Forget Albert Wesker. Forget Saren. Forget Shang Tsung and the entire Sith lord chorus-line. In number of kills, blood-boiling frustration caused and sheer uncompromising evil, none of these villains can even touch on the world’s most powerful badass:

The Environment.

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Men are mortal. Monsters have weaknesses. Kratos proved that even gods can be brought to heel with quick enough thumbs. But the environment, as any platform gamer can attest, is vindictive, cunning and distressingly undying. And the reach of this hate-filled virtual geography doesn’t end there.

There isn’t a game that doesn’t use the world to mess with its players in some way. This isn’t to say that the next time you play Halo that you’d do well to save half your ammo for the foliage, but rather that it’s the way that the game is presented and the physical area in which your gun-toting bicep-rack is standing that determines how difficult you find the shoot-out between yourself and the horde of zombies, hell-spawn or Germans. In almost every FPS, the challenge isn’t in how many enemies you face, but from where those enemies appear, and what cunning scrap of cover you can find to shield your porcelain tuchus from near-certain shattering. Sure, maybe it’s still the hulking six-foot monstrosity that gets your underwear as a trophy, but it’s the level design that gives him the opportunity. Find yourself a neat little corner to hide away, a single doorway to aim at and a slow, sauntering procession of baddies and any game will cease to be difficult. Amusing, yes. Tough, no.

The same can be said for any game, in any genre. Bowser might kill Mario once, maybe twice if you weren’t paying attention, but the combined pits and spikes of Platformdom have taken more pixelated souls than any turtle. Be it the free-running time-trials of the Prince of Persia and Assassin’s Creed series (infinitely more challenging than their eyes-closed slap-fest combat systems), Braid’s fatally ambiguous backgrounds, or the peculiarly heavy oncoming 3AM traffic in Need For Speed‘s drag races – wherever you go as a gamer, the Environment is waiting, with a heavy stick and a copy of A Clockwork Orange for inspiration.

There are games where The Bad Guy is hardly more than a necessary but weak plot-point, acting as the final obstacle between you and the light at the end of the tunnel. A tunnel which, it’s safe to say, has challenged you (and succeeded) far more often than any single end-level boss fight. Silent Hill epitomizes the idea of Environment-as-Bastard by scaring the pants off of you not through a conga line of painfully slow-to-die monsters, but through its atmosphere. A poorly played piano, punctuated with the silence that makes your ears ring; blood in places blood should probably never be found – in games like this the environment is, let’s not mince words, designed to fuck with you. Take the school scene, for example. After a faint crackle at your radio, signalling the presence of something otherworldly near you, the ghost of a little girl appears out of nowhere.

Aside from showing everyone nearby the true extent of your high-pitched masculinity, this also causes you to empty an entire clip into thin air, leaving you with only a torch and a moist inner thigh to defend yourself for the next hour. You are encouraged to waste ammo, to think that every locker you pass will explode in a flurry of near-hysterical ineffectual flailing. If any game can show the world in which you are acting as being more an antagonist than the monsters you are fighting, it is Silent Hill. That and Peggle. And yet, it is the environment that makes us want to play the game in the first place. It provides the scenery, the ambiance, the immersion that draws us in like any combination of two X-chromosomes to a sailor on shore-leave – let’s face it, it is beautiful. And yet so cruel a lover.

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But isn’t that the very reason we love it? Humans love good looks. Humans love a bit of a challenge. Putting the two together is the alchemical formula for turning an idea into other people’s money. Let’s face it; the Gears of War franchise isn’t successful because of the deeply moving narrative. It’s difficult and it’s pretty, in a butch, chest-bumping, grunty sort of way. Now, we could ask why we do this to ourselves – why we are so attracted to challenges – but that is a question for game theorists and philosophers.

A more interesting question is: Are these challenges intentional? Architecture is guided by the desire to use space as effectively as possible. Was something similar running through the heads of the malicious bastards who designed the Locusts-on-Horseback scene in Gears of War 2, or was it just my own inability to distinguish between mushy brown monster, mushy brown monster’s pet and mushy brown rock walls that made me want to fling my console into a black hole, where it would be crushed and entombed forever? Anyone familiar with Tekken 4 will remember fondly how being knocked into a wall would cause you to lose control of your character briefly, leaving you vulnerable and pinning you to the edge of the screen while your opponent riddled you with fist-to-stomach introductions. And once you’d dislodged the controller from his ear canal, you couldn’t help but wonder if this was a pristine example of unadulterated level design genius, or if it was just a glitch? Was it intentional, or a bug, heavily salted with moronic design choices, proving that programmers really do just hate us all?

Now, I’m not including the thousand examples of the camera being more interested in the local flora than the reason for your rapidly unravelling intestinal tract, or even a button setup more inhuman than Sudoku enthusiasts. There are a number of ways in which designers can dick about with players, but gameplay mechanics and the virtual environment are two wholly different factions. Sure, perhaps they share a table at the Things That Make People Want To Kill Themselves awards, next to Stephenie Meyer and the vuvuzela, but unlike gameplay mechanics, the Environment doesn’t make itself obvious. It draws you in and lulls you with its beautifully rendered landscape. And then it kills you. Which is what makes it so difficult to judge whether it was intentional or not, and what makes it so bloody frustrating to die while merely traversing the environment.

Game developers should use the malicious power of the coded landscape as beautifully in single player games as they have in multiplayer. There is nothing more fulfilling, for example, than flinging a World of Warcraft enemy off the side of a mountain, or rocket-prodding your Unreal Tournament opponent into the vast and terminal openness of space. And who can forget the sheer elegance of a perfectly-timed Quake 3 tele-frag, where two players come out of the same teleporter in true Highlander “There Can Be Only One” style, except with more exploding?

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Admittedly, none of these are as exhilarating as they sound when you’re on the receiving end, but the pure joy they provide when you are the perpetrator is well worth the wait, due entirely to the simple fact that you’re playing the game indirectly. By doing what the game requires you to do without using any of the tools it’s given you for the job, gameplay takes on a whole new spin of strategic originality. Even if it’s as simple as using the still-warm bodies of other players (and sometimes your own) for cover in Call of Duty, turning the partly aesthetic, wholly malevolent landscape to your advantage is fun. Hacking away with mouse clicks can offer only so much pride and admiration; grinding a level 80 Paladin into dust with nothing more than Typhoon and a 300 foot drop, however … that is infinitely more rewarding. In this way, the environment is an open ally, offering its services to whichever player knows how best to use the higher ground.

This murderous creativity hasn’t managed to find its way into the realm of the single-player, however, and probably never will. While the inability to spot a twitching sniper rifle sticking through the body of a dead teammate is an example of fundamental human daftness, AI has a different and altogether thicker stupidity that means this graceful way of beating your opponents (or at the very least getting them to do that themselves) in single-player will require the kind of omnipotent AI programming that will eventually birth Skynet. Exploding barrels; gravity-gun-propelled debris – these might seem like examples of the player-controlled destructive landscaping that I’m going for, where the player can turn the environment’s threats to his advantage, but they are really little more than pieces of opportunistic slaughter. Even something as small as luring enemy soldiers into the path of their own mortars, or Diablo III‘s destructive and destructible scenery is a step in the right direction.

In games, as in life and any good story, the Environment (physical or situational) is the most important and powerful adversary
of them all, and game developers would do well to recognize it. I’m not suggesting that they cater for every roundabout way of finishing a game, or even a few dozen new ways of killing the assorted monsters of the virtual world, but a handful of creative ideas to allow players to use the environment would be nice. Or at least provide the AI a few more interesting ways to kill us. Because the fact remains, from its pleasant cel-shaded geography, right down to its wire-frame core, it’s a hate-filled world that your characters inhabit. And honestly, that’s the best kind.

Kevin Hoole is raising funds to start VirtualGreenpeace. Donations can be sent to him through entirelyunrelated.blogspot.com

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