Buildings and maps
Movies, by using sets and carefully framed shots, have long been able to create the illusion of much larger places. Director John Carpenter’s classic In the Mouth of Madness, for example, created an urban area by showing seven buildings arranged to look like a stereotypical Main Street in America. It was the topology of those buildings that created the sense of structure, and it is clever placement and topology that game designers can employ to create a similar illusion themselves – as shown in Figure 3.
There’s also the option of providing players with in-game maps that fill in the detail a city is missing. The combination of a few carefully selected views, a selection of maps strategically placed in the game world, and a dominant landmark shown from a variety of distances worked wonders for City 17 in Half-Life 2. The Final Fantasy series’ Midgar, on the other hand, only allowed players to visit a dozen or so locations, but used cutscenes to show the city from afar, or a wireframe map to establish scale.
Blocking views is another handy trick in the virtual urbanist’s arsenal. When looking to create, say, long avenues or boulevards, you should avoid designing straight roads; even more so if they would allow a view to the horizon or past the city limits. Curving your avenues will obscure their short length, hide unwanted views or unmodelled areas, and suggest a denser, richer urban environment (see Figure 4). Similarly, mountains of tall buildings may obstruct the view of the suburbs, and medieval fortifications will block a player’s line of sight.
You can also block off whole areas, and treat them as much simpler to craft backgrounds that can never be visited. Most of BioShock’s Rapture was seen exclusively from afar with malfunctioning bulkheads believably restricting access, and Grim Fandango hid most of El Marrow behind a colourful yet impassable carnival.
There are obviously countless other ways of blocking off areas, just as there are dozens of other tricks that can be applied to misdirect a gamer’s eye. Modelling a city block that in reality contains 16 buildings using only eight will easily go unnoticed, while sending players through sewers or subways will help expand a perceived space. And, of course, the interiors of most buildings don’t have to be modelled, as we don’t expect to enter every building we see in real life, either. With a bit of cunning and a lot of planning, then, you too can create the impression of a gigantic, bustling city.
Modularity and procedural generation
Two oft-employed methods to help reduce the work of creating large settings are modular design and procedural generation. Breaking buildings and infrastructure into flexible, repeatable elements (door, walls, roofs, windows, concrete tiles, etc.) allows for huge gains in speed and reductions in asset-building costs. Procedural content, on the other hand, especially when touched up by hand or shown from afar, can rapidly and cheaply create a convincing cityscape.