched the wall when the whole thing toppled over. 
Me and the cats went tumbling into the bushes. Good solid construction!

Needless to say we tore ass out of there!

After longer exploration of the game, it is not my favourite level but it invoked an emotional response that I couldn't deny. 
It piqued my curiosity. 

Before I saw this level, I was going get around to playing this game over the summer, to see what Sam Fisher was up to. You see, I've only played the original Splinter Cell
But as soon as I realised the connection I had to the stage that Inez's was playing, I just had to see more of this game.

And it's good. It's a very tidy game. I have no idea why people don't enjoy it. 
A game can not stick to the same format when the main character has evolved (except Pokémon) it just wouldn't make sense! 

This guy is mad as hell and wants some answers. Of course he's going break down some doors! 
He can do stealth. But he can't always afford to wait in shadows. 
This gives the game a good balance in my opinion. And it adds to Sam's character development.

My photos are gone. An unfortunate victim to water damage, a real shame :(

Reminders of British rule
Evidence of the British Empire


Who do we have to thank for this great attention to detail? 

Well, these two guys list in their Linkedin profiles that they were the Level Designers for SC: Conviction

Here are the Developers describing elements of Level Design, Gameplay, Lighting, etc to

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