Today I was thinking about Personality of Place.

I am not a big proponent of author-dictated narrative in character-driven games, but I do think that the strongest player narratives come out of games with well-crafted and unique author-dictated settings; these settings are conveyed both through the core fiction and NPC's personalities, and through the physical spaces provided by the level designer. Since the scenarist provides the raw setting data to the level designer, it's important for the settings themselves (the Places where the play occurs) to exude their own inherent personality for the level designer to play off of, either by way of exploiting expressive locale archetypes or drawing from an original fiction. Many games suffer, in my opinion, by setting their games in spaces that have no ingrained personality of their own, and thereby nothing for the level designer to channel into a truly living gamepace.

Considering my job, this train of thought started with F.E.A.R. as its reference point, compared to prior Monolith games, specifically NOLF2 in this case. While the core gameplay of F.E.A.R. is outstanding in my opinion, I feel it suffered from a lack of Personality of Place. Each setting was inherently generic-- warehouse, industrial plant, office building, office building, office building, high-tech research facility-- and that carried through into somewhat aimless level design. The story occured alongside the levels as opposed to within them-- exposition was through verbal transmissions, usually revolving around events unseen by the player. While the spaces showcase the combat effectively, they gave the level designers no strong personality traits to build off of, as they weren't integrally tied to strong narrative elements or immediately evocative locale archetypes, resulting in an overall rather dry player experience. I single out F.E.A.R. here, but this could be said of many, many action/shooter games (for instance Splinter Cell, Black, Max Payne, The Punisher, The Warriors, and so forth.)

Compare this to NOLF2, which not only had an extremely strong narrative featuring a cast of distinctively-voiced NPCs, but a succession of levels that had as much personality as the game's human characters. When it comes to snap-visualizing a space, which says more to you: "villain's secret undersea base" or "wastewater treatment plant?" "60's spy agency headquarters" or "industrial warehouse?" Hell, even "abandoned suburban home in Akron, Ohio" or "office tower?" In my opinion, the first of each of those pairs evokes not only a strong visual but a tangible mood, a personality-- something to shoot for in both look and feel of the resulting playable spaces. Choosing settings with strong Personality of Place has led to outstanding level design in such recent games as Psychonauts (the settings being the mindscapes of a variety of quirky characters) and Hitman: Blood Money (the settings being a number of exotic and not-so-exotic locales, each home to a very distinctive target for assassination.) When picturing levels, do you get more out of "sewer, factory, office, research lab" or "Mardi Gras, Mississippi riverboat, Heaven & Hell-themed rave, French opera house?" Could Psychonauts' run-of-the-mill platformer gameplay have been so engaging if it didn't take place in the minds of a paranoid conspiracy nut, a battle-hardened army general, and a frustrated painter of black velvet matadors?

The scenarist of a game is not only responsible for inspiring the player's forward movement through engaging plot points and relatable NPCs, but for inspiring the level designers to create spaces that truly exude personality, by supplying them with exciting and unique core Places to develop. It takes an incredibly self-motivated and inventive LD to infuse a boring Place with strong personality strictly through gameplay; on the other hand, an inspiring fiction and locale can lead to truly outstanding playable spaces which breathe with a unique and palpable personality all their own. To put this in MDA terms, there are types of Places that have a built-in aesthetic for the level designer to work towards, adding a unique and tangible set of emotional metrics to the process, which leads to more inspired and engaging playable spaces.

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