In 1972, the first home video console, known as The Odyssey, did not enjoy great success. Its simple graphics, limited gameplay, and sparse choice of games prompted other companies such as Atari to increase the choice of games and add identity through improved graphics and more challenging gameplay. The result was an explosion in home video gaming that grew into a $40 billion industry.
The importance of visual impact
It soon became clear that the look and sound of a game could contribute as much to its success as the gameplay itself, and getting the right combination of all three could produce a smash hit. Titles such a Space Invaders may seem crude by today’s standards, but it was a massive leap from the Pong-type games which preceded it. And the combination of graphics, sound, and addictive gameplay made it a global phenomenon.
The big-budget era
Early developers had to work within tight programming and budget limitations but, as the industry has grown and technology has improved, many of those limitations have been lifted. Today, developers work with budgets on par with Hollywood movies. For example, 2018’s Red Dead Redemption 2 cost an estimated $370–540 million to develop, but made that back within a couple of days of its release. This has enabled publishers to produce games that are as visually stunning as they are fun to play, and stand the test of time. It also allows the designers to let their imaginations run wild and draw inspiration from many different sources, including real-life locations when creating their gaming environments. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the inspiration for some of the most stunning scenery in video gaming.
Some of the most visually stunning games have used fantasy, science fiction, or steampunk as inspiration. The Bioshock series, first released in 2007, shows how game designers now have the freedom to let their imagination run wild, creating entirely new worlds in which to stage their action. Despite being set in the 1960s, the Bioshock world is totally fictional and uses dieselpunk and steampunk themes to create a dystopian atmosphere which was a big hit with gamers. The underwater setting added also threw another layer of intrigue into the mix.
The developers of the 2012 release, Dishonored, used the dark back streets of 18th-century London and Edinburgh as the inspiration for creating the fictional city of Dunwall. They combined this with steampunk-style technology and threw in mischief of plague-ridden rats to create an eerie mood that complements the game’s fantastical vision of a dystopian world in political and social turmoil.
Other games have used real-life landscapes as inspiration for their settings. The Witcher 3: the Wild Hunt which was launched in 2015 is considered one of the great games of recent times. Many players from Scandinavia have noted the similarities in some of the locations and place names to real-life places across Sweden and Norway – particularly the parts of the game set in Skellige. Some of the religious themes in the game also draw inspiration from Norse mythology. It has also been suggested that scenery in other parts of the game resemble other regions in Central Europe such as Poland and Germany.
The 2018 title God of War also used Scandinavia as its setting and Norse mythology as its theme, in contrast to the first seven titles in the series which were based around Greek mythology. It is set in the ancient realm of Midgard, and the scenery is clearly inspired by the wild landscapes of Norway and Sweden, albeit with fantasy elements added.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (2020) also uses the bleak backdrop of Norway circa 872–878 AD to bring the Viking era to life. It was widely praised for its design that transports the player into a bloody world of brutal conflict, where powerful forces have put the future of the entire earth at stake. The choice of backdrop and scenery is what really draws the player into these games from the first minute.
Influence in other sectors
Other sectors of the industry have also picked up on the use of Scandinavia and other country-based themes to add atmosphere to their games. Sweden makes an appearance again as the inspiration for the 888 casino slot games Ring of Odin and Faces of Freya, which both utilize a Norse mythology theme. Ancient Egypt is another popular setting for video slots with countless titles, including Book of Immortals, Book of Dead, Egyptian Fortunes, and Valley of the Gods; all being set in the land of the pharaohs. Just like with video games, the atmosphere, scenery, and sound effects of a slot game can make a huge difference to the overall experience and can influence a player in choosing one game over another.
An other-worldly experience
Whether it’s the turn-of-the-century American frontier of Red Dead Redemption or the surreal kingdoms of Super Mario, gamers love being transported to another world. In recent times, the top games have become as renowned for the way they look like the way they play. Stunning scenery and super-realistic rendering can draw players back time and again to immerse themselves in this alternative reality.
Players have become so aware of this that they pore over every detail of a new release with a critical eye. For example, the 2020 release Cyberpunk 2077 imagines a future world loosely based on our own. The high-tech city setting is cleverly portrayed as bright and shiny on the surface, but with a grim level of decay lurking below. However, many players noted an over-use of cinematic effects that detracted from the overall feel of the game. These effects were turned on by default but could be switched off in the settings, giving the game a more natural look – which many players preferred. We may see even more examples in the future where players are able to customize the look of their game either through effects or even by choosing different landscapes and backgrounds.
Despite decades of progress, it still feels like we are just at the beginning of a graphical revolution in gaming. And it will be fascinating to see where the latest technology, in the hands of the industry’s most skillful world-builders, will take us next.