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Design Details in Virtual Environments

Games are one of the most sophisticated forms of escapism. Virtual game worlds fill our imaginations the same way a good book does. Increases in graphical quality over the last few decades have allowed game-makers to add an astounding level of detail, making them even more immersive.

Traditional graphic design exists as an idea on a screen or printed page, separated from a real world context. Sure, there are often elements of interaction but it largely exists as a concept. Environmental Graphic Design (EGD) is how design behaves in a physical (or virtual, in our case) context. It includes things like wayfinding signage, architecture, and branded spaces.

Grand Theft Auto V (2013)

Grand Theft Auto V (2013)

For the purposes of this article, I’m flexing the definition a little bit to include any objects in a virtual world that have been touched by graphic design, from a billboard to a box of fictional cereal. When you step inside a game, everything is part of a virtual environment. EGD can help these worlds feel more believable and alive. It’s the difference between entering an empty gray room and a virtual store with signage, posters, and products on the shelves.

In this article we’ll take a look at some of the best examples of EGD in games, and understand how they enhance our experience.

 

Grand Theft Auto V

One of the most comprehensive examples, Grand Theft Auto V is filled with EGD on every scale. As you traverse Los Santos and its surrounding towns you see signs for countless fictional stores, companies, and products.

Grand Theft Auto V (2013)

Grand Theft Auto V (2013)

When I traveled to Los Angeles earlier this year, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was driving around Los Santos, the same world I’d spent so many hours exploring virtually! The attention to typographic style and color matches its real-world counterpart remarkably well.

Grand Theft Auto V (2013)

Grand Theft Auto V (2013)

The EGD throughout San Andreas is an opportunity for the game to exercise its sense of humor and build a more believable world. Many of the fictional brands are parodies of, or inspired by, real brands that most players are familiar with.

Grand Theft Auto V (2013)

Grand Theft Auto V (2013)

Even hot dog carts have their own branding, with a plausible menu. And as you explore the world you’ll find the same brands repeated on billboards, in stores, and referenced in the game’s fake web browser.

Grand Theft Auto V (2013)

Grand Theft Auto V (2013)

While hunting down in-game EGD I even found some lorem ipsum text! Was this an accidental oversight or a hidden nod to graphic designers everywhere? In any case, finding it was a reminder that creating all of these assets is a massive task. Rockstar North estimated that over 1000 people worked on the game, and I’m sure a big chunk of that were artists responsible for designing all of these environmental details.

Grand Theft Auto V (2013)

Grand Theft Auto V (2013)

Here are some of my favorite examples from Grand Theft Auto V:

 

The Division

Similar to GTA, The Division aimed to create a large open world that mirrors a real city (New York). Because they didn’t license real brands, the world is again filled with fictional restaurants, sports teams, storefronts, and posters. But the game’s serious tone means that, for the most part, the EGD is a little more convincing than GTA.

The Division (2016)

The Division (2016)

Much of the EGD also serves as environmental storytelling. Lights spelling out “Happy Holidays” create a tonal contrast with the bio-terror chaos and violence in the city. Signs about martial law and warnings of virus symptoms reinforce that tone.

There are countless signs for stores and restaurants throughout the city, many of which are generic. But if you’ve ever been to New York City you’ve probably seen similar signs.

Kerman Coffee, a fictional Starbucks-like chain, can be found throughout the city. Some of the locations have detailed interior spaces with a full menu.

Some of the signage is even functional for wayfinding! Subway entrances are clearly marked and easy to spot, and there are accurate in-game maps.

The Division (2016)

The Division (2016)

Here are some other examples from The Division:

 

Using real brands

It’s not uncommon for games to include real brands, but there’s the danger of the game feeling like an advertisement. It’s most effective when the inclusion feels natural and not shoved down the player’s throat; there’s a fine line between immersion and cheap product placement.

Ryo Hazuki wears a Timex in Shenmue and in the Japanese release the vending machines are stocked with Coca-Cola products. You can visit a Sega arcade complete with a few classic games (Space Harrier, Hang-On).

Shenmue (1999)

Shenmue (1999)

But there are also some wonderful fictional brands, like the beloved Tomato Convenience Store, where you can buy a bunch of miscellaneous things. Picking up and inspecting objects is a big part of the game, so all of those objects have an impressive attention to detail, especially considering its 1999 release date!

Shenmue (1999)

Shenmue (1999)

Crazy Taxi features brands like Pizza Hut, FILA, and Burger King as destinations in the game. In later releases, some of these brands were removed for licensing reasons; Kentucky Fried Chicken became “Fried Chicken Shack” (FCS), for example.

Crazy Taxi (1999)

Crazy Taxi (1999)

Nearly every skateboarding game made in the last 20 years is filled with real brands. But it would seem weird if they didn’t; it lends some credibility when you can equip your character with real skateboards, shoes, t-shirts, and sunglasses.

Skate 3 (2010)

Skate 3 (2010)

But, I’m going to save further discussion of brands in games for a future article!

 

Overwatch

Overwatch uses EGD to tell the story of the game’s world and characters, and to also include inside jokes and references to other Blizzard games.

Each map is filled with environmental storytelling that isn’t required to play the game, but rewards players who look closely. Some maps feature billboards for playable characters (Lucio and D.Va, notably), giving us insight into their lives off the battlefield.

Other maps use EGD to establish the setting. King’s Row is filled with anti-omnic graffiti and scattered picketing signs. That story reappears in the Numbani map, where a scrolling news ticker references the King’s Row protests (and other maps).

The Route 66 map includes The Panorama Diner, which features miscellaneous posters all over the walls. Some of these are references to other Blizzard games (“Diableaux Hot Sauce”), and others just provide colorful ambiance.

Overwatch - Panorama Diner

Overwatch (2016)

Similarly, a few of the maps include arcade cabinets that reference other Blizzard franchises in a playful way.

Overwatch - Arcade

Overwatch (2016)

Blizzard designed Overwatch to be a very international game, acknowledging their wide audience and celebrating cultures around the world through a diverse cast of characters. This is reinforced by including signage in the native language of the game’s many locations—Arabic in Temple of Anubis, Russian in Volskaya Industries, Spanish in Dorado, Japanese in Hanamura.

Here are some other examples from Overwatch:

 

Gone Home

All of the examples so far have been AAA games made by huge teams. Creating worlds with a ton of environmental detail does require a lot of work, but indie games often include effective EGD on a smaller scale.

Fullbright’s Gone Home is one of the best examples of this. Because the game consists entirely of exploring a single house to reveal its plot, making that environment believable is especially important.

Gone Home-EGD_56

Gone Home (2013)

The EGD in Gone Home includes: letters, books, newspaper clippings, concert posters, receipts, packaging (food, medicine, potting soil, toilet paper, toothpaste), magazines, board games, and even some fake Super Nintendo cartridges! And since the game takes place in 1995, all of these details were designed to feel appropriate for that time period.

Gone Home-EGD_09

Gone Home (2013)

Like Shenmue, you can pick up and rotate most objects. Food packaging includes nutrition facts and cooking directions, which undoubtedly took a long time to produce but make the game’s world more real.

Gone Home-EGD_63

Gone Home (2013)

There are also a lot of handwritten letters, notes, and drawings throughout the house. These develop the characters in the game without ever actually showing them, and express their personalities through their handwriting.

Gone Home-EGD_14

Gone Home (2013)

Here are some of my other favorites from Gone Home:

For more examples, check out Gone Home in the UI Archive.

 

Quadrilateral Cowboy

Blendo Games’ Quadrilateral Cowboy includes a lot of clever environmental details that eliminate the need for additional UI. Save points have a visible display that tells the player when the last save was made, rather than displaying that text in a HUD.

Quadrilateral Cowboy (2016)

Quadrilateral Cowboy (2016)

Post-it notes stuck on a computer can provide instructions that would traditionally require UI.

Quadrilateral Cowboy (2016)

Quadrilateral Cowboy (2016)

As one player noticed, all of the books have unique titles! This attention to detail is uncommon and most players might never notice, but it makes the experience a little richer for those who do.

Quadrilateral Cowboy (2016)

Quadrilateral Cowboy (2016)

 

And more!

There are countless other examples that I simply don’t have room for in this article, but hopefully this gets some gears turning in your heads. EGD can serve a functional or decorative purpose, but it always adds value. Spend some time looking around the environments when you’re playing games and you’ll notice these details too.