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Imagine you’re a time traveler who loses complete control of your time travel device (whether it’s a car, a hot tub, or a magical remote given to you by Christopher Walken at Bed Bath & Beyond). The device spits you out at a random place and time, and you have to figure out where and when you are. What details do you look for?

As an Environment Artist for games, you need to think about these details constantly. Sometimes, establishing time and place is as easy as including the Eiffel Tower and a sign that reads ‘1889 World Fair.’ More often than not, you’ll use subtle design details that inform the player about time and place without them noticing, so they can focus on the game. Creative Director and Environment Artist Clinton Crumpler shares 8 effective design choices to never leave your time-traveler confused, including:

  1. Tools and Tech
  2. Make and Model
  3. Background Character Appearance
  4. Tone and Color
  5. Strong Identity
  6. Wear and Tear
  7. Landmark vs Landscape Familiarity
  8. Contextual Details
Grigoriy Karmatskiy. UE4 Modular Environments

1. Tools and Tech

The type of tools and technology you use can tell your player a lot about time. Think of it in terms of communication. Putting quills and parchment on a desk will date your scene considerably. If your scene takes place in the early 1900s, you can add an electric telegraph. Add another 50 years and you can add a rotary phone. With any modern scene, you can play with the type of cellphone or smartphone.

And this is just for communication! You also have music, entertainment, work, weapons, etc. Remember to research the tools and tech of your environment.

Learn how to model these tools in CGMA’s Weapons and Props for Games course.

2. Make and Model

Make and model details might be fun for you art history buffs, but it’s also extremely effective in dating or placing a scene. Clinton uses furniture as an example. “A lot of times, environment artists, when they’re first starting out, aren’t really thinking about those parts of the process. They’ll think, ‘oh, I’ll make this thing that’s made out of metal and does this,’ and it’s like ‘that metal wasn’t even around at that point…'”

The make and model of buildings is especially helpful for defining place. Countries and even cities have a unique approach to architecture, from the type column, symmetry of the building, length of arches, engravings on the roof, and materials.

Cars mostly inform time. Just look at the image below. Despite the aliens with their futuristic weapons, you can tell this scene takes place in 1950s just by looking at the cars in the background.

3. Background Character Appearance

Clinton also briefly mentions the appearance of characters. This isn’t necessarily an environment department concern, but even a figure in the background of a scene can indicate the time and place. Different outfits can reflect not only culture but trends. If you see a woman in the background wearing a polka dot dress, pearls, and pincurls in her hair, you can assume she’s the unfortunate owner of one of those ’50s cars shown above.

It’s good to be aware of styles from different countries, cultures, and time periods. No matter where or when you are, clothes, accessories, and hair can indicate status, location, and time. Above, you can see how the characters’ appearance fits into their scene. This may be under the character department’s responsibility, but it’s important to know how the appearances of background characters influence time and place in your environment.

4. Tone and Color

How you play with tone and lighting can add to the scene’s location in time and space. Clinton explained how in addition to all the 1970s-assets in his office scene, the environment’s color-grading sells the time period.

While grainy versus sharp filters can give your players context about the time, they can also influence place. A popular meme makes fun of Hollywood movies for relying on heavily edited filters to establish location (BoredPanda).

Click the arrows below to see various regions and their filters!

As memes point out, you shouldn’t rely on solely filters. In fact, there are concerns that the commonly-used yellow tinge to places like Africa, Latin America, and South Asia by American film studios are based on unfair stereotypes (Matador Network).

This doesn’t mean don’t use filters. It just goes to show how much impact tone and color can have on a scene. It’s definitely worth more time, research, and consideration than your next Instagram post.

Learn other ways to leverage tone in “Five Ways to Elicit Emotion through Environment Design.”

5. Strong Identity

Instead of naming the supermarket in your scene ‘Super Market,’ Clinton suggests finding a unique name that relates to time and space. People respond to the familiarity of brands, iconography, and language, even if you’re making it up for your game universe.

As you can see in the video below, Fallout 76 even used reoccurring franchises like the Red Rocket gas station so players can recognize and maneuver through the scene with more confidence.

6. Wear and Tear

Worn assets acknowledge passage of time within your game’s scene or world. For apocalyptic narratives, most assets will likely have a couple of years of rust and dirt. Maybe they’re falling apart or decaying. Perhaps there’s even plant growth in urban environments. The extent of wear and tear can tell the player exactly how long the scene was untouched. “By doing this, we’re establishing that there was a universe and there was a place before we existed in this world, ” Clinton said. “…The universe is bigger than the player themselves.”

Mackenzie Shirk. UE Modular Environments.

7. Landmark vs Landscape Familiarity

There are some landmarks and landscapes that are familiar to everyone. Iconic places, like the Empire State Building or the Forbidden City, can provide a very specific location. But even various landscapes can provide context about place. Using vegetation, mountains, prairies, and bodies of water, you can give people enough information to realize they’re in a mountainous, rural village. It depends on how much information your players need to know.

In the video above, Clinton points out that familiarity can give you more wiggle room to play with your scene. In The Order: 1886, the London scenes contain a fair amount of familiarity to the current, real city. This gives the environment artists room to play with the time, making it more industrial, adding flying machines, and throwing in unfamiliar elements without confusing the player.

8. Contextual Details

In the scene above, there is one, unexpected contextual detail that provides some information about its time and space. The price of gas! It only takes a little time to research the historical context for your environment, but it will make all the difference. For one, it makes the scene a little more grounded in reality.

It will also be an exciting easter egg for those with enough historical context to notice and appreciate it. These small details matter greatly, but can also be fun to track down and implement.

See how other tiny design choices make a difference in “Why Artists Add Details Nobody Will See.

Now that you’ve learned all there is to know about establishing time and place, check out the scene below. Where and when are you?

LEARN MORE

CGMA provides comprehensive instruction for Art, Games, and VFX industries in a variety of courses for a range of students, from 2D and 3D artists looking to supplement their college studies to industry professionals looking to stay up to date on emerging trends and techniques in the field.

RELATED LINKS

Learn how to model these tools in CGMA’s Weapons and Props for Games course.

Learn other ways to leverage tone in “Five Ways to Elicit Emotion through Environment Design.”

See how other tiny design choices make a difference in “Why Artists Add Details Nobody Will See.

Sources

https://www.boredpanda.com/different-places-hollywood-movies/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic

https://matadornetwork.com/read/yellow-filter-american-movies/