The door creaks as you step into the laundromat, your shoes sticking slightly to the tile floor. The TV perched in the corner is off, a change from the usual crackle of assorted cooking shows and soap operas. Shadows fill the corners of the space, dimming the quiet rows of washing machines. Florescent lights cast an unforgiving greenish tint that show the old stains on the wall and puddles on the floor. The room is empty. Compared to the typical bustling of tired customers, hum of machines, and clanking of forgotten change in a pair of trousers, the laundromat appears frozen in time. Almost like it’s holding its breath . . .

Designing a game environment is so much more than creating a place or location. Environments contain hundreds of design choices that intrinsically influence the game player, from where they look to how they feel. That’s why Creative Director, Environmental Artist, and CGMA instructor Clinton Crumpler calls scene-building ‘visual story-telling.’ Clinton’s scene of the laundromat does far more than define a location. The colors, composition, and asset details create an eerie feeling of suspense. When you hear ‘laundromat,’ you typically don’t think of danger. For his scene, Clinton transformed a mundane, unassuming location into a powerful story-telling part of the game.

“Probably one of the most visual things you’ll see right away when playing a game is the tone, mood, and response.” As Clinton explains, these elements are essential to visual storytelling because they create immersion or attachment. Tone is the author’s attitude towards a subject, while mood is the feeling the audience has while reading/watching/playing (study.com). Response is what the audience does with this feeling. Apart from throwing a book across the room or yelling at your TV, response is more related to video games than other forms of art since the player takes action. Unlike a reader, response from the game player can alter the rest of the story, or at least how the player chooses to play.

Clinton defines five basic tools you can use to leverage tone, mood, and response in your gaming environments, including:

  1. Color
  2. Scope of Space
  3. Weather
  4. Light and Shadow
  5. Inversion

1. Color

The colors in a game environment are far more than just aesthetics! They command your attention, as well as your emotions. Psychologically speaking, each color has a strong and unique impact on your mood and behavior. For example, the colors red, yellow, and orange are all energetic colors and can put you on alert. Red, specifically, triggers a sort of warning emotion. When you see the color red, your brain registers it as a sign of danger (webmd.com). Basically, the environment artist is a matador and you’re the bull. Sorry! But the use of color isn’t designed to agitate you for the sake of it. It’s to prepare you for the story ahead.

Alum Anton Amstad

A perfect example is a scene from Fallout ’76. As Clinton describes, it has a heavy, yellow/orange colorcast that provides a sense of danger. By curating such a tense tone and mood, the environment prepares you for an action-based response. This kind of area would be ideal for fighting a boss.

Another, more subtle example comes from a room in Resident Evil. Clinton attributes the chilling vibes to the color.

Instead of a bold color like red, the room is almost completely sepia-toned. This grey, muted color sets context for the time period in which the scene takes place. More than that, the color influences your emotion. Rather than prepare you for action, this scene creates suspension. You might move around this space more cautiously than others.

Want to learn more about how color can influence story? Explore CGMA’s The Art Of Color And Light course.

2. Scope of Space

The amount of space in an environment should be intentional, as it deeply influences the player! In an upcoming article, “5 Ways Cause & Effect Cues Enhance Visual Storytelling,” Clinton describes how space can physically lead you in certain directions. If you’re in a dark, scary hallway with a door at the end with yellow light, you know to move towards the door.

But how does space impact tone, mood, and response? Clinton points to another scene from Fallout ’67, quite different from the tense, yellow environment. The far-off yellow house creates depth in the scene, and the bright trees seem to stretch beyond what you see. This openness makes you feel more relaxed.

This once again relates to your brain’s psychology. Bernard J. Vittone, MD, founder and director of The National Center for the Treatment of Phobias, Anxiety and Depression says that 7-10% of people are affected by claustrophobia, the fear of tight spaces (psycom.net). However, a study on patients’ reactions to going through an MRI, which is a medical machine that takes pictures of a body’s anatomy, found that 37% of people experienced anxiety after lying down in the narrow, enclosed space (Scientific Reports, 2019). This study suggests that way more people than reported are uncomfortable in small spaces.

This especially makes sense in a game, when a terrifying villain can be in the small space with you. Clinton points out the feeling of anxiety in a space can push you through a game faster, while relaxation affects your response in the opposite sense. “The more comfortable you are as a player when you’re immersed in that space the more you’re going to be open to check other things out and look through those different areas that you might not necessarily explore otherwise.”

3. Weather

Weather can conjure all kinds of senses, both good and bad. There is a huge difference between a breeze on a crisp autumn day and an icy blast during a winter blizzard. But it’s more than just positive or negative! Certain weather patterns are correlated to certain moods. For example, clinical psychologist Tecsia Evans, PhD, said that rain makes people more susceptible to loneliness or sadness (webmd.com). With this kind of power to affect your tone and mood, weather is an essential consideration during environmental design.

In this scene from Gears 5, the brightness, scope, and light might have prompted a positive, or at least neutral, emotion. However, the snow changes that completely. Blue is normally a relaxing color, but because of the snow in this scene, it takes on a cold, bitter feeling. The giant, sharp icicles show the extreme wind and provide an element of fear. As Clinton says, it makes you feel like your life is in jeopardy.

Weather in game design can be on any scale. Gear 5 made a dramatic, icy decision. But Clinton points out weather elements like fog as influential details.

Examine these final products from CGMA’s Matte Painting course. What emotions do their respective weather choices inspire? (No wrong answers!)

Alum Alberto Grau
Alum Lucy Munro
Alum Wiktoria Germanek
Alum Ashley Tseng

4. Light and Shadow

Lighting and shadows are an essential part of any environment. Not only does it (obviously) light a scene and provide direction for where you should look, but it can drastically change the tone, mood, and response of any scene.

https://www.cgmasteracademy.com/uploads/media/course/0001/33/558b4d8ba8d13ce4bd92303d8f81e643f4b75502.jpeg

For example, one assignment in the course Composition for Concept Art and Illustration asked Vis Dev Artist Ryley Garcia to play with the source of light on a figure-environment piece. You can see this experiment play out above. Ryley was looking for the composition effect, but he ended up making a decision based on the ‘feeling’ of the piece, aka tone and mood.

He immediately ruled out option B. “While this composition still works, I feel like the lighting gives it a less playful mood, as it feels like the dark Statue is looming over the children’s fun day,” he wrote. Ryley moved forward with option C: the most playful scene. You can see the rest of his process here.

In Clinton’s original laundromat scene, the lighting highlights details in the room that contribute to tone and mood. Dirt on the walls, puddles covering the tile, and splotches on the machines all contribute to an uneasy feeling. The contrast between the fluorescent lights and shadows are also harsh and off-putting. And the range of shadows, stretching across the row of washers, puts you on your guard. You never know who or what could be hiding in the corners…

Lighting in games is important for dozens of reasons, which you can learn about from CGMA instructor Omar Gatica. In addition to all of its practical purposes, the angle of a shadow or darkness of a silhouette can captivate your emotions. Don’t forget to take advantage of this powerful visual storytelling tool.

5. Inversion

As a fantastic bonus tip, Clinton advocates for giving the player an emotional break from time to time by inverting the game’s typical tone.

In Last of Us, the game’s general mood is dark and grim. This matches the high-intensity and high-drama you can expect throughout game play. However, the tone of the scene below completely flips that suspense on its head. The environment has bright, relaxing colors; the space is open and sprawling; the weather is cheerful; the shadows are minimal and lighting ensures you can see everything clearly. According to all of the visual-story telling elements discussed above, this scene effectively relaxes the player.

Clinton suggests including these calming moments to provide contrast to the game’s action. “If you keep people on high-end the entire game, [it] won’t have a lot of ebb and flow…it doesn’t allow the player to have relaxation,” he said. “You’ll have more exciting moments in the game if you have ups and downs.”

Want to hear Clinton expand on these points with some more examples? Watch the clip below!

RELATED LINKS

Want to learn more about how color can influence story? Explore CGMA’s The Art Of Color And Light course.

Examine these student final products from CGMA’s Matte Painting course.

CGMA course Composition for Concept Art and Illustration asked student Ryley Garcia to play with the source of light on a figure-environment piece. See Ryley’s final projects here.

Lighting in games is important for dozens of reasons, which you can learn about from CGMA instructor Omar Gatica.


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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.

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