Art History Repeating Itself in

Level Design?

   Up until recently, the goal and highest value in painting was to depict subjects in a realistic manner. Prized paintings shared characteristics of photorealistic folds of cloth, contrasts caused by light on the skin, and exactness of composition. Since the Renaissance, a painting was to be made as a “window into a scene”. The flat surface of the painting was to be a portal into a realistic world. This pursuit of realism continued for centuries, until painters were able to duplicate a scene down to the smallest details.

    However, in the 19th century, artists began to move away from such ideals and move towards what they felt mimicked the world around them in a fuller sense. Manet was the first artist to coin the phrase “color patch”, in which the canvas is merely a two-dimensional surface. You are not looking at a scene, you are looking at colors of paint on a surface. You are not looking through a window, you are looking at a flat object. Manet was the first to begin depicting the way he saw it, not the way it was.

    The Impressionist movement carried this farther, by focusing on building a collection of colors that were perceived, and only represented forms as an afterthought. Later artists such as Paul Cezanne, Wassily Kandinsky, and Pablo Picasso sought to gradually free painting from the restraints of real life. First perspective was shifted, then altogether abandoned. Subject became meaningless. Shape, form, and color became central.

    It can be supposed that the preceding quest for realism was needed; how could one explore beyond reality if one does not yet grasp it? And to be sure, the Impressionists were trying to create something real – if only through the way they perceive the world. Art is composed of movements, and the term does indeed generally signify a moving of direction towards new ideals of representation.

     Moving into the field of three-dimensional level design, we are at a point where the meaning of the phrase has reached some maturity; the concept of movement in a virtual landscape is now codifiable. At this time (2007) the push towards realistic textures, physics, and lighting is stronger than ever. The very perfection of mimicry is within the grasp of the next few years. However, one must ask: what next?

    It may seem ironic that realism is so valued now, considering the roots of level design. Recall how, in Doom, Tom Hall's original level designs of military bases with realistic and proportional detail were turned down in favor of John Romero's flow-of-consciousness, abstract maps on the simple factor of gameplay flow. John's levels were simply more fun and gripping. The levels barely represented what they were advertised to, and there were simply no traces of real-life functionality of the design. The level existed simply for the sake of providing good gameplay.

    Since then, two independent, yet related things happened. First, the elements of the game world became more realistic. more polys could be pushed, lighting got more convincing, and textures got sharper. In many cases though, the game world itself was unrealistic by design. Quake had point lighting, but the setting was still fantastical, though at times recognizable as a castle or base. On the other hand, some games also increased the realism of the world itself – Half-Life depicted settings that were actually places. Offices, bathrooms, and military bases. The step was obviously made towards putting the player in a setting that mimics real life.

    Today, single-player worlds are largely representational by design. Military bases look like military bases. Castles looks like castles. Cities looks like cities. In deathmatch, the first dynamic still applies: the elements of the world are realistic, but the design of the space itself isn't. The rules of deathmatch demand a certain amount of abstraction due to item placement and movement.

    One may note that there are the beginnings of what look like movements in multiplayer level design. In 2001, a Quake III mapper named Nunuk started the Geometry Competition. In the comp, mappers were only allowed a couple of textures in their submissions, forcing them to focus on geometrical proportion and lighting. The competition resulted in the creation of some very distinctive looking maps. Clean lines, color intensity, and smooth flow were highly prominent features.

    Since then, the term geocomp has been used to describe any maps in this style. This looks like the beginnings of a movement in level design. It does indeed appear that there are several styles starting to be grouped together in multiplayer maps. As the development of these designs become more standardized, these movements will start to appear in greater numbers.

    In observation, the history of level design is becoming more similar to that of painting and sculpture. Can we look forward to more independent stylistic movements? Will there be an upsurge in abstracted gaming environments? While many things are uncertain, one can be fairly sure that the ideals of realism will start to fade as they become more commonplace.