Unfortunately, every one takes it for granted. Half the time a player will waltz through area after area never really looking at it, or appreciating the amount of effort that went into it (unless you’re a game art student, and then you stop to examine every texture and mesh). But the fact of the matter is that Environment design is often times more difficult and far more involving than designing a character, but the processes and tricks remain the same.
At the end of the day, a game is simply an interactive narrative. This means that everything within it has to tell a story, and the Environment is no different. Unlike the Character, who has to show signs of a personal, individual journey, the World of the game has to tell a story unique to the whole populace - it has to have a history of years or hours, it has to have the scars of time.
Outside, our own streets suffer the same fate - you can walk through Birmingham and see architecture new and old, decaying and well cared for. There are the remnants of parks, and new city apartment blocks, along side old gothic buildings and classical churches.
Detroit is filled with sky scrapers and metal buildings, and the rolling stone scroll work of turn of the century architecture eventually giving way to wood and brick houses, with paint flaking on the walls and unkempt gardens. It used to light up at night, looking like a living wall of stars.
Now, its practically a ruin, after the mass abandonment that followed the economic crash. Some of its most iconic buildings lie dying, degrading into nothing. Detroit tells a story of settlers, change, prosperity, and despair, and I don’t have to see, or meet a single person from there in order to read all that.
Its that kind of realism that environment artists strive to achieve in their designs, that level of detail. They have to create a world the immerses the player, because, as they walk and look around, it seems as though this world, this fictional creation of pixels, has always been there, and always will.
In terms of game play, and level design, there still has to be that sense of realism. If you’re going to use lighting to guide the player down a corridor, it has to come from somewhere logical - a swinging lamp perhaps, or a sky light? If they’re going to find items and weapons and clues strewn about, they should be in logical places, instead of just random littered about. After all, who really keeps an AK-47 in a child’s bedroom?
Close enough, I suppose.