Hello again and welcome to another look at the video game world and its many wonders! Today we want to talk about something that most people are horrifically afraid of.
But not age in people, no sir, we are talking about old places. Ancient places that haven’t seen the sun or the face of a man for thousands of years. So how do you do that? How can you create a place of such ancient feel that there is deep history rooted in the very walls?
Well, you wait a few thousand years.
But if don’t have that much time in the development process we have to look for alternative ways to explain to our audience that the game they are playing has a deep history to it. It is not just a quick polygonal palace placed in a perpetual state of prominence. (That was some dang good alliteration by the way.)
We have to turn to other more complex methods to sell to our players that your world is thousands of years old. It hasn’t been around since June 4, 2018. No, it has been around for 10,000 years before that.
So what are these secret aging tips for games? I think they boil down into three separate categories.
Layered World Design, Art Direction, and Lore.
Layered World Design
So let’s start with designing your world. Look at the picture above. This is the map of almost all the areas in Dark Souls 1. It is split in three so it fits in a frame but do you notice something about it? It is built like a tower. Playing the game doesn’t feel like you are descending or climbing a giant tower though it feels like you are conquering fortresses, descending deep into the depths and fighting difficult enemies.
Dark Souls 1 is constantly looping back on itself so you end up popping back into areas you would least expect to be. Playing this game is stressful, but rewarding in your travels through these lands constantly making you feel a blend between each area.
But this tower feel adds a powerful feeling of age to every area you defeat. As you head higher into the top areas such as Anor Londo and the Dukes Archives as shown on the left side of the picture you see brighter colors. Things are crisper, there is less wear on things built and everything feels less decayed. Delving deep into the other hand of this world you descend deeper and deeper into the Depths, then into the flooded ruins of New Londo and finally down a giant hole into an inky blackness called the Abyss. The world here is broken, decayed, forgotten. There are ghosts here, not only that attack you but ghosts of things you saw above. Even the name of the far down place is a wry twist on the crisp clean area above, New Londo versus the pristine capital of Anor Londo. Here at the bottom of everything you see that nature has taken over. There is no wall that does not have a crack or a large chunk is taken out of it. This place feels dead.
This dichotomous relationship between the top and the bottom is called “Strata” the layering of things on top of each other. In Dark Souls this serves a major purpose: It tells the story of the world almost silently.
Basic background for the Dark Souls series is this: The world is in a cyclical lifestyle. If the First flame created a long time ago is not rekindled every so often the world will die and everything will go into the dark. So every once and a while your character, the Chosen Undead, must go and rekindle this flame starting a new era. Doing so burns the world and starts a sense of rebirth.
Essentially these areas that you go to are all previous eras. Because of the cyclical nature of this world, they begin to stack. Those on top being the newest, those on bottom passing away and being forgotten by most denizens of the world. This adds a profound feel to this world, and as you dive into each layer going down you learn better the history of the layers above. You see old kingdoms influencing the new ones lending to a profound sense of age in the Dark Souls World.
This kind of world building is not easy and takes a long time to do but if executed well can lead to a world that makes players think and strive to look for every inch of this world that they can get their hands on.
Another game that does this well is Hollow Knight. Take a look at the map here and you can see the vertical feel of this game as well. You start in Dirtmouth where there are living NPC’s to talk to and converse. The world seems alive, people actually live there. But as you get far to the bottom and reach the Ancient Basin there are no NPC’s and in fact, there is hardly anything living there at all. There are no difficult enemies but those that scavenge off the bits of things long dead.
This has the same feel as Dark Souls 1 did. As you go further down you see the old roots of the civilization well above letting you feel that long ago in the deepest reaches there was a thriving kingdom. Ironically enough the farthest part in Hollow Knight and Dark Souls are named the same, “The Abyss.” This place is completely devoid of life and makes you feel like you have reached the beginning of a circle of Hell.
This layered feel in many games can really add a deep feel to world building and add the feel your players need to be immersed in the feel of an ancient land.
The Art Direction
Visual learning is one of the most prominent ways of gathering information for this generation and many others before us. We take a lot in with our eyes from colors to texture, determining softness and hardness and so on. The art style of a game really either sells or fails to sell the feel of a game when it comes to age. If you want a game to feel old, decrepit and disease-ridden don’t go with a simple polygon art style where everything has a clean edge and where things look cartoony.
Instead, go with something like this:
Bloodborne sells its feel so well through its art direction. The dark greys, the bloodred, and dark greens and faded yellows do not make you want to eat off the floor anywhere here. Here you feel the gross feel of a broken city, a forgotten people and a sense of disease permeating every brick and wrought-iron fence.
Decay is used so prominently in this game to give a feel of old. You can’t find a single brick that is perfectly made, there is no wall that doesn’t have pieces taken out of it and almost everywhere you find some sort of liquid splashed on the ground. The colors chosen sell that you are in a broken and slowly dying world.
If there were three words to describe this world they would be, dead, mutated, and, diseased. The way that every creature is covered in blood and that no human looks like they have ever taken a shower really pushes the feel of dead on old onto the scene.
Another great way to make a game feel old is to bring back things from old games. If you already have a base built then having a player turn a corner and walk into an area that they loved from a previous game can be a nostalgic trip. If you look at the top two pictures though they did something different in each one.
In the Zelda games on top on the left is in Ocarina of Time and the right is Breath of the Wild. Though they look similar, and they are in the same ‘timeline’ since they are the same building, the one in Breath of the Wild is strikingly different. It is falling apart and collapsing. Ruined by years and age and then finally broken apart and ransacked by the war that existed before your waking.
The picture below that is Anor Londo from Dark Souls. The one on the left is from the first game and the one on the right is from the third. Though the one on the right looks perhaps more bright and vibrant on the outside it is merely a false edifice. I remember traveling through and playing the first game and reaching Anor Londo, this monumental palace that is pristine and alive, fighting knights and finding a giant, traveling into this fancy castle. Then I recall traveling through the Dark Souls 3 version, walking past the dead corpse of my Giant friend, fighting the same, albeit much older, knights and walking into the main cathedral only to find it covered in rotting flesh and dead slime from the new inhabitant of the castle. What was once the hub of prosperity and wealth was now a forgotten and ruined cathedral brimming with filth and with death, completely forgotten by the rest of the world, only hanging by a thread.
This to me was one of the greatest examples of feeling old. It wasn’t asking me to imagine a fictitious past where something happened but it was an actual past where I participated. A place where I once was.
The art in the game, this visual aspect of making something feel ancient plays a gigantic role in selling this age to the player. If you are walking into an old castle that has been deserted for hundreds of years because a dragon took up residence inside, it shouldn’t have lighted candles, a big closed front gate, and perfect carpets. It should have a broken and scorched front gate, scattered and broken furniture and a singed and burned carpet laying on the ground. It should feel like a dragon ripped in here and took this castle. These things tell a story beyond simple words and hint at a past that you are coming after.
Players can pick up those clues pretty quick and it feels rather rewarding when walking down a hallway when you notice blood streaks on one of the walls warning them of an enemy who is perched around a corner. In even the longer sense those clues can give your player an understanding of an event that took place years before they stepped foot in this area. It gives evidence of a history long passed.
Sometimes its the small and unnoticeable things though. Obvious clues won’t give the same reward to a player. But take for example this picture of Hollow Knight. This area is called the Ancient Basin. And while it already has “Ancient” in its name there are some subtle almost subconscious clues that this place is very old. The “architecture” of this place is different than other places. Throughout the game, you see many many shells of various bugs from around the kingdom. But these shells are different looking. For one, the shells behind are gigantic. It makes you wonder, “what kind of huge creature lived in these shells?” Also, a neat clue is that these type of shells are those that look very familiar to the ancient crustacean creatures that lived on our planet. They are a nod to the subconscious of us the player.
The greatest story can be told silently through the artwork.
This perhaps is what many people see when they think of a history of a game or background to any sort of game series. The lore of a game is such that it can tell the story in full through the text. Many times though it is not so straightforward or easy to understand. This tends to lead many to speculate and have different “lore discussions” on what truly is going on in a game.
You see above many different pictures of varying games and different items, NPC’s descriptions and, logbook entries etc. that show their lore and their world through these key things. Sometimes you talk to an NPC who tells the character of the old war they fought in giving a small piece of a larger picture. Or as it comes to Dark Souls every single item has a description from the smallest Dagger to the heaviest armor set, it has something to say about the world in Dark Souls. Or in the Metroid Prime trilogy, everything is scannable to the point where you can just walk through a room and not scan anything but opening up your scan visor will teach you about the many different alien races and civilizations which you are trapesing through.
Whatever the way may be there is always something to read and understanding to be had from these pages, logbooks, or dialogues. But as mentioned before they should not be overly verbose. Reading a Dark Souls description of an item usually raises more questions than it makes answers. There is a fair amount of speculation made and hundreds of YouTube channels that are now dedicated to simply the lore of such a game. People can make a living off of this lore.
As you create more than just simple text you can explain not just ideas of the land but the sought after Game Feel, the stuff that keeps games alive in the minds of hundreds if not thousands of people. Helping them think of concepts, ideas, stories, tales, histories and many more in the fictional land you have created.
So, in the end, why is it a good idea to make your game feel old, feel ancient? Well really it’s not just about feeling ancient, it’s about making your game feel believable, unique, and alive. The irony of that last one is that a world that is focused on feeling dead can feel very alive in its death. It feels believable. These many games do so very well at making their worlds feel old because they sell it in many ways. They create a rich history behind their worlds, whether visual or written. As you strive to create a world you may ask yourself those questions. Is it believable? Is it unique? Is it alive? These questions can drive what you feel as you explore caves underground, uncover a forgotten kingdom and learn why it was forgotten in the first place.
Remember that Worlds have no end, and as we create them we bring the fictitious more into reality.