Have you ever played a video game and then thought to yourself, “Wait, I’ve been here before?” Well, you’re probably right. Game developers frequently draw inspiration from the world around them. Regardless of whether it’s the Uncharteds, Dark Souls, or The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, environment artists always use real-world references to inform their locations. In this article we'll look at some of the most notable examples, as well as getting some industry perspectives on the role of architecture in virtual worlds.
Before we start, it’s worth noting that the role of an environment artist is often different from studio to studio, depending on the size of the production team and the requirements for the project. Naughty Dog’s David G. Ballard says “Each project and team has different needs and backgrounds that determines what the role of the environment artist is there. For example, one studio might require their environment artists to simply create assets and props that a world builder or level designer places in the environment, whereas another studio may need their artists to create entire levels and set-dress the environments themselves.”
At Naughty Dog, Ballard was part of an ever growing team of environment artists. His role was specifically to create level layouts and environment art for multiplayer and single player locations in Uncharted 2, 3, and 4, as well as The Last of Us. To do this, he used a wide range of reference material, including photographs, history books, and online articles.
“Reference is crucial for any and all artists,” says Ballard. “For an environment artist, we need to draw inspiration from the historical and ever-evolving world of architecture and interior design. Reference supplies this inspiration, especially for locations that the artist might not have access to.
“A frozen tundra scape, the Himalayan mountains, the historic city of Sanaa, my own high school, and Italian coastal cities have all inspired my work on Section 8, Uncharted 2, Uncharted 3, The Last of Us and Uncharted 4 respectively.”
Sanaa, Yemen (Image credit - Antii Salonen: Wikimedia Commons)
Reference material isn’t just important for capturing the aesthetic of historical and real world environments. It can also be used to develop whole new worlds. FromSoftware’s Dark Souls series, for instance, draws from many different styles of architecture, with Dark Souls 3 in particular utilising Byzantine, European, and Bhutan architecture to create the Kingdom of Lothric.
Marcos Domenech was an environment artist on Dark Souls 3, and its two expansions Ashes of Ariandel and The Ringed City. “It’s possible to create many things that we don’t see in real life, but we have to make sure the player believes that they exist. And it’s the shapes of the materials, the pipes and the little details that gives the perception this could be real. [Environment artists] need to be smart and pay attention to these details and look at the real world to improve this skill.
“In Dark Souls [the Undead Settlement] is a mix of Bhutan roofs and bricks and things like that. I have the concept art, but I also like to find reference to see how those pieces are attached, and what techniques they’re using in real life. Like, did they use ropes or did they cut pieces from wood and link them together?”
A Bhutan farmhouse (Image credit - Christopher J Fynn: Wikimedia Commons)
(C) BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment Inc./(C)2011-2017 FromSoftware, Inc
The challenge of creating fictional environments that feel grounded or photorealistic is a common one in games. Another studio that faced this problem was CD Projekt RED. On The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt and its DLC, they also turned to the real world to help ensure the locations felt believable. The city of Beauclair shows this. It’s a combination of many different influences, which were all taken from real world buildings. The result is a vibrant city that feels relatable for the audience.
“For Beauclair, we had a huge folder with pictures of small, unique looking towns from across Italy,” says Kacper Niepokolczycki, an environment artist at CD Projekt RED. “Narrow streets full of beautiful and colourful vegetation and breath-taking architecture served as references for creating the renaissance-inspired look and feel of city.
“We also had plenty to draw upon for that here, in Kraków. The entirety of Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and rich in renaissance architecture. Our concept artists could literally go for a walk to the Main Square and grab a ton of references on the way. We wanted to use as many ideas from these references and create environments for the players that were both unique and fantasy-like, but also very believable.”
Renaissance architecture - Florence, Italy
Hauteville Beauclair in The Witcher 3
Using real world buildings for reference does create problems, however. This is the distinction between creating an 'authentic' environment and one that’s fun to explore. All three artists emphasised that collaboration and communication between the different departments is the only way to solve this.
“Collaboration between teams is crucial," says Niepokolczycki. "Level designers and level artists work together to make sure paths players travel are well paced, present breath-taking views, and are simply fun to explore. Quest designers and writers check if the environments fit the story and action. Prop artists see to it that each object looks great and sits well with the location. And all throughout development, our QA team makes sure everything we create works and plays well.
“The whole challenge is to create something that is fun to play and, at the same time, looks beautiful and authentic. I believe the teamwork and passion for what we do allowed us to create a truly memorable experience with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, as well as the expansions. But as artists we’re never truly satisfied with our work, so we continue to improve our skills every day.”
There are other methods. “Artistic liberty and environmental storytelling are ways that I've made environments that balance authenticity and the extraordinary," Ballard adds. "Contextualizing play spaces and creating environments that invoke a sense of wonder are the primary goals of environment artists, at least in my opinion.”
Architectural reference is the foundation of video game environments. It not only informs the visual design of roofs, buildings, or entire cities but, in working out how players should best navigate these constructions, their physical realities come to part of the rhythm of these virtual worlds, and your journey through them. Little wonder, then, that so many of us get déjà vu while enjoying our favourite games. We often feel that we know these fictional worlds because in many cases, and even if it's just from a photograph, we do.