Good Idea, Bad Idea: Destructible Environments

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[KamikazeTutor is the first of many that will be promoted to the front page for Destructoid’s Monthly Musings. In this “Good Idea, Bad Idea”, Kamikaze looks at destructible environments.  — CTZ]

This article touches the subject of how destructible environments can create an immersive or frustrating experience and how they can make a game look more realistic and the complete opposite.

Technology is capable of simulating amazing things. It’s been a while that computers are used to aid construction of seismic-resistant structures to aerodynamics, all through an immense blur of physics’ reproducing code. Now, even home computers can stand up to their massive cousins, allowing players to witness the power of physics firsthand as everything seems to fall properly and not bounce like balls. Wood breaks like wood, water flows like water, etc.

Most the time, physics are shown in games just like in one of my favorite science shows, Brainiac, where science is fun. If they keep exploding stuff every episode, that is.

This leads to the topic of destructible environments, the new fad in gaming — and I say this as both praise and insult. Okay, I lied; this feature has existed since the primordials of gaming. From the simple smash of a block in the old days, to what has escalated to what we see now.
Creating a world that the player can freely destroy can originate the most amazing eye candy ever, if well done and if not, the worst type of obstacle.

The first and main thing developers must settle is how important destructible environments are to the game. Does the game mechanic rely heavily on this feature or will it only exist as a jaw opener? How much of the world is malleable by the hands of the player? And how will it be controlled, to avoid the player getting stuck in the game?

This takes us to the point of this article. Players are curious, and as the saying goes, curiosity killed the cat. If the player can destroy the world that surrounds it and make it impossible to complete his goals, then we have a flawed game.

Allow me explain my point by exemplifying some situations while using certain games as reference.

Mercenaries 2, yet to be released, will have mass destruction and where we’ve seen screens of buildings collapsing, etc. What if one of those buildings, which the player needs to enter and get some important files, gets destroyed? Game over, of course, but what if it’s done not by the hand of the player, but the enemy’s? Without warning, just, boom.

The player is able to destroy the world, why not also the enemy? Doesn’t the player use the enemies’ weapons at some point? Does the developer choose to make that specific building indestructible?

That’s when the reality roller coaster crashes, and burns, and probably one man survives, goes home and slaps his wife. If something thought to react as its real counterpart through out a game is excluded from the set rules, then the sense of realism is broken.

A game where I believe the freedom of destruction is well controlled is Crysis. Not by altering the way the world reacts, but more on giving the player the upper hand.

Through out the game, the player understands what can and cannot be destroyed. It’s possible to explode metal and wood shacks but not concrete buildings. Thinner trees can be shot down, but not ticker ones.

Then imagine this quite absurd but possible situation: the player surrounds itself with garbage from its destruction, with no ammo to blow everything into smaller pieces. How does the player escape? At least in Crysis you have super-human abilities, which will enable you to jump or punch a way out.

I’m almost certain that the developers always planned on giving those abilities to the player before thinking about destructible environments. While I feel this was a given solution to a possible problem, one can wonder how badly the game design could have gone if the situation was the opposite.

A scene that amazed hundreds, and then kicked their collective groin, was from the 2003’s E3 first Half-Life 2 footage. In this particular scene, the player blocks a door with a table from a pursuing enemy which then starts forcing the door open, finally knocking the table over and resuming the chase. After the game’s release, players realized that scene was scripted; by trying to block other doors and having enemies simply walk through them, pushing away heavy objects without effort.

Although unrealistic and lacking proper AI adjustment, this happens for a reason. Even possessing the gravity gun, the player cannot manipulate heavy objects, but only push them. If the player would succeed in blocking his way out of a room, then he wouldn’t be able to accomplish his goals, which would make the game flawed. This is why doors in this game have unrealistic powers against friction, unless part of a puzzle.

Going back in time, I remember this place where I would get stuck 9 out of 10 times in Contra Force for the NES. Often was the situation where the player destroys a certain box needed to reach a higher platform, which would return if the screen scrolled away from where the box was. But not on one spot in level 3, oh that dreaded level, where it was impossible to move away from the box spot; I still want to kill the one responsible for such a flaw.

As with all development choices, destructible environments can result in a good thing or a bad thing to a game, it depends how it is implemented and how far goes the liberty given in using and abusing of it.

That’s about it. I hope you liked how I opted to write this article. I’ll be glad to read your opinions about on which games destructible environments worked out or not and even weird situations that that feature got you into.

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