5 Environments I’m Sick of Seeing in Video Games

Environments are really important, a fact I can’t emphasize enough. Some games revolve entirely around their environments such as Silent Hill or the Bioshock series, while others throw in some unforgettable area that gets you really into the game such as Final Fantasy VI’s Phantom Train or Magitek Facility. Unfortunately, the converse is also true, and some games, which may otherwise be great, can get completely bogged down by predictable and boring environments or level design. This can be especially true in series and certain genres, particularly shooters. Sometimes games take a risk or try something new with their environments or try to put a fresh spin on an old classic. Even the times these attempts fail miserably are better than developers who seem to just be going through the paces. Games are meant to excite and to entertain, and one good way of sucking all the fun out of a game is a series of ho hum and predictable environments. In many ways good level design and environmental choice are as important as the characters you are crafting, or the basic gameplay systems. As such, I would like to run through five environments I’m sick of seeing in video games.

25 years later, and we still haven’t gotten far past this.
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1 – Brown Cities

I had to make this number 1, because it is one of the most frustrating ones out there. I say brown cities instead of a more specific title such as middle eastern cities, because this can refer to any city geographically that has been covered in grime and dirt. Obviously this setting really hit off with the rise of modern military shooters such as Call of Duty and Battlefield and the preponderance of middle eastern locals. However, brown is practically the colour of this generation of gaming, and many cities are simply large clumps of dirt and storefront. I remember the city level from Dead Island and wondering to myself if that was it? The same could be said with a great many locals from the Fallout series. Assassin’s Creed is a particular offender here, taking really amazing locals and ideas and churning out some of the most forgettable, boring cities I’ve seen in years. Sure, sometimes dirt and grime are necessary, but these locals have become far too overexposed and it just seems boring and lazy at this point. A brown and dirty city might work thematically, but it takes so much more effort to make one seem interesting than other locals, and few if any developers have really ever bothered trying to breath life into this overdone bloated corpse.

I hate everything about this picture.
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2 – Jungles

When the first Uncharted came out, I was impressed by the jungle setting. It was vibrant and green, which was a far cry from the browns I had come to expect from the new generation. Then came a huge wave of jungle games. Whether it was the Uncharted series, Tomb Raider, Enslaved, Dead Island (Pretty much any bad environment exists in Dead Island), Monster Hunter, Far Cry, Crysis, or even JRPGs such as Xenoblade Chronicles, Jungle environments have blown up this generation and I have a hard time not being cynical when I come across one. Far Cry 3 is a perfect example. It has a lush, island environment that was really well crafted, but unfortunately completely forgettable for me because it’s just another jungle in a long lineup of jungles. I don’t know why, but this generation does dirt and overgrowth really well. Are they trying to hide all of their shortcomings with clutter? After all, both brown cities and jungles are heavily cluttered with debris or plant life and it is often hard to make out much from the environments unless you really stop and look.

Blinded by the obscene clutter yet? If not, keep looking at it.
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3 – Volcanoes

Volcanoes seem like the perfect environment. When you are surrounded by bubbling lava and unquenchable fire, you know that things are getting serious. As a device, volcanoes work perfectly. But as you may have guessed, they are far too overused. In every single RPG I expect a volcano or similar fire level and I’m rarely wrong. This was recently seen early on in Ni No Kuni. Volcanoes are usually tied with the random fire levels in JRPGs and are rarely actually intimidating, which seems like a waste. On the non-RPG side is where you find the more poignant, yet still overdone use. Looking at games such as Resident Evil 5 or every 2D Mario game under the sun, you’ll find volcanoes shoehorned into the end of games, which have no place going anywhere near a volcano. That’s the biggest problem. Volcanoes are thrown out for the sake of being cool, but are usually completely out of place, and even when they aren’t, developers don’t seem to notice how overused they are. If someone did something besides red rocks and lava, then maybe it would be interesting, but developers have a tendency of following the formula fairly tightly.

Volcanos – ruining villains and being boring all at once!
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4 – Deserts

I know this crosses over with brown cities a bit, but I find it to be distinct enough to get its own entry. Deserts are cheap and easy to make. Lots of barren wasteland with plenty of excuses to not have any landmarks at all. It’s perfect for game developers who just don’t care about offering a unique experience. Like volcanoes, it is sad just how requisite deserts are. There must always be a desert and a desert town in an RPG, usually it’s the second town such as in Ni No Kuni, or White Knight Chronicles, a tradition I believe stems back to Super Mario Bros 3, which set a precedent for going grassland first followed by desert for contrast. I’ve been sick of random yellow wastelands for several generations, and I still haven’t seen anyone do anything interesting with the setting. Sure the Sandsea in Final Fantasy XII was a fine attempt, but it really never ended up being different from the desert you’d spent the rest of your time in. Deserts are just too boring, too by the numbers at this point. Someone needs to think of something interesting in connection instead of just retreading the same ground over and over again.

Second town again. Boom!
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5 – Caves

Much of this post has been a major attack on the brown-tinted nature of this generation, and I figured it would be wise to end with the granddaddy of all brown-loving environments: caves. Forget deserts or jungles, you can’t possibly get more lazy or generic than caves. Brown and grey rocks are shrouded by darkness. That’s it. You won’t find anything else in any game. Caves never impress, but they are still extremely popular settings. Maybe I just don’t have the extremely love of spelunking that developers expect gamers to have, but I simply don’t get it. Sometimes it makes sense, but far too many times I’ve seen climactic events take place in boring generic caves. The last thing I wanted in Resident Evil 4 was to be exploring an interesting castle only to be sent down to a boring, generic cave. This applies to pretty much every game. How bored of caves do you get by the time you’re finished with Skyrim? Even with good level design backing them up, they’re all the same.

Ok. If you throw in jumping alligator men, I’ll totally forgive a cave setting.
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That’s my list, internet. There are plenty of generic locals that CAN be extremely bring such as water levels, but I excluded these because I’ve seen far more moments of greatness from these than any of the above. What upsets me most about these environments is that they’re just tools of lazy developers who want to slap down some generic setting. These developer don’t seem to understand how far they can go with great, unique environments. That’s the great tragedy of the matter. So many people nowadays are blinded by nostalgia, citing older games as the golden age of gaming. I have never subscribed to this opinion, but there are some amazing old ideas out there that new developers should be tapping into. Even if it isn’t unique, at least try to make it so the last ten games in your genre didn’t have the identical setting.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer

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