Video games

Enormity in gaming

We already know games can trigger real reactions and emotions, such as fear, excitement or awe, and one of the many ways developers are able to do this is through scale and enormity.

Size invokes different sets of feelings – ensuring you remember your first and last steps out into the game world, usually using three key and equally important design elements.


Size helps to convey the idea that the world is not a flat notion on paper, but an immersive and expansive playground rewarding you for wanting to explore it. A little gift from the mind of the developer from them to you.

Scale is a massively important theme in gaming because it can be deeply emotive, and a confirmation of what is to come. Some of the best locations in a game world have been those which has tapped into this idea of a wide expansive space setting the mood for the game. This emotive link to an area is often why some gamers can feel a particular affinity for the early areas in the game, the sort of nursery locations which encourage them to explore as they get used to the game.

Half Life has numerous examples of “impact areas” moments in the game – locations that break up the tone of the action, aid the narrative, or are there simply to entertain. Such as the long, cable car ride to the heart of Black Mesa, or the enormous fans that need to be avoided and dodged. And finally, after hours of crawling through vents and destroying labs; this magnificent open sky and dam awaits – a moment to pause and enjoy before continuing.

Half Life screenshot - A helicopter flies over a dam

Other notable game locations:
  • Hyrule Field – Ocarina of Time – The temptation is to remain in this area indefinitely; enjoying the dawn, finding secrets, and catching Big Poes on horseback. A landmark gaming landscape.
  • Lost Valley – Tomb Raider – It starts with a spectacular swan drive following a waterfall’s descent, then out into a the verdant forest dappled with ancient ruins. Fantastic enough, even without the enormous Tyrannosaurus Rex looming out of the darkness…
  • Halo – This enormous ring provides the setting for the second level of Halo: Combat Evolved. You will later learn that that world you have crashed landed on is a giant intergalactic weapon, once you tear yourself away from staring at it’s curve above you in the sky.

Set pieces

In a similar theme to impact areas – games frequently use large objects as part of the level design, an enormous centrepiece to the level that helps the player to navigate an idea by providing a focal point, or an object that must be navigated in some way to complete the level.

The sphinx in Tomb Raider for example, is the gateway to the remainder of the early Egyptian levels, a large, eye catching object which continues the level theme while providing the player with a physical embodiment of the character’s goal – the high point they need to aim for.

All of these principles work in 2D also. In Blood Omen, the player must walk between the legs of an enormous statue of William the Just, a representation of the enemy you are on your way to face, which stands tall over the landscape.

Blood Omen screenshot - A gigantic statue fills the screen.

Other notable game set pieces:
  • Nupraptor’s keep – Soul Reaver – This giant skull has fallen over on a hillside and was once used as an ancient keep. The eye socket is easily large enough for the player to climb inside, allowing you to reach higher parts of the level which were previously inaccessible.
  • Imperial City – Oblivion Although it is technically a location in itself, the City lies at the heart of Cyrodiil, providing a focal backdrop to nearly every quest and undertaking.
  • The Moon – It’s normal for a video game that is nocturnal to feature this natural element of the night sky, but Majora’s Mask uses a living, tortured moon as the tool for Termina’s destruction. The red-eyed globe looms over your every action, reminding you of the three day deadline for your task.

Bosses & enemies

It is well-known that game bosses provide the climatic challenges within the duration of a game. But would the conclusive bosses at the end of numerous Final Fantasties and Zelda games be quite the same without that climatic assent (or descent) into the unknown?

What is becoming more and more common in modern video games is to create, larger bosses which physically represent the challenge the player is about to undertake. Examples in normal games of this sort of large, imposing enemy is common, and is becoming more so – particularly in massively multiplayer games, where respawning enemies often have to fill the requirements of the area they reside in.

This screenshot from Final Fantasy XI shows this different in scale between enemy and character well, the tiny shapes of the people working together to defeat the large, jelly-fish like Yovra are barely visible.

Final Fantasy XI screenshot - A giant jellyfish-like character looms over two players.

Other notable game bosses:
  • Dark Falz – Phantasy Star Online – At a time when real-time RPG bosses were quite scarce, this Dreamcast based boss was a significant challenge to those used to using a turn based system. Dark Falz rides upon a three-headed neon mount, dwarfing the player with his weaponry and size.
  • Mothership – This ship leads the invasion of Earth in Earth Defence Force 2017, and it could quite possibly be the largest destroyable object in video game history. Seemingly invincible, you eventually learn it’s weaknesses through the course of the game.
  • Intestinal Fortitude – It often smacks a little of Jabu Jabu’s belly, but this worm from Gears of War 2 makes him seem tiny. As you progress through the belly of a worm large enough to sink cities, its hard not to humbled by the its enormous digestive teeth, or large-scale circulatory system – that is of course until you take the creature down from the inside.

4 replies on “Enormity in gaming”

Awesome post. They might just be backdrops in the grand scheme of things, but large, well-realised environments and objects can make a powerful impression on a player; Half-Life 2’s story is told as much through the presentation of City 17 and the intimidating Combine presence as it is through combat and puzzling. No mention of Jet Set Radio Future’s amazing mix of culture and status in it’s gameworld though? Then again, I suppose you’ve already done a love-in for that… 😛

Hey, really liked this post a lot. You’ve highlighted some aspects of games that are often taken for granted, for instance, your discussions of emotive environments and how they pertain to a gamer’s affinity for expansive worlds. This bond between gamer and environment is a credit to both the ingenious CPU saving techniques of old, and the more modern advances computer hardware, allowing game engines to take full advantage of expansive landscapes and designers ideas through more meaty hardware. When I used to build maps for Quake 3, I can remember having to use `hint’ textures to help the visibility stage of map compilation to reduce the time spent by the CPU and graphics card processing distance brush clipping, and then adding `areaportals’ to trim down the number of polygons generated for level clusters, so as a retired mapper, it’s nice to see someone acknowledging the technical challenges associated with rendering very large open environments. And once again, credits to your writing style — it engages the reader, rather than just feeding them the prosaic reams of text. Thank you.

I can still recall the first time I saw one of the WEAPONs in Final Fantasy VII. It was jaw-dropping, the scale of it. I still get a little excited buzz when I have to take on something truly enormous.

Interesting choice of a topic. But I can’t believe you left off Shadow of the Colossus. EVERYTHING in that game was about size, scale, set pieces and bosses. The enormity of the temple and the final colossus alone… sheesh. I also think Katamari Damacy toyed with scale in an interesting way, having the big gradually become small.

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