VICE’s Ade Adeniji booted up The Crew 2, GTA V, GTA San Andreas, Saints Row, and Watch Dogs 2, and noticed a interesting pattern: there are no suburbs to be seen. “We are transported to major cities and vast countrysides, but nothing that really speaks to the in between — to the suburbs,” writes Adeniji. “[H]ow can open world games leave out a space that we fundamentally see as Americana? Is this about design choices and constraints, or does it speak to something deeper about how we really view American suburbs — and how desperately we want to escape them?” Here’s an excerpt from the report: I figured I would first take my suburbia question to someone who has been creating games since the early 1970s. Don Daglow, pioneer of the MMORPG genre with Neverwinter Nights, broke down his answer into three parts: scale, visual interest, and stereotypes. In terms of scale, suburbs typically have lots of smaller, more repetitive environmental elements when compared to cities. Think strip malls and identical homes versus the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. “Big objects in the environment create vertical movement opportunities as well as horizontal movement in 3D spaces. You can support superhero skills, think Spider Man, and jumping, think early Assassins Creed.” Daglow said. “Godzilla never attacked a small suburb on the rail line north of Tokyo. Why would he waste his time there when there’s so much more to chomp downtown?”
Lazlow Jones, voice of GTA III’s Chatterbox FM and a longtime director, writer, and producer at Rockstar Games, agreed. But Rockstar itself made a gradual progression from the chaotic cities of GTA to the open natural worlds of Red Dead. Then the company brought the two together in GTA V. “When I was at Rockstar, we started off focusing on open world games set in urban areas because it gave us great density,” Lazlow began. “But over the years we expanded to rural environments while keeping them interesting and engaging.” […] Carly Kocurek, who teaches in the Game Design and Experiential Media program at Illinois Tech, says suburbs operate in the realm of “perceived beigeness” making it hard to imagine them as settings for the kinds of stories and worlds we see most often in open world games. To the extent that suburbia does show up strongly, these spaces often serve as a starting or transition point for a character, akin to maybe the first 10 minutes of a film, or the movie’s midpoint.
There are other design reasons why suburbs don’t feature prominently in video games and why sparse areas away from intriguing points of interest are often the first to get cut. “You’re really trying to compress a massive space in real life, into a virtual space which is actually really small. It’s like taking something and cutting it down by 10x,” explained Will Harris, who led the open world design team at Light Speed LA. Harris says that in world building, one of the first steps is thinking about defining features. What makes Chicago, for instance, feel different than Washington D.C.? Huge landmarks immediately orient us in a specific space and differentiate it from others. And woe unto you if you do try to architect suburbs in large numbers. Developers could try to build out distinct houses, began Erik Villarreal, an environmental artist at Visual Concepts/2K. “But this requires a developer to create homes that stand out from each other, which can be time consuming and tie up a lot of resources,” he said. Harris adds that there are only so many mechanics in sandbox gameplay and design. He calls the suburbs “interstitial spaces.” But the larger these spaces become, the more unwieldy, and the more quickly the player realizes that these spaces are superficial. We’ve all had the frustrating experience in gaming where we reach a certain part of a map, but then discover there’s nothing actually to do there. “So the Staten Island kit gets vaporized. We trim the fat.” Harris says.
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