For no reason other than "We were at the same conference and his work sounded interesting" I ended up scheduling a meeting with Dan Cox. He focuses on level art at Ubisoft Toronto and his work has most recently appeared in Splinter Cell: Blacklist. He was in Paris to give a talk about interior design in games so it turned out he was more than happy to answer some of my questions about how artists make sense of spaces in video games*.
RPS: What's the difference between interior and exterior design in games?
Dan Cox: Exterior does work a bit differently. With an interior you can encapsulate things with a roof - a wall that meets that roof fully encloses that space.
What's really interesting is you can confuse a player a lot faster [with interiors]. You know Antichamber? What happens a lot of the time is you'll put your face up to something then you'll step back and you're in another room, or turn around and you're somewhere else. You almost can't do that in an exterior. You probably could but you'd have to do something funny with the sky.
If we were suddenly on the other side of this building you'd know because the roof above us tells you where you are. [The roof he's gesturing at rises far above the booth walls in the massive conference space where we're sitting and provides relational markers which stop you completely losing your bearings as you dash about - it's kind of like having a set of metal and wood constellations for navigation. An open landscape in a game would have a similar effect unless you did that aforementioned 'something funny' with the sky.] In an enclosed room you'd have no idea where you are. It's harder not to confuse the player.
RPS: For a game like Antichamber that's a useful effect but for everything else I'm guessing not so much?
Dan Cox: Exactly.
RPS: Without those reference points you'd presumably end up utterly reliant on triangle markers...
Dan Cox: That's why those markers become so important. A lot of times we - as environment artists - don't necessarily have a great fundamental understanding of how to build spaces in the same way that highly qualified interior designers do. Don't get me wrong, we make amazing spaces, but we often have to smash our head against a wall a hundred times before we learn how to do that.
RPS: So are there tests which let you work out how well you did? Could you get people to draw a map of the area they've been in and see how close it is to reality?
Dan Cox: I don't know. [laughs] That's a good idea.
RPS: Are there any tricks you use when you're making interior spaces intelligible like colour cues?
Dan Cox: Those are ways of doing it. The level I worked on for Splinter Cell: Blacklist was supposed to be a liquid natural gas refinery and was visually ridiculously complex. Pipes everywhere. Sam Fisher climbs pipes but we don't want you to climb some of them. We ended up with a lot of difficulty for players understanding the room - what you climb and what you can't climb. Instead of just colour-coding those ledges we also put yellow and black chevrons on them like warning tape. It was really... "This Is A Game!"
The nice thing about using more subtle ideas was by simplifying spaces in certain ways and knowing what can be simplified you could end up creating spaces which aren't so visually noisy and which allow you to understand. When it comes to places which are connected it ends up being about landmarks, adding novelty, and disclosure. Disclosure is when you put someone in a place and they can see where they need to go from somewhere else. Corridors are a consistent problem - they can become super confusing.
RPS: In games some spaces have a consistent vocabulary of objects - you can signal "home" or "house" in games like Fallout 3 with a bed and a bath and maybe a picture on a wall. Do you develop mental libraries of objects you can use like this?
Dan Cox: A lot of what I'm doing right now is reading a really interesting textbook called Shaping Interior Space and it's been really neat in the sense of talking about fundamental ideas. One is expression in a place - expression meaning what tells you the essence of the space or the feeling of the space.
The associations can differ with culture but it's this interesting idea that if I want to make a place feel like a home I need to stick a bed in it or there's a toilet and you go: "home".
In Mass Effect 3 I remember walking through the last section of the game and I'm fighting through this area. I kill a bunch of guys and look round and I'm like, "Is this an apartment? I think this is supposed to be an apartment - there's a bed. This is like a condo." It took me a minute to realise I was in a "home" because other than having the visual elements to tell you "house", all the other elements didn't work.
RPS: So the vocabulary was right but the syntax was wrong?
Dan Cox: Yes. It didn't organise the things in a way that would speak to it being a home. It just had the points like a mathematical equation. You get that disparate feeling - this isn't quite what a house does. That would be sort of a room version of the uncanny valley.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
*He also likes playing Shadow Shaman in Dota. We covered that too because shut up they were my questions.