Realism and Abstraction in Game Environments

Disclaimer: All of the “definitions” presented in this article stem from personal opinion with the goal to organize these thoughts in a logical fashion. If any feel the need to add to, rebuke, or rectify these statements, he\she should feel free to do so, as improvements will help ensure a standard of understanding.

     The gaming industry has seen a lot of first-person shooters in the past decade. The goals of immersion that these fps's adhere to have spread through gaming, and three-dimensional environments now dominate how games are portrayed. Within the genre, there have been games that represent reality down to the finest detail. On the other hand, there are many games that choose to portray a world that follow none of the rules of real life. Many may call these games rudimentary and inferior to realistic games, but it must be noted that unrealistic representation may be the preference of the level designer.

    Indeed, these past few years have seen more games released that choose a very unrealistic art style. Some may call these styles “retro”, but this term only applies to a small portion of a larger movement: abstract environments. With such a wide array of styles and degrees of realism, it may be helpful to lay down some terms in what makes a level realistic or unrealistic. It should be stated that for the purposes of this article, “realism” includes fantasy and sci-fi settings. A dragon rendered true-to-life is considered realistic, as is a well-rendered alien spaceship.

    In order to quantify all of the elements of what constitutes “realism”, four categories have been created to illustrate these various concepts. These categories are in a roughly linear arrangement, from smallest to largest, and can be considered to be "tiers" of realism, if preferred. 


    The first level of realism deals with the textures, or the two-dimensional images projected onto surfaces in order to make that surface represent something. These textures can range from simple colors to normal-mapped metal floor grates. Here we find the first area in which we can differentiate realism from abstraction. In the coming examples, it is asked that you focus only on the aspects at hand, and view them objectively from the rest of the portrayed level.   
    In these two screenshots (from Doom e1m1 and Quake 2 marics100, respectively), two very different approaches towards texture realism are displayed. In Doom, the textures are rendered in a highly realistic fashion. This is not to say that they are high-resolution or normal-mapped in any way. All this means is that the floor tiles look like floor tiles, and the carpet looks like carpet. One can tell that those are computer consoles near the ceiling. It's obvious that the walls are made of metal plating. The textures presented are meant to represent recognizable objects, and they succeed in this goal.

    On the other hand, in a map by Quake 2 mapper Maric, the textures are merely lines, dots, and patterns. They are not made to represent grass, rocks, or metal. They are simply patterns. What are they made to represent then? Note the concentric rectangles below the rocket launcher. They signify the importance of that location; the rocket launcher spawns there. Therefore, we can see that textures do not have to represent an object in order to carry out a goal. In other parts of the map, Maric uses pointed arrows to signify upward motion via a jump pad. While not something one would find in real life, they serve the purpose of guiding the player's movement.

    The overall lesson to be gathered from Maric is simply that abstraction from reality does not always mean a lack of purpose.


    The next tier of realism focuses on the individual detail elements that make up a level. Signs, pipes, light sconces, etc. This is differentiated from textures on the basis that elements are actual physical objects.

    Prey  makes a good example of this concept. Those pipes on the back wall are recognizable as pipes. What's more, if the player shoots them, steam escapes from the bullet hole. The pipes themselves can be said to be realistic. However, we are looking at them as mere elements. If there were a rectangular room composed of nothing but pipes like these, it would still be realistic on an elemental level. The pipes are pipes, but as a whole they don't represent anything we could find in reality. To put the pipes into even harsher contrast with reality, one must note that the pipes don't actually lead anywhere or fulfill any functional purpose - except to act as set-pieces.


    The last two tiers of realism don't have set boundaries between them – the definitions beyond this point become somewhat blurry, but distinctions can still be made within these concepts. This tier applies to maps that represent areas in a fairly realistic manner, but without necessarily making the map as a whole representational. This is a bit of a tricky concept, but a fairly prevalent one.

    One of the better examples of this concept manifests in the game Painkiller. In the provided screenshot, one can fairly easily tell that the area represented is a train\trolly station of some kind. There are tracks, benches, small plots of soil, etc. The area as a whole is depicted in a fairly realistic fashion. Everything looks like it's subject, and several elements combine to create a scene that conveys a place – a train station. However, if one were to pan back and look at the level in it's entirety, it would not represent a train station at all! No train station would contain the layout that the level does.

    Deathmatch maps make a fairly good case for this concept, as is seen in the Quake III map Kritische Masse by -cha0s-. One could immediately describe the theme of the map to be “base”. There are computer consoles, pipes, grates, metal floors, and ceiling fans. Together, they create the theme of a techno base. It is fairly easy to describe the atmosphere the mapper is attempting to convey. Looking at the map as a whole though, one could not describe it as a techno base at all – it's not shaped like one. If there were a map that looked like a forest in one area, a spaceship in the next, and a castle in the next, one could still say it was realistic on an area basis.

Flow and Layout

    Flow may not always be a level of realism, but it certainly does factor into what differentiates a “realistic” map from an “abstract” map. The term flow simply relates to how the map is layed out – and for what purpose. In the previous examples, both levels were layed out for the purpose of providing challenging or interesting gameplay experiences. In other words, the layout of the map served the function of the game - independent of any kind of realism. Many games follow this principle by having limited path options through otherwise realistic environments.

   Goldeneye is a good example of this. In the game, there are offices, computer rooms, and even bathrooms. However, not every door in the buildings are openable. At times, the doors are simply flat textures applied onto the wall. This shows the player that he is not after all in a realistic setting; otherwise, all of the doors would be operable. This example appears in many games, and it can be used as a conscious abstraction from reality.

    In other games, such as FEAR, the maps are layed out in a totally realistic fashion. There are no fake doors, and every detail follows what could be expected from a real office building. However, they may still be considered abstract on the basis that there are no exits – the map is totally self-contained. There are not even locked fake exits to an outside area – they simply don't exist. From this, one could still state that FEAR is abstract on the basis of layout.

    The main point to be drawn between differentiating flow and layout lie in the map's purpose. Is the map built around the principles of the given gameplay, or is it simply a static environment that can exist outside the rules of the game? Even an abstract map made up of simple blocks can go either way in this respect – do the paths of the map convey a certain type of gameplay? Does the flow of the map obstruct this gameplay in any way? The simple fact is that buildings and environments in real life are made for different purposes than a deathmatch map is made for. What is utilitarian for one may not be for the other.


    Keep in mind that these terms are not rules by which all maps must abide. They are simply attempts to define the different aspects of what makes a map realistic or abstract. If one wishes, these terms could even be used to label axis' with which to arbitrarily “rate” a map. Through this method, mappers may be able to formulate new ideas in a more procedural fashion.

    For example, if one were to attempt to fit the game Alice into the given criteria, one might say that on a textural level, the game is realistic. The wood look like wood and the grass looks like grass. On an elemental level, though the objects are recognizable, they are often portrayed in a very abstract way. The flying books in the screenshot are an example of this. Though we can tell they are books, no book would be that large, or floating. On an area level, the same applies. One could reasonably say that the pictured area is a library, but one of such a scale that it's difficult to call it “realistic”. In a flow\layout sense, the game is very adherent to assuring the player that he is in a game environment. Everything that happens around the player affects the player. From falling rocks in the garden to flying books in the library, the world is built around the gameplay. Overall, the game abstracts itself by presenting everyday objects in a skewed or altered way.

    Hopefully, these terms will provide more efficient means of discussion on the differences between game realism and abstraction.