If you are a gamer, you know both the feeling of a shallow empty void and the feeling of a living, breathing, convincing game world. We all get these when we experience a game, and very often we cannot put our finger to what exactly makes it one or the other.
In my mind, attention to detail plays possibly the biggest role in making this crucial difference. In a hollow game, all the game mechanics are there and all the graphics are there and the UI is fluid, but life, character, soul is missing. And this soul is not in the elements necessary for gameplay, but in those that simply add atmosphere.
I’ve written before about game design decisions between effect and fluff. How some details in a game have a purpose for the game mechanics and some are just to bring the game world alive.
Details in Schwarzwald
I will be using my game Schwarzwald as an example, because for other games I could observe the details inside, but for my own game I can comment on the thoughts behind them.
Schwarzwald is a turn-based multiplayer survival game set in a medieval village. The game mechanics are fairly simple. Throughout the game, all players (each of whom plays one family in the village) send out their peasants to farm, gather resources and construct buildings and defensive walls, while creatures from the forest attack at night and damage everything. The goal is to survive as long as possible.
Visualisation of Abstract Concepts
One point where the game contains non-mechanical details, i.e. game elements that the player does not directly control or interact with, are those that put not inherently visual game information into visual form.
The smoke rising out of chimneys in the game, for example, indicates whether or not a house is the sleeping home of a family. Smoke only rises out of houses that peasants live in, it does not appear for abandoned houses or ones used for storage.
Since this fact is not very important to the game, the detail is subtle and not strong.
There are also two indicators of death in the game. Houses have coffins near the entrance door if and only if there was a death in this house in the last night. In the screenshot left/above, you can see such a coffin.
In the center of the village is a graveyard which will fill up as the body count rises. Initially, there is but a single grave and a small pile of empty coffins. Over time, the number of graves rises while the number of unused coffins decreases. This visually indicates the total death toll of the village. The graveyard is also blocked for construction work, so it creates a small blind spot on the map that cannot be closed completely.
Another indicator of abstract numbers is in the forest surrounding the village, which at first seems to be entirely passive:
Internally, however, the game keeps track of how much wood the peasants took from the forest, and as they take more and more, trees are increasingly replaced by stumps, giving a visual feedback of a limited resource, even though in game mechanics there is no difference.
Another aspect of life-breathing detail is the creation of variety. By game mechanics, Schwarzwald knows only three types of houses: Hut, Wood House, Stone House. Visually, however, there are multiple houses for each type. For example, there are four different huts:
The only difference between them is optical. Together with the fact that they are placed on the map in pseudo-random orientation, the game creates the impression of much larger variety than actually exists, creating a better simulacrum of realism as medieval huts were typically individually built and thus all different.
The same is true for the forest, of course. Let’s look at one of the pictures above in more detail:
There are about 4 or 5 different tree models here, also scaled randomly and distributed on a jittered grid. This gives a seemingly organic look to the nature part of the game.
Something similar is at work with the peasants themselves:
There is some random variation in their clothes, and children are smaller than parents, even though they use (almost) the same model. Again, game-mechanically all peasants are identical, but together with their names (based on german name lists), this turns them from an array of peasant objects into a family.
Why Details Matter
Most of these details will hardly be noticed by many players. But even so, they register subconsciously. The real world is full of many more details than we can process, and environments without such variety and depth are stressful to us (empty prison cells come to mind). As long as the mind has details it can discard as unimportant, it has the feeling of realism, of everything being as it should be. An environment filled only with relevant data strikes us immediately as artificial and unreal.
Details also matter because some people do notice them, and there is a feeling of accomplishment and discovery when they do. Most people enjoy the feeling of having found something, especially something that not everybody knows about. It also provides talking points among fans and gives them an assurance that the developer is as much a fan of his game as they are, because he puts effort and attention to details, even if he doesn’t know if anyone will ever notice it.
At least aside from those reading his dev blog.