I’m sure that most of you are both gleefully and painfully aware of all the different techniques for creating an adventure game world. Apart from simply showing the world through sprites and background images; there are characters that tell players about the world, hot-spots with rollover text that tell them what they’re looking at, cut scenes that can show a wider view of the world, expository narration that tells players about the setting of the story… the list goes on.

For this particular article, I’d like to put aside these other techniques and focus on what it takes to create the game world visually. If you can pull it off visually, you may not have use as many of these other techniques to describe your game world (even though they are kind of fun;)).

A Stylish Beginning

Let’s begin by talking about the style of the game world. This may seem like a strange place to start, but if you mess up here, it can easily break the immersion for whoever plays the game. Really, there’s only one constant that needs to be applied to make any style work:


Consistency is what holds together the logic of your game world. Breaking with the logic in your world is the quickest way to pull the player out of their immersion in the story. If your world is visually consistent, the player will have no trouble transitioning from one area to the next, while still feeling immersed.

The best way maintain consistency?

Keep it simple:

Make a decision about what style best fits the story you’re trying to tell and use that style for every visual aspect of your game. This also goes for whatever medium you’re working in (line drawn animation, full motion video, 3D rendering, photo compositing, etc..). It’s possible to mix mediums (most adventure games do at least some of mixing), but you have to go the extra mile to maintain a consistent look. Remember: Whether you like it or not, you are creating laws about how reality works in your world. You may not be aware of them, but the player definitely is.

Here’s an example:

We have a very small studio apartment in a somewhat futuristic setting. The apartment is made with realistic lighting and textures. Our player character, however, is made in a line-drawn, cell-shaded animation style. This character is a lot less substantial than his surroundings, and will probably seem less important to the player. However you see it, this character (visually, at least) is not a part of this setting.

Another Example:

Now we have a character that matches the setting; same realistic lighting, same photo-real textures. The character and setting have the same visual importance. There’s a wide variety of approaches to the topic of visual style. My advice would be to go with whatever style matches the characters in your game. Players spend the most time in game with the characters, so that should be your starting point when considering what kind of visual style to create your world in.

This brings me to the next part in the world creation process:

Character Appearance

Before figuring out what the architecture in your setting is going to look like, or how neat things will look bathed in spectral moonlight or a mystical sunset, you’ll want to establish the look and all the qualities of your characters. Everything in the game world will be based on the scale and appearance of your characters, they are also the access point for the game player into your story.

This is a line-up of characters from my game Collision. I’ve found that doing a line-up is immensely helpful in providing some key info for my game:

1- It shows me the scale of my characters. Not only how big they are on screen, but their size in relation to one another.

2- Looking at them side by side also gives me a chance to make sure I’m maintaining a consistent look from character to character, and maintaining whatever visual dynamic I’ve created. It’s all about consistency.

3- This is a great opportunity to take one final look at the design and details of your characters before spending hours and hours animating them.

Now that you have a line-up, you can ask a few vital questions about the character-to-world relationship:

– Will looking at the characters in my game tell the player about the game world?

– Does the appearance of each character match their role is this world?

– Based on their appearance, does it make sense that these characters would be together in this particular story?

– Does the appearance of this character match the over-all aesthetic of your game world?

Let’s take a closer look at one of the characters:

This strikingly handsome fellow is Roland Haste. In Collision, Roland is a merchant, and he is traveling to meet a prospective seller.

What does his appearance tell us about the world of Collision?

It’s something of an affluent place where people seem to be in transit. It’s also not present day, nor a place that we would necessarily recognize. Fashion in this world is a bit different from our own.

Does his appearance match his role in the story?

Roland is a traveling merchant. He has a carrying case for traveling and is wearing a set of relatively nice clothing that would be appropriate for a meeting with potential buyers and sellers.

NOTE: If you’re character’s role in the story changes (especially if it’s the player character) it’s very likely that their appearance will change as well. Let’s say Roland arrives at his destination and for some reason joins the local revolution to overthrow the ruling party. He would probably start wearing something that identifies him as a revolutionary:

(More on this topic later.)

Does Roland’s appearance match the over-all aesthetic and setting of the game?

Here’s a quick mock-up I did to test out my character. This is another very helpful tool to use before going into the animation phase of your project. It’s extremely helpful to be able to look at all of your game elements at once. The things that work and the things that don’t work become obvious pretty quickly.

Not everything about this image is consistent, but it lets me know that I’m on the right track. Roland has the same photo-real textures and lighting that appear in his surroundings. His dress is also of a similar style to other characters in the game, as well as his proportions and general look. I think it’s safe to say that he is a part of his surroundings.

Which brings us to the next topic:


Let’s go back to our first example:

Again, we have a small studio apartment in a somewhat futuristic setting. All of the same rules about consistency and in-game logic that we applied to our characters will also apply to any of our settings. Since all the same principles apply, does this particular setting answer the same questions as before? No, not really. There are a few things missing. Any of you who have spent about .5 seconds looking at this image might say that everything is missing. And you’d be right. So:

There we go. Still a bit sparse, but at least now we have a few things here that tell us about this guy and the kind of world that he exists in. He doesn’t like doing dishes or picking up his undies, and he appears to live in a world very similar to our own. Now we can also see that the objects in our world follow the same visual logic as the characters and setting.

There are also a few questions to ask about any particular area you’re designing:

– What is this place?

– What is it used for?

– Who would use it?

To answer all of these questions, I would start with a list. You may move on to some other kind of design work afterwords, but putting a list together is the best place to start the design process for the areas in your game. You may find that you don’t have time or resources for a lot of design work, so a list can be pretty vital. Also, with a list, you can catch a lot of details that you wouldn’t be able to get into a drawing. Photos work really well, but still aren’t quite as reliable as writing it all down. Another way to think about this is to ask yourself, “What is this place every other day of the week.” I would go to a place that’s similar to a setting in your game and observe. You’ll probably see all kinds of stuff that you wouldn’t have thought to put into your game world.

The title of this article mentions ‘creating a world‘, so you’re probably thinking to yourself, “What’s with the studio apartment?” That’s a good question.  Let’s step OUTSIDE:

All right, so we didn’t get very far. I’ll confess that part of the reason we are now standing in a hallway is that I’m running out of example graphics. However, the fact that we’re standing in a hallway raises a very important point in our discussion:

The Theory of CONNECTIVITY!!

Not just a theory, but a cold, hard reality. Your game world is made up of some indefinite number of settings, and all of these settings are connected in some way (or, at least, they should be). Players are looking for these connections in the game, it’s how they get from point A to point B and progress through the story. This hallway is a connection point. These connections can happen in a variety of ways (cut scenes, descriptive prose, etc..), and don’t necessarily need to be built into the visual setting.

The question of how many transitional areas to put into your game world is a bit tricky. Some areas are separated by great distances and are usually connected through narration or some kind of cut scene. Others can be strung together visually based on their context within the story. Personally, I think it’s good to have a lot of these areas connecting a larger whole together. It makes the game world more believable. However, it helps to be careful about how many of these transitional areas you put into your game. It’s easy to over-do it, and walking from one area to the next can get tedious.

Ok, now we can take a peek outside:

From the lobby! Suckers.


Earlier in our discussion, I mentioned the possibility of characters changing visually in your game to match the story. This concept would be true for any setting in your story as well. It’s a lot of work to introduce these changes throughout the game, but if you can pull it off, it’s a great opportunity to make your story much more dynamic, and invest players even more into your world. In real life, things are constantly changing, so if you want to create a reality in your game world, make all the necessary visual changes as your story advances.

To sum up:

– Be consistent in all aspects.

– Become obsessive-compulsive about the details.

– Don’t be afraid of change.

Thanks for taking the time to hear me out. I hope this was useful to you, and I look forward to any comments you might have.

-Derrick Freeland

About the Author

Derrick Freeland lives in Durham, North Carolina and works as a freelance illustrator.  His work can be found on his blog:  derrickfreeland.blogspot.com, and you can see the production diary for Collision on the Adventure Game Studio forums.