Environments within games, films and books are extremely important when telling a story. Although people may interpret a description of a place differently, it is dependent on a genre and the story that is trying to be told. If the style is not a justification of the targeted genre, then the whole game or film can collapse. This is why artists work on making the character match the environment’s style in most cases. This can make the world seem balanced rather than two styles trying to erase one another.
In games, level designers are usually tasked in opening up the world to the player. Obviously they won’t make a controlling free-roam game which restricts you as a guide to its true linear path… Operation Flashpoint 2: Dragon Rising! That is just false advertising and leaves a massive amount of work which no one will see. The level design has to match the style of the game, so a controlled path in a game will guide the player along the right path, and a free-roaming game will give freedom to where the player goes. However, the designer will not make a linear path seem obvious. It will be subtle in most cases… after all, gamers are not idiots and they know this; for example, if there are two possible paths, one that has some climbable rubble and another covered with lava then you’re not going to try and wade through 2000˚c. That’s just stupid.
The designs of the levels don’t just help guide players through them; they are also there to add to the games whole look and atmosphere. The architecture must relate to the characters as well as the genre and style of the game. This gives the whole look of the game balance which adds to the possibility of this world existing in reality. If the game is too stylised when it doesn’t suit the genre, it can sometimes make the game feel like it’s actually designed for a different genre. But again, this is a problem with realistic games as well.
Environments don’t necessarily have to have a lot to them. I mean, obviously this depends of the skill of the artist as well as the type of game, but sometimes environments are more simple and minimalist in order to avert focus onto the character. An example of this is LIMBO, in which there is no colour throughout the entire game and the backgrounds are extremely similar and linear. This art style works, but only really for this game.
One game I like in particular with its environmental art is Far Cry 3, again as with Vaas, the environments are designed very well. Although the in game, Rook Island is made up, the artists have managed to replicate it realistically, giving the illusion that it could exist, adding wildlife which you can hunt around the island. Obviously this will more likely be seen in a free roam game, but with a game that has such believable characters, you would expect the same from the rest of the island/environment. But again, there is balance in the game. Some of the minor objectives require you to climb radio towers in order to unlock vision of an area of the map. Although I’m not sure how realistically they’ve been located or made, it adds to the features and the game, and takes that thinking process away from the player.