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Imagine walking into your house and seeing that the backdoor is wide open even though nobody’s home. Moving slowly, you might call out to see if anyone’s there, check the rest of the house, and eventually peer out the back. All this because of an open door.

Visual cues often dictate action. In game design, this is called cause and effect. In the situation above, the open door is the effect. The cause could be an intruder or, more likely, your forgetfulness. It’s working backward to understand the context of a scene by examining your surroundings. “Cause and effect is basically showing visual cues as to what’s happened or what will happen…” Environment Artist and Creative Director Clinton Crumpler explains, “How does [environment] tell a story from start to finish to the player without having to say anything directly?”

Here are 5 ways cause and effect enhances visual storytelling.

1. Provides Context

Many visual cues will inform you that ‘something’ happened in a game environment before you arrived. More often than not, that cue contains context for the story. For example, if you walk into a room and see a dead zombie on the floor, you learn two important pieces of information. 1) There are zombies. 2) They are not the good kind of zombies.

If you look at the scene above, visual cues provide storytelling. The tent on the left implies there was a situation that required emergency response. The roadblocks and barricades suggest that the emergency was some kind of attack. The plume of smoke and fire indicate that the emergency or attack overwhelmed the community. The abandoned bus and car suggests that the people fled or, considering the bloodstains on the ground, died. That’s a lot of plot communicated through cause and effect.

If you want to see what it takes to build a modular environment of destruction, check out How to Create a Warzone: Helicopter Crash.”

2. Alludes to Time

In addition to providing clues as to what happened, cause and effect clues can communicate when something happened. In this scene from Metro Exodus, the tank in the foreground tells you there was some sort of war or battle. The rest of the scene focuses mostly on time. As Clinton points out, the street lamps, trolleys, and buildings with columns show that this location used to be a thriving city. The ice and snow look undisturbed, which gives the impression that this city fell a long time ago. A scene like this stretches the cause and effect across a longer-time span.

Some games will even take you to the same location twice. In Fallout 4, this fence barrier was placed at both the beginning and end of the game. You can see in the later version that the fence is torn and broken. Something got through. The faded billboard, dead leaves, and state of the corpses help make it feel like a long time since you first saw this location. The abandoned livingroom scene works in the same way, thanks to visual cues like the vegetation growing indoors.

Curious about what these techniques would look like in 2d? Explore CGMA’s course Environment Painting & Design.

3. Creates Awareness of Danger

Compared to temporal scenes, where the danger happened a long time ago, other cause and effect cues are more immediate. These visual choices can put you on edge, so you know to be alert for danger.

In this shot of Last of Us, you see the dead moose and immediately understand that something caused this, and therefore you’re in danger. The scope of injuries suggests that whatever killed this moose is extremely savage and the fresh blood creates the sense that it could be nearby. A cause and effect cue like this should keep you on edge and expecting danger.

4. Pushes Direction

Another way cause and effect can enhance your experience is by pushing or pulling you in a certain direction. As Clinton says, “Focus and direction is a fun one because you kind of get to be more playful with establishing your own story.”

In Days Gone, the hanging bodies create an ominous tone of impending doom. However, the pathway, torches, and archway perfectly frame the scene so you know you need to pass underneath them and continue on to who knows what. The bodies are a visual cue that makes you move more cautiously.

On the other hand, visual cues can be positive and pull you in a certain direction. In God of War, this scene uses cause and effect to make you move faster. Moving along a dark and lava-ridden path, you can literally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Clinton points out, “What’s the safer location, being in a cave with all this lava or being out there in the open space?”

Want to hear more about how tone affects a gameplayer’s actions? See Clinton analyze more scenes in “Five Ways to Elicit Emotion through Environmental Design.

5. Focuses Your Attention to Specific Details

Finally, these visual cues help you hone into specific details. Scene composition and lighting can help highlight this cause and effect information. In this scene from BioShock, Clinton points out the dramatic spotlight that hides everything in the room but the corpse, blood, and note. “The lighting says, ‘hey, look here this is really important to the story.'”

The scene below is an extreme example of this. The lighting, bright red colors, and photos on the wall grab your attention. There is no way for you to walk quickly past this scene. You have to slow down, examine the wall, and absorb the cause and effect clues that will inform the story.

Clinton Crumpler is the founder, studio head, and creative director of Dekogon Studios, an artist collaborative art OS studio. Formerly a senior look development artist at Microsoft Studios: The Coalition Clinton worked on the Gears of War franchise. He previously worked as an artist at Bethesda Game Studios Austin, KIXEYE, Army Game Studio, and various other contract projects with independent studios. Clinton has been an instructor at CGMA since 2016 teaching UE4 Modular Environments.

Watch Clinton explain the benefits of cause and effect here!

RELATED LINKS

If you want to see what it takes to build a modular environment of destruction, check out How to Create a Warzone: Helicopter Crash.”

Curious about what these techniques would look like in 2d? Explore CGMA’s course Environment Painting & Design.

Want to hear more about how tone affects a gameplayer’s actions? See Clinton analyze more scenes in “Five Ways to Elicit Emotion through Environmental Design.


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