How do you decide to bound the player’s space in a 3D game? That is, when choosing between invisible walls, debris fields, cliffs, or simply an endless featureless plane/ocean, why pick one over the other?

When we're trying to craft an experience for the player, it's almost never one big element that sets the experience. Instead, it's the combination of many small details and decisions that all pull in the same direction and combine into a single, cohesive experience. For example, let's say we wanted to convey that the player's character is feeling dehydrated while walking through a 3D space. What could we do to make the player feel that sensation? We might...

  • change the walk cycle so that the player is stumbling slowly instead of walking normally
  • have ambient audio of the character with ragged breathing or panting
  • have the environment be very parched - lots of brown colors. Place lots of rocks and sand, with any plant being withered or cracked with no leaves
  • add a heat shimmer post-processing effect to the screen
  • add a lens flare near the sun
  • add specks of dust and sand to any wind effects on screen
  • add a clothing shader to show sand/lightly colored dirt building up on the character's clothing

Now... in such a situation, what kind of bounding volumes would help convey this experience? Walking through the bottom of an empty ravine or canyon with high walls might do the trick. Walking across a narrow land bridge over a desert gorge could do as well. However, any water-related visuals would likely take away from the feeling of dehydration. Walking along the beach, even if it's a desert beach, just doesn't convey the same feeling as walking through a desert with sand as far as the eye can see.

Ultimately, all of the elements of environment art and level design are tools for us to craft the kind of experience we want. The choice of invisible wall, debris field, cliff, crate, railing, or whatever is up to the designers and artists trying to convey a specific experience. Each individual element only moves the needle a little bit, but having all of them together at once moves the needle a lot more.

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