How do you experience scale in game worlds compared to real life?

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Pezen

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I was listening to the most recent Fire Escape podcast and they got a question if they have walked more in a game or real life. That got me thinking about scale and the game worlds I have been in. The experience contrast between how big the world feels and how big it actually is in time passed by walking it. For example, someone walked the map of The Witcher 3 and found that it took 45 minutes. If I walk for 45 minutes I have basically only walked from my apartment to just beyond my mom's which is about 3-4km or 2-3 miles. That's not very far, but here's where I find the illusion of scale intresting. In a game everything feels bigger than it is due to design. What that deisgn is I have a hard time pinpointing but one aspect is that the open parts of a map (forest, fields, etc.) are quite small by real world standards. A forest in a game isn't actually particularly big (including tall trees not actually being scale wise tall). And if we're counting houses in a big city in a game it's probably going to be very few in comparison to a big city in real life. But in the context of the game it seems big. I admire the ability to build that illusion.

The more I think about this the smaller the worlds in game actually seem to be. But while in them, that illusion still works and I think it works because it's blancing making the world feel big while not being so big that you would get bored travelling through it. So the scale has to be set to a size that doesn't detract from the experience.

So how do you feel, ever felt like the maps/worlds are bigger/smaller than they are potrayed to be in comparison to real life?

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bigsocrates

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The key here is variety. Game worlds are (for the most part) much smaller than real worlds, but they contain most of the features and variety of those areas. So in a game you might walk for 45 minutes across the whole map, but in that time you'll have walked through villages, cities, country, bogs, across rivers, over snowy mountains etc.. In real life if you go on a 45 minute hike you've probably just seen the same forest or desert or whatever the whole time. Variety makes it seem like you're making much more progress and going further than you are.

The other difference is that in games you move much much faster than the real world. You can't really "walk" across the Witcher's map. You run, fast. The same with driving. Do you ever drive at 30 MPH in a city in a game? Of course not. In reality our walking speeds and driving speeds are way slower than in games so of course we travel lower distance in the same time. If you ran at 15 MPH you'd make 5 times the distance you do in real life where you probably walk at around 3MPH. So the size differential is not AS massive as you're making it out.

So yes, game worlds feel bigger than the real world because there's more variety packed into them, but you also move through them quicker. There definitely are game maps that feel relatively small compared to real world locations but for the most part they're big enough to get the job done. Does anyone actually want endless forests or massive cities that take forever to get around in their video games? The worst thing to do in a game is commute, and we do enough of that already!

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FacelessVixen

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I vaguely remember driving for 15 or 20 minutes in real time from New York to Los Angeles in The Crew 1, and walking from Sanctuary Hills to Diamond City in Fallout 4 takes about five minutes.

It depends on the game since real and realistic locations are significant;y truncated in games compared to their real world counterparts and inspirations, but I see where you're coming from since fantastical worlds can give off the illusion of having a larger than real life scale, which I get from MMOs.

Does anyone actually want endless forests or massive cities that take forever to get around in their video games? The worst thing to do in a game is commute, and we do enough of that already!

Ask the people who play the Truck Simulator games, Microsoft Flight Simulator, Elite Dangerous, No Man's Sky, 7 Days to Die, other games that fall into the 'open world survival craft' genre, other applicable 'simulation' games, and by extension, games that feature really long events like Gran Turismo 5 and 6 featuring the actual 24 Hours of Le Mans. Sure, the appeal is niche, but the enthusiasts are there.

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bigsocrates

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@mctoot: Nobody is against interesting worlds or worlds that take a little bit of time to travel through and feel vast. Obviously there's a big market for that. But those things often happen in very limited sized maps.

@facelessvixen: The difference with those games is that you're not commuting through those worlds, the traversal IS the gameplay. The whole point of flight simulator is to fly, and the point of Truck Simulator is to drive. Lots of people want games with a ton of active content, but in most games the world is where the meat of the gameplay like missions or whatever take place. In the Witcher the point of the game is not to go for a walk in the woods, it's to do some witching and go through the story/sidequests.

If the world were more realistically sized you'd have to commute between the locations where you do those things and it would be boring.

If the commute becomes the gameplay (like in Train Sim) then it's a different story.

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serryl

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I usually feel like game environments are much bigger than they are in reality, which I consider a testament to the skilled designers making them. My memory of playing Halo CE was that the maps stretched out forever; it really felt like the entire Halo ring had been modelled, and I was just seeing slices of it. I'm even more impressed by how convincing the illusion feels in open-world games like Cyberpunk 2077, given how aware I become of the dimensions after criss-crossing the map for hours.

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As bigsocrates said, when it's done well I get a world that feels vast without wasting my time or causing friction--absolutely magical.

That said, my favorite game environment from the last few years is in The Outer Wilds, which kinda does the opposite. The scale of the star system looked normal to me at first glance, and then I realized the planets were all DBZ-sized. If anything they feel smaller than they really are, which delights me for reasons I can't explain.

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BisonHero

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As others have pointed out, game worlds feel small because your travelling pace is insane. On foot, you're doing a full-on sprint basically all the time with no pauses (not Usain Bolt fast, but definitely very fast). In vehicle, you're doing like 100 km/h everywhere you drive. On horse, I guess games are oddly a little more realistic in not letting you full-on gallop nonstop; weird precedent set by Ocarina of Time, I guess.

I do think "the commute" of a game can be the primary gameplay of the game without it being a vehicle sim game. Breath of the Wild's actual story missions and shrines are like 5-10% of the game, and exploring that world really is the vast majority of that game, even more so than combat with random goblin camps. Even in that game, as much as I like the glider, I think it trivializes a lot of that traversal, and I almost wish more of the game was like the tutorial plateau where you have no glider and have to chop down that tree to get across a chasm, etc. Also that game just kinda mishandles water, since swimming anything but a short distance is impossible so you need to spam ice blocks or find a raft + leaf combo.

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Shindig

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Even in comparable circumstances, I find reality to hit a lot harder than the gaming equivalent. You're somewhat removed from it so standing in Manhattan will impress more than standing in the same spot in Liberty City. I've even found that work in smaller instances. I can stand on the train platform at Newark Airport in Train Sim World but I was more impressed about standing on the platform in real life. 11:30pm in a shocking downpour, it still won out.

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BladeOfCreation

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I think about this a lot. It really is a testament to level designers and artists that they can make such a small area feel so big. I think a notable example of this is the "7,000 steps" to High Hrothgar in Skyrim. The actual numbers of steps is about one-tenth the stated number, but that journey is broken up by finding lore objects and some combat encounters. So by the time you actually make it up the mountain, you feel like you've gone on a journey. A quick search shows that 7,000 steps is about 3 miles, which the average person could walk in about an hour (not accounting for things like snow, elevation, and that goddamn ice troll).

Another thing where games mess with scale is with time. Every open-world game has you racing against the clock to do something, but for the most part, time doesn't actually matter. An NPC might say, meet me in the tavern tonight at midnight. Then you can go do whatever you want. You can spend literally hundreds of in-game day-night cycles doing other stuff. When you finally show up, the NPC has been waiting for three months of in-game time, but doesn't mention it. Unrealistic? Yeah, but it's one of those things that I accept as being a part of the experience, so it doesn't bother me.

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Pezen

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@bigsocrates: I think you're definitely onto something in regards to variety. In the real world we experience variety within the same scenery. Being in a forest, it's nothing but variety (not to mention being in nature is good for your mental health, study finds), but it's a type of variety I think gets lost in translation in a game. Possibly in part because areas in a game are mostly set dressing and not a goal in and of themselves. The only gams I have actually thought more about my surroundings and it's variety is in survival games where the areas I am in may have resources. But it comes back to the focal point of what the purpose of the game is. Going from point A to point B on a map is a necessary evil in an open world type of game, because what you're after is the next mission/object/whatever. In that respect they can throw more but smaller areas of variety to make you feel like you travelled far without actually having done so.

But I beg to disagree in regards to your point on speed. The Witcher 3 example was someone intentionally walking the map, not running. But if we're assuming Witcher ran that map instead and got the same time results, that's still not that much bigger. Though it would be interesting to take Witcher and assume scale to be 1:1 and run the length of an object that has a real world counterpart and see what that would translate to speed wise.

@shindig: There are very few instances of a game having given me the same sense of awe real world can give. In part I think it's the amount of information you get in real life that you don't get in a game (ambient sounds, smells, a slight breeze, heat/cold etc.) and in part it's probably just that you can't feel the scale of a thing when you look at it through a screen the same way as if you're present in it. For example, I have a weird fear of heights that kick in at specific moments. But I mostly never feel that fear in a game, even if I were to try to simulate a similar scenario. Assassin's Creed once during a treasure hunt did though, I was climbing inside a cathedral and as I was reaching the top, the way they had lit everything made me feel the distance to the floor below in a way games never do and my fear of height actually kicked in. I was extremely surprised but also excited that it managed to do it.

@bladeofcreation: You make some great points on what makes a game give you the feel of a journey. Moving from point A to B while being engaged on the way there with different obstacles or lore or something gives your brain more things to work with. In a way, it mimics the way we might feel when we have done a lot of different things during a day compared to a day spent doing one thing. The amount of time is the same, but the days doesn't feel the same length. To add to your point on time, I also think day/night cycles are a good trick to make you feel like you're travelling far. You walk from one city to the next and during it the sun completes it's route and nightfall arrives. We assume since we know how much time needs to pass for that to happen in real life, we can apply it to how far we have perceived to have travelled in the game for that to be the case.

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wollywoo

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#11  Edited By wollywoo

Interesting discussion. Yeah, I think it has to do with a) the amount of variety packed into a relatively small place and b) the relative pace of events in video games vs. real life.

The closest real-life counterpart I can think of is Disneyland. In Disneyland you can walk from one side of the park to another in a half-hour, but it feels much bigger because of the sheer variety of the differently themed locations.

The faster movement of time and events also plays a role. Think of Ocarina of Time, one of the earliest examples of a game I can think of that gave a big sense of scale - even though it's tiny compared to modern games. In that game, on the way from Kokiri Village to Hyrule Castle, the sun often sets. This means that what is a one or two-minute journey represents in some sense a hike of several hours. While playing, I think your brain internalizes this accelerated pace to some extent.

In general, things in video game worlds happen much faster than in real life. In a video game, if nothing happens for more than a minute the players would probably complain. Compare that to real-life journeys, where you're sitting in a car or walking through the silent woods for hours. In games, any given quest is probably wrapped up in a couple hours, while in real life in any given couple hours nothing terribly interesting happens. In general, game worlds are compressed both time-wise and space-wise and that's part of what makes them so addictive and compelling.

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Shindig

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@pezen: Yeah. I have a fear of heights as well and the only time a game has triggered it is the bridge part in Half-Life 2.

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bigsocrates

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#13  Edited By bigsocrates

@pezen: You can't simulate variety found in nature in a video game because of how expensive it would be. Think about walking in a forest (I'm talking about a Mid-Atlantic/New England forest because that's what I'm familiar with.) You see an enormous variety of vegetation and even within each species all of the trees are different from one another. Some are thicker, some are taller, some have weird splits or have been blown over by the wind, or are charred by lightning, or whatever. To introduce all of that into a game would be prohibitively expensive. And those are trees. Now imagine animals. Have you ever watched a cardinal? They do lots of seemingly unpredictable stuff. They fly to random places and investigate food and whatever. All of that behavior would cost money to put into a game. Instead games have very limited behaviors, and if you spent a ton of time walking through forests and seeing a bunch of birds doing the same things over and over in different places it would not work. Now this doesn't matter if what you're doing involves the trees or birds (if you're out to cut cedar trees for a recipe you don't care if they all pretty much look the same; Minecraft has very simple graphics but because everything is a resource nobody cares) but if it's just kind of set dressing then there's no point in replicating the same things over and over. You can't simulate natural variety so instead you'd just get a big world that looks cut and pasted together out of the same exact parts. You get that anyway in games, but hand placement of objects and some clever tricks can disguise it.

Walking speed in games is still faster than most people walk, but even if you could walk at 3 MPH in that game, it's not like real human walking across varied terrain, especially through cities where density and vehicle traffic mean you can't just go full speed. Games are made to be relatively convenient to get around while most of reality is not.

There are lots of games that tout how large their maps are, and some of them are pretty expansive in real terms, but they give you the tools to get around the map fast because nobody WANTS a game where you are just walking or riding or driving for 2 hours to get to the next location. Unless that's the gameplay, like in Flight Simulator.

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BladeOfCreation

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This reminds me of one of my favorite bits of "someone on the internet does ridiculous math." The original link is dead, but I found it via the Wayback Machine (nothing on the internet goes away, folks!). Back in 2008, someone calculated the total area of the map in World of Warcraft. It's an amusing read. The short version is this: Azeroth is flat and has a similar gravity to Earth, and for this to be true at the size that it is, the world of Azeroth has an average density that is 500 times greater than lead. They follow this up with various other calculations and conclusions.

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Pezen

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@bladeofcreation: Thank you for linking that, it was a fascinating and funny read. Not to mention exactly the thing I am talking about, but even more in depth than I ever considered.

@bigsocrates: Not entirely sure why you felt compelled to explain the cost of real world variety, I wasn't saying it was desired because of the fact that even if you could theroetically do so one wouldn't experience it entirely as such anyway. The impact would get lost in the translation of your experience and what your driving force for playing the game anyway. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I get the distinct feeling that you're positioning yourself as though my point is a game should or should not be a certain way to be more 'realistic'? I'm not advocating realism or that real world simulation is preferrable to artistic trickery. Because as you point out, that's not actually what someone wants. When my motivation for doing something in a game is based around, say, story related missions the variety and size of the world is second. Which is why world illusion works. My interest in the subject isn't whether or not the world should or should not be more realistic in size and variety, but how a small size can give off the illusion of size so that we end up thinking we're exploring a bigger space than we actually are. And when we think back we're thinking we have travelled a longer distance than we actually have in real terms, even if whatever that distance is varies based on assumptions of speed or in game laws of physics, like @bladeofcreation's link above.

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bigsocrates

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@pezen: My point is not that you want real-world sized environments but just that if you see a well designed game world as a platform for content delivery, it's impossible to produce enough aesthetic content to make huge worlds a good idea.

This is in contrast to games where the world exists to provide resources or just as a place where the traversal is the point, where more expansive worlds make more sense because the aesthetic content is not the point.