All your base look the same

As the title hints at, I’m trying this way and that to make something relevant out of the thoroughly chewed-out idbase theme. You know, brown wall panels, brown floor, brown everything. And all of it somehow segmented, quadratic, angular, restrictive. Is it possible to make a base map that doesn’t look like, you know, the 965 other base maps done before?

It’s pretty hard to do something like a setpiece with this theme. The closest someone got, in my opinion, was John Romero in e3m1, with the platform that has moving bridges and a quad over a lake of slime. I also remember the slanted lift from Than’s “Plumbers carry shotguns”. There are a few other, usually functional eyecatchers, like lifts, trains, computer racks, generators etc. But I can’t help but feel that all these bases look fundamentally the same.

The main entrance of original e1m1, the Slipgate Complex, is a setpiece that is no setpiece. There is a rock wall, and then the wall panels start. It’s unremarkable, because the idbase theme is fundamentally an indoor corridor theme. Newer games like Quake 4 suffer from the same probem: “You arrive at the location. From the outside, the building looks the same as all other assemblies of riveted wall panels, pipes and Strogg flags.  That is to say, the same as on the inside.”

Quake bases, like ’70s shopping centers, have no outside, because it was never planned for.

Must military bases be unremarkable by design? In games, I mean? Perhaps there is a gap in there somewhere for innovation to have its way.

One observation is that the more industrial it gets, the better, since heavy industry uses a variety of interesting gadgets – large machines, conveyors, chemical tanks, that sort of stuff. Most of that is absent from Quake bases. Instead you have stacks of crates everywhere – because they’re easy to do. Something like the boiler from e1m6rq is more remarkable, but a lot harder to come up with.

The more industrial you get with Quake’s base theme, the less it looks like Quake, though.  Which isn’t necessarily bad, but since RMQ is a remake, I have some desire to keep the “clean” look of the original e1m1. It wasn’t very industrial at all. In fact it used some computer racks and techy looking stuff, but that was about it.

Another observation is that Quake bases, to some degree, appear to do some waste processing or deal with nuclear slime, biohazards and other garbage. So you can go into the waste disposal/sewage/recycling/pumping station sort of theme, which is actually often seen and incorporates slime/water pools and a couple pipes. Personally I think this theme doesn’t do much besides add environmental hazards to the level and have the player swim around in garbage. When it comes down to it, though, a pool of slime just isn’t very remarkable.

The third observation is that Quake’s story hinges on sort of a teleporter accident that opens some alien dimension. Yeah, much like Half-Life actually. So you could derive a theme from that, and do anything from “dimensional bubbles” (separate rooms using contrasting themes, usually connected by teleporter) to full-on dimensional train wreck (contrasting themes in the same room). This was sort of the idea behind the following experiment:

The teleporter crash produces large scale dimensional rifts, totally transforming rooms and creating a sort of culture clash between the inhabitants of both sides. This isn’t easy to accomplish, since it requires a believable mix of different themes. I did something of the sort in e1m2rq, where human marines establish a makeshift base inside an otherworldly dungeon. Here, however, it’s attempted the other way around, and more aggressively. The thing in the ceiling uses the Quake teleporter texture. Ideally, there would be some visual effects to drive home the idea of a dimensional intersection.

The fourth observation is that you can use elements of the game itself to create visual hotspots. A structure with several switches on it. A puzzle. Just arrange it in an eye catching fashion.

The fifth observation is that the box needs to be broken. Due to the principle of working with brush-based games, where basically cubes, slabs and similar forms are assembled to become an environment (it’s so obsolete, but this is Quake), there is an inherent boxiness to resulting areas. It’s a step up to start building curves and arches. But even better is to use triangle mesh. It has been traditionally used for rocks and the like, because it is easy to bring into the desired shape. Why not start using it indoors?

There is no rock inside bases, you might say. There is concrete, though. Plenty of it. And concrete can be poured into any mould – and it can erode, break, and become ruined, exposing the steel core. Far Cry has some fantastic indoor structures made out of concrete. Some of the best base maps I’ve seen use concrete throughout, like this one. And concrete can fit very well into slightly comicky art styles, such as Quake. Concrete can be used to construct a base exterior pretty easily. It is much more variable than premade wall panels, and can assume many different looks and structures.

The root cause of these considerations is that most RMQ maps, in their current state, suffer from a lack of identity and sense of place. They also often lack a high-level goal or gameplay plan, or a central challenge. Unfortunately, some of this is rooted in the original Quake. The goal has traditionally been “kill all monsters and find the exit”. The environment was understood to be a nice backdrop to the run-and-gun gameplay. This has the potential to result in generic corridor mazes, and 500-monster wankfests instead of something that presents you with a recognizable challenge in a unique way.

I admit that I intensely studied Doom 3’s “busy corridor” approach to level design. This results in an area that looks visually interesting. However, it isn’t very useful when you want to build setpieces, or eye-catching visual “hotspots” that give an area its unmistakable identity. Consequently, Doom 3 looked good, but suffered from “yet another base” disease. There were a lot of corridors. It would be more prudent to have a central challenge which also manifests itself in a unique setpiece design.

Do a short lead-in to establish some atmosphere. Then present the challenge to the player. If the challenge is to open the exit, then make the exit look accordingly important instead of just using a generic door. Then let the player venture off on their button-pressing or key-finding conquest, along which there is ample opportunity to let them do some shooting.

It goes without saying that a level should be interesting even without factoring in combat. It’s possible to get away with very few enemies if the environment, or the environment-related challenge, is engaging enough – and looks the part.

To create unique visuals, chances are there is a need of unique textures. One thing which I think is a mistake is to only substitute one generic theme with another (idbase with stroggbase, or one of the several available custom *-bases available). idbase is THE theme with the most texture variation available in Quake today. So there ought to be something in there that can be modified or expanded upon, or turned into a spin-off. Looking at all that brown, a colour variation might be a good idea (I used green in the first screenshot above). So are things like logos, decals, stains, or other visual markers. In RMQ, we make new textures like crazy. I read an article about the importance of color theory in level design today. It’s also worth looking up some cool fonts on the internet. Maybe create an alien alphabet.

I hope to create some more interesting and at the same time more functional environments after this.

One response to “All your base look the same

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