Though Star Trek would have us all believe that space is the final frontier, this is not true when it comes to gaming. Game developers use a wide variety of environments and setting for their games. The majority of games are land based. The rest consist of a myriad of other locations such as space (Star Trek Online, Eve Online), underground (Gears of War, Half-Life), in the air (Flight Simulators, Aerial Combat games), in the mind (Assassin’s Creed, CoD Black Ops), or a combination of any of these. What, you ask then, is the final frontier of gaming… the least used and perhaps the most challenging by gaming standards? Water. When was the last time you played a game that was completely based in or under water? You’ll have plenty of time to think about it before the end of the article.
Yes, the marine environment is the least used setting for video games. There are a few practical reasons for this. First, although the ocean is larger and covers more area than land, it’s not terribly interesting. Water is water. Sure, you have the occasional algae, plant life, and fish, but otherwise, it’s as desolate as the Sahara Desert. Other environments tend to be much more complicated and visually appealing. Second, movement under water is slow. Water friction slows down even the most streamlined ships and submarines immensely, making quick travel and movement very difficult. Third, and perhaps the most obvious reason, is the need for oxygen. Most games are centered on human/humanoid characters which require oxygen to breathe. Unless you wear a suit, use a vehicle, or construct underwater facilities, you can’t stay under water for a long period of time.
Just to ask, have you come up with an answer yet to my question? Maybe a game like Bioshock you might be thinking. No, that game was based in airtight facilities that just so happened to be located under water. Keep trying, though.
Aside from the impracticalities, marine environments can still be very fun. As I mentioned, the ocean is large. Unlike land environments, there are not many impediments or obstructions for people or vehicles to run into. In terms of a fighting game, battles fought in or on the ocean are plain and straight forward. Both opponents can see each other and are wide open to attack. The fact that movement is slowed by water tension also plays a critical way in how battles are fought. Focus becomes more on strategy, tactics, and planning ahead rather than speed and numbers. A water environment forces players to adapt and think more than just “run and gun.”
To all of you who like your space games, marine environments tend to be very similar. This is why astronauts train in water environments before going into space. Both environments lack oxygen which means humans have to depend on ingenuity and innovation to survive. Both are not fully affected by gravity or friction either, meaning movement in one direction won’t slow as quickly as it normally would on land.
But why make a fuss about what environments are used in games? Well first, I would say that any type of game can be played in any kind of environment. From first person shooters to strategy games, a water environment would challenge the gamer to play in a different mindset and style than he is accustomed to. The physics and dynamics of water force players to move more carefully and think ahead. Also, conventional weapons like missiles and guns do not work under water. Players would have to use weapons like torpedoes and harpoons in order to combat other players. These weapons take time to reach their target, thereby making it easier to dodge them. Yet, if you take damage or are injured underwater, the consequences are much more severe.
Second, water environments, if created correctly, can be very visually appealing. With all the forms of life and the many geographical features, oceans provide many beautiful images. While graphics continue to improve for displaying land features, water features are still difficult to mimic and have not been developed as much. There is plenty of work to be done to improve water simulated environments.
Third, the challenge of survival in the ocean would make a game much more exciting. Food and non-salt water are hard to come by out in the open ocean. Players would have to be much more mindful of their surroundings, of the danger of predators, and the risk of natural weather phenomena on the high seas. A game environment gives designers an extra place to provide a challenge rather than just something to look at. Water provides a natural challenge without extra work.
Water environments are unique and provide a different challenge to players than typical land setting or other locations. Games that take place entirely on or under water are few and far between, and the ones that do are nothing terribly special. In a time when game developers are running short on newer and original ideas, water still remains a relatively undeveloped and unexplored backdrop for video games. That reminds me… did you recall the last game you played completely based in or under water? Didn’t think so.