My research topic is “how do you convey a sense of believability and narrative in virtual environments?” Now admittedly this is an odd area to perform research on. What exactly do you investigate?
Just over a week ago, however, it occurred to me that how an environment is set out is rather important in making it believable – if you’re not inclined to stay and look around a place, then any effort put into the buildings and other elements goes to waste. The originator for this thought came from an old “God game” called Populous: The Beginning that my brother used to play the demo of and the way that, particularly in the first level, he would set out the houses in a neat grid pattern. This always bothered me for some reason and when thinking over it for this artefact it made me think back to my visit to Coventry last year, which I didn’t enjoy at all. And over the course of the week, I realised why.
Coventry was extensively re-developed after the Second World War, and one of the results was that the main shopping part of the town centre is laid out something like this:
It’s all straight lines and tall buildings with few landmarks to tell you where, exactly, you are. And as a result I got rather horribly lost when I was there. There was also something about it that I just didn’t like – I’ve always loved going to cities like York and Durham and Lincoln because of how much there is to explore – in two trips to York, I’ve lost count of the number of side-streets I walked down, and I still haven’t covered more than half the city centre.
And then I remembered what it was like going through Ravenshead when I was young – it actually took me years to realise that there were side-roads going off the main road and I actually thought that the village only consisted of that road, because we always drove straight along it.
So with this in mind and going back to my old Geography lessons, I located some free building models (found on this site) and using a program called Role-Playing City Generator (which generates village, town and city layouts), 3DS Max and Adobe Director, I constructed examples of a linear settlement and a nuclear settlement (not sure of the correct term) that could be navigated in Shockwave and put them as a download on a page of this journal with questions to gauge people’s reactions to them. Then a friend kindly offered to host them on his server so that people didn’t have to download it (click on the images to load the simulations).
From the top, the two “villages” look like this:
Some of the responses I got I was expecting, particularly those saying that they spent longer going around the second village. With the first village, as one person pointed out, you’re likely to just walk straight through it and possibly not notice the side-road, as is what happened with me and Ravenshead. It occurred to me that linear settlements are the environmental equivalent of the long corridor in games – you just want to get through it as quickly as possibly. It also reminded me of a chapter in The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell where it talked about if you placed a line on the ground going straight ahead or to something, people would go straight along it.
Several responses were gained whilst in an IRC chatroom. Whilst this didn’t garner many individual results, it did raise a couple of points that I hadn’t previously considered. There was a consensus that the second village was more interesting “because it has these twists and turns in it” (Bert Loos, although he also admitted to nearly getting lost in it), and a couple of others said that they preferred it because they were adventurous people. One person, Aaron Bulger, gave the most thorough response:
I immediately began by following some of the paths in the hills, then returned to the village, in which my navigation was more of a meandering. I spent much more time off the beaten path in the second and was interested to see how the paths fit together.
The Art of Game Design addressed this as well; by adding more lines on the ground, people were more likely to veer off in different directions.
However, there was some difference of opinion as to the reason why Village Two was preferable, and it unexpectedly fed into the narrative part of my research topic.
One person, who went by the username “Dog”, said that the second village looked “more friendly”, and gave a rational for why this was: “Order+uniform=bad. Zigzags+non-uniform=good.” Another person, who went by the name of “Blub”, preferred Village Two for a very different reason: “[it] gives you more possibilities to escape,” whereas with the linear one “it seems to be that you can only escape in two directions.” This was because they were a really paranoid person, and it wasn’t something I hadn’t even thought about. If you were in a linear settlement there isn’t many options for you to hide yourself if you needed to, but in a place like Village Two you have far more corners to duck around and lose someone. But the reverse could also be true – someone could be hiding in the second village and ambush you, and in the first one they would have little opportunity.
The results of this artefact were far better than I expected. Without any prompting from me, some people inferred some kind of narrative on the environments, and their reasoning for their choices was very insightful. To build on this unexpected outcome, my next artefact will quite possibly look at how the sizes of buildings can induce a sense of foreboding or welcoming, such as with Coventry, being surrounded by tall buildings on all sides was somewhat claustrophobic.