In film, reoccurring elements often constitute a genre. Consider the importance of the venetian blind to the film noir genre or the sixshooter to the western. In games, items and locations are far more likely to be a lazy convention that the designers have fallen back on whilst pursuing tight deadlines. Such repetition can be helpful in any form of entertainment: it can be a shorthand for what we should expect from an environment. But you’ve got to wonder why we see the following again and again:
Video Games allow us to travel to absolutely anywhere in time, space or the planes of imagination. If it can be constructed out of polygons, pixels or voxels, it can be rendered in a way that inspires awe, or fear or any one of a range of emotions. It’s a diverse palette of possibilities, so what does almost every game have? A sewer level.
I get the fascination with the unknown, really. If you tell a kid there’s a secret subterranean world of rivers, water run-off and household sludge beneath their feet, they’ll probably be pretty excited about it, regardless of hygienic it is. I can also see the usefulness of the sewer level from a design perspective: the street-level world is one of endless possibilities where you have to keep finding excuses for blocking the player into your little rat run. A sewer is a player-sized tube with occasional junctions. But that doesn’t mean that every single game needs one.
The sewer level is a feature in some of the finest games ever created. Well, I say a feature, but it’s generally not printed on the back of the box. And it’s typically a low point: as lazy as the box and barrel, as unrewarding to play as the most linear fight through a corridor, as drab and brown as… well, a sewer.
Anything interesting ever happen to you in an elevator? My neither. Unless we’re counting games of course. Ever since Taito’s Elevator Action (no, not that kind of ‘action’), these people carrying cupboards have been the scenes of firefights and full-blown brawls. In games shooting for realism, expect that calm world of the elevator to be undone by a sudden attack from above and a plunging fall to near death. Alien architects are of course in league with game designers, and they’re rather good at creating gigantic open plan elevators with plenty of stop offs for yet another wave of soldiers. Just taking the stairs is (sadly) seldom an option.
Games in the late nineties rushed towards the bathroom for several trivial reasons. Firstly, because they’d recently invented the ‘use’ button and flushable toilets were viewed as a sort of quantum leap in interactivity. Then because reflections briefly became the go-to effect for showing off your new engine, the bathroom was an obvious place that occurred to most designers.
But with these technical reasons in the distant past, why do we still get bathrooms popping up in many games? Because it remains a shorthand for ‘realism’. Virtually every building you’ve ever been in contains a bathroom, so it stands to reason that every building in a game must have a bathroom somewhere. There is no functional reason for putting a bathroom in the game (and we can do without a game that requires you to manage your player character’s bodily functions), and they’re not exactly a fruitful location for shoot-outs or other typical gaming action. You’ll find them hanging on in horror games, because bathrooms are a space in which you’re supposed to be safe. After all, there’s an idiom for it (caught with your pants down).
2. Air Vents
Imagine if there was a way of getting from room to room without having to use one of those horrid, pretentious doors with their awkward human proportions and convenient handles… Thanks to gaming, there is! Ladies and gentlemen: I give you, the air vent! Get down on all fours and crawl like your favourite childhood pet from room to room. Because those four rockets, 10 satchel packs and 15 grenades simply can’t destroy a door (it’s painted red! The most unopenable of all colours!).
Perhaps the air vent obsession is just another foray into the ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we could go here…’ school of thought that gave us the sewer level. Perhaps it’s just another manifestation of the fact that all games with action and exploration are a slightly different spin on Alien and Aliens. Or perhaps games designers just really like making players jump around like they’re in a dog agility trial.
1. Crates and Barrels
In 3D object and level design packages, two of the most primitive objects you can create are the cube and the cylinder. Slap some textures on them for a quick an easy win: crates and barrels. From there, you can let your imagination run wild. Well, walk wild. Or perhaps just crawl forward towards a pad of paper. Ok then, there’s no need to get up, I’ll just write it down for you. Why stop at a single crate, when you can build a whole warehouse of them? And what to barrels typically contain? That’s right! Explosions!
From Doom to Deus Ex: Human Revolution action games have seemingly been about the smashing of crates and the exploding of barrels. How many crates and barrels did you see today? Thought so. Well before penning the incredible script to Portal 2, Erik Walpow and Chet Faliszek came up with the crate review system, a new way of working out how good a game is by how long it takes for you to see a crate or barrel in the environment. In the majority of games featured, both were less than ten seconds away…