Flow, Narrative, and Idealized Sociocultural Spaces

One of the features of Half-Life 2 that impresses me time and time again is the seamless sense of flow that the game narrative, virtual spaces, and ludic activity provides. Unlike many other games that front load a large amount of interface training thinly masked as plot development or avatar “education” (America’s Army 3 comes to mind), one simply “knows” what to do in Half-Life 2 and with a minimal amount of instruction. The virtual landscape directs the character along the appropriate path, with an occasional nudge from a NPC or a cleverly inserted audio track that provides a further sense of narrative depth without being overbearing or preachy. One maintains a tremendous sense of operational latitude when, in fact, the game narrative is moving inexorably forward along a predetermined path.

This sense of seamless flow between space and game narrative will be something that the DigiBahn Project will have to emulate. Developing a persuasive and engaging virtual environment that instructs while simultaneously giving the impression of unlimited operational latitude will be a tall order, in any case. Already at the beginning of game development we are dealing with the tension between the apparent freedom of avatar movement and the limitations of the virtual environment: Although certain aspects of the game’s pedestrian zone will resemble the one in Stuttgart (the stairs leading down to the Klett-Passage), the original openness of the real pedestrian zone cannot be simulated in the game as, well, it goes on for a really long distance and we just can’t do that in a 3D game (yet).

So, the pedestrian zone in the game will be a “stereotypical” one in the sense that it will have a post office, a bioladen, a fountain, lots of trees, benches, etc. My question is this: Is this good? If the pedestrian zone does not imitate reality, and instead renders an idealized and, in a sense, scripted version of this reality, is that necessarily a bad thing for an instructional 3D language game? Will abstracted and artificial representations of real sociocultural spaces and their narratives be more amenable to learning transfer or does fidelity to the real space provide a more authentic learning experience with an increased chance of transfer when the student actually sees the space in real-life?

Just some thoughts rattling around in my mind on a Friday afternoon. Oh, and as every pedestrian zone in Germany (and other German-speaking countries) seems to have a church, here is the cleaned-up mesh of the St. Andreas Church in Weißenburg that we will be using in the game:
The render seems to be a little dark after exporting the original raw AVI into .mov format and then uploading it to YouTube. I’ll have to keep that in mind for the future. And here is a recent still render, complete with skybox, bump and specularity maps, and some color thrown on the tree for good measure. A modest effort, but going in the right direction, I suppose:

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