Wolfenstein Youngblood: On Environmental Design

One of the real tensions with video games is that all this effort goes into creating environments that people tear through in about thirty seconds. There’s a desire for artistry and a really closely observed sense of place, and then there’s the fast-paced thumping violence – and they just don’t work that well together. Over time, we see different studios dealing with this tension in different ways. One common response is the set-piece, where the focus is on an event rather than a space. We talked about this distinction with DOOM – in many games, you get exciting, tightly scripted moments, like action scenes in movies. It’s about spectacle, about a key moment that everybody remembers. In CoD: WWII, it’s the bit where the train comes careening off the tracks and blows everything to hell. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, it’s the mudslide and tsunami sequences. These moments go in on Michael Bay spectacle, emphasising the intelligent construction of momentum and visual stimulus over any minute environmental detail. It’s less about the architecture of a building and more about how it looks when it explodes.

That’s one option, anyway. Another option is to allow the player to explore an area more than once. If you’re going to put all this dead-ass work into making an environment, you might as well let the player move across it multiple times. That’s the underlying logic behind open-world games, for instance. It has a certain cost-efficiency, and it can also just be really interesting to see how spaces change over time. That’s something that Arkham City really mastered, and it’s something we also see in the Dishonored series, which reused and reinvented levels both in the DLC for the original Dishonored and in Death of the Outsider.

With those two options in mind, it’s with some interest that we turn today to Wolfenstein Youngblood. In its latest incarnation, the Wolfenstein franchise has been run by MachineGames, who’ve had four or five instalments in the series, depending on how you count. Over some of the more recent games, there’s clearly been some uncertainty about the effort being put into the environments. They’re incredibly detailed, arguably too detailed for such a fast-paced shooter. And you can see them trying to compensate, trying to allow you to explore at your own speed. 2017’s New Colossus allowed players to return to completed areas to scrounge for additional collectibles and complete thin bonus side-quests – but they realised that it wasn’t enough, because the next entry, 2019’s Youngblood, pivoted entirely to an open-world model.

Youngblood has three main areas, which you can move across at will in pursuit of little side missions. Each area has a boss, and you have to defeat all three to complete the story, but the bulk of the game consists of tootling around completing side missions and exploring for collectibles. You can see some of the immediate benefits: it makes revisiting an area feel more organic, and it gives you a chance to explore and collect secrets without the demanding forward motion of a more linear game. I wrote about this idea back in 2016, actually, with regard to the original Mirror’s Edge. In that game, the levels were essentially multi-channel linear environments. If you look at the image below, from the canal level of Mirror’s Edge, you can see how there are maybe three or four paths you could take. You could run down the left side or the right, or down the middle, and you could run up the pipes onto the barrier in front of you or you could run straight at it and try and hurdle over it. There are a range of options as to how you proceed down the canal – but at the end of the day, you’re still fundamentally moving down the canal. Despite the complex interactions of multiple pathways, you’re still always moving in one direction. You only experience the city from this one perspective. You’re never asked to return back up the canal after dropping something off, for instance. It has multiple channels offering complex choices for navigation, but you’re still only moving in one linear direction.

The earlier Wolfenstein games have something of that same energy. You could move through them stealthily or with guns blazing, you could navigate through secret passages and sneak up on the Nazis from behind – there were a range of channels for approaching each situation, but you were still fundamentally moving in one direction through a level you couldn’t return to. By contrast, Youngblood allows you a more non-linear experience, encouraging you to roam freely within a web of nodes and pathways. You get to appreciate the environments a lot more, approaching them from multiple directions and understanding them in terms of their spatial relationship to other areas, rather than just as chunks of city cut out of their wider cultural context. In Youngblood, you can explore Paris as a city, as one interlinked, cohesive environment. That’s not something the other games offered. It solves the problem of collectibles while also emphasising the strength of MachineGames’ environmental design. It’s really cool! The game’s still subject to all the drawbacks and difficulties of open-world games – areas can start to feel empty or repetitive, the travel can feel like an inconvenience, the rewards don’t always justify the effort – but it’s interesting to see such a big franchise make this sort of shift. It’s an evolution responding to some very specific problems that MachineGames were struggling with, and – importantly – it makes it easier to spend time with the lovingly crafted environments.

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