Nearly every 3D game is cluttered in some way with objects. There are usually a lot of recurring assets – it’s ridiculous to think a development team would require artists to create unique assets for each object placement. However, this doesn’t mean designers should get lazy with placing clutter, even if they have a vast amount of different objects. Creating the same setup of a dresser with books, a cloth, and a stack of gold on top is boring and can be the small, seemingly meaningless part of a game that breaks immersion. Even placing the same common item twice in proximity or using a unique-looking asset twice in the same room can distract the player. Instead, designers should look to not only create variance in clutter placement, but try to tell stories through the environment. For example, a skeleton could be placed in a dungeon with a dagger in its back and gold spilled in front of them – one could infer this person was murdered for the valuables they were carrying and the culprit left behind evidence of this event. This can draw the player’s attention toward clutter sometimes, which isn’t its main intended purpose, but these small details can be easily overlooked as long as they don’t distract the player in an unbelievable way.
Skyrim EditExamples of this type of storytelling-through-clutter happen often in RPGs, such as Skyrim. Level and quest designers at Bethesda want each dungeon to offer something different, since their library of assets are used hundreds of times over, creating the same basic themed environments often. Random loot chests and leveled items can only go so far in creating a varied environment, and often don’t change the general aesthetic. Instead, level designers have placed dead bodies near traps, daggers into notes on tables, spilled household items on the floor where a fight may have taken place. These details add flavor to the environment and give the player a reason to reflect on a scene built with basic items.
Dragon Age II
One of the greatest critiques of Dragon Age II was the use of recycled environments. Areas lost all of their intrigue the moment the player entered them because one house looked like the next looked like the next. Each has the same general layout, objects, and architecture. A smuggler's den would have all of the same little accents as a dungeon where a mage had gone missing. Very few set pieces were unique, and it unhinged the narrative for many players who found it difficult to immerse themselves in the repetitive set pieces.