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Whatever Happened to Destructible Environments?

The fun of tearing it all down.



Whatever Happened to Destructible Environments

There was a time, not too long ago, when destructibility was a major selling point in games. Trailers and press conferences showcased not just the latest cutting-edge graphics, unique gameplay hooks, or bombastic stories, but their destruction physics. Players were wowed by the sight of concrete pillars crumbling, walls being blown inwards, whole buildings collapsing in great plumes of dust, and even the ground itself deforming as chunks of earth were sent sky high. And as technology improved, so too did destruction physics, until, all of a sudden, it didn’t.

As the power beneath the hood increased and games started looking better than ever – heading towards photorealism, in some cases – environments, while beautiful, have become mostly static. There may be more physics objects rolling about – glass smashing, paper blowing in the breeze, cans and bottles – but the trees, bushes, and buildings remain rigid. As much as I love seeing these fantastical digital worlds brought to life, and as fun as it is to live in them, I would love it all the more if I could raze it all to the ground on a whim. So what did happen to destructible environments? Were they just a fad, a novelty that wore off? Or is there something more to them, and are they gearing up to make a grand return?

Image: Deep Silver Volition - The Red Faction games have always let players live out their most destructive fantasies.
Image: Deep Silver Volition – The Red Faction games have always let players live out their most destructive fantasies.

Raze the Roof

Back in the day, destructible environments were hailed as the next “big thing” – the next big step up in gaming. Series like Mercenaries, Red Faction, and Battlefield prided themselves on their destruction, on letting their players cut gaping holes through their worlds and play their own way.

Need to get inside a military complex to rescue an ally? Sure, you could sneak in through the back and silently take out the guards one by one, or you simply blow a hole in the wall and waltz right into the cell they were being kept in. That enemy sniper on the water tower making life difficult? Well, they can’t snipe from the water tower if there is no water tower. It was scenarios and solutions like these that truly made these games feel like the “next generation”. These were games that put the player in charge and gave them all the power they needed to get the job done.

The Battlefield games even incorporated this destructibility in their multiplayer. Walls could be breached to expose the team waiting on the other side, cover could be blown to smithereens, and if the enemy had a tank, nowhere was safe to hide. Maps would start out as pristine villages or green swathes of countryside, and by the end of the match they would be better described as hellscapes. Buildings would be flattened, grass would be churned into mud, and great holes would be torn out of the very Earth itself.

Battlefield 4 upped the ante with the concept of “levelutions” – a level of destruction so great that it entirely altered the map players were fighting over. Great storms would flood the lower levels, forcing players to rooftops and higher ground; central skyscrapers would collapse, flattening office blocks and reshaping the battlefield. It was unlike anything ever seen before. Or since. Battlefield 2042 especially, seems to have taken massive steps backwards for the series.

The destruction told a story. And each time was different. Certain houses that were levelled instantly in one game weren’t touched in the next. The scars ran deepest where the worst of the fighting occurred. This made things look and feel all the more realistic. You couldn’t rely on a flimsy wall or wooden door for cover, they’d explode before your very eyes as you ran from a hail of bullets and grenades. The destruction reflected what it would actually be like in a warzone. Put up against the likes of this, many modern shooters – with their largely static, unchanging maps – seem, well, dull. More like carefully preserved dioramas than real, living places.

Even the original Far Cry had destructible trees and ground that deformed from explosions. Something its myriad sequels have done away with.

Image: EA/DICE - "Levolutions" were set to be a literal game-changer.
Image: EA/DICE – “Levolutions” were set to be a literal game-changer.

The Trouble with Tech

So why have games seemingly taken a step back and gone downhill in terms of what can be done in the realms of destruction? The answer is manyfold. Firstly, while all-out destruction physics may have been put on the back burner, world physics has been kicked up a notch. Modern games are positively cluttered with carefully balanced physics objects, ready to react to the slightest change in circumstances.

Running from the armoured truck and its .50cal turret in the original The Last of Us was a tense experience, but now, with the power of the PS5 behind it, Part 1 has turned it into a truly harrowing, nail-biting affair. Every bullet has weight to it, sending up shrapnel and chunks of concrete as they thump into the walls above Joel’s head; bottles smash, cans fly, and paper is torn to shreds as they strike shelves; and cars jerk and bounce realistically as Joel and Ellie cower for cover behind them.

But these physics-controlled objects already use up plenty of processing power on their own. Destroying buildings, tearing walls down brick by digital brick, creates even more physical objects in the game world – objects which need to be carefully modelled and textured, and which need their own physics applied to them so that they crumble and fall realistically. The more destructibility, the more objects, and the more processing power they will require. And with the level of detail on offer from today’s AAA games, those numbers can quickly become too much to handle.

Image: Sony/Naughty Dog - Chip damage and exploding wood and glass add a lot of realism and fear to this chase sequence.
Image: Sony/Naughty Dog – Chip damage and exploding wood and glass add a lot of realism and fear to this chase sequence.

Destroying the Fun

Then there’s also practicality to consider. Video game worlds, multiplayer maps, anything digital is created with a specific reason in mind. These digital spaces take months or even years to perfect. Developers and artists work together to ensure not only that they feel real, but that they function as a part of the game. Do the lines and lights lead the player to the next story beat, the next big set piece? Are the multiplayer maps balanced, allowing for different playstyles and tactics? Is the impenetrable fortress truly impenetrable?

Every building, every wall, every object is put in place only after countless hours of careful consideration. Precision is necessary for the best player experience. Give players the opportunity to destroy that precision and what happens? All of that planning and care goes out of the window. The player may breeze through what was supposed to be the challenging climax to the closing chapter, or accidentally trigger it too early in the game. They may destroy their only route forwards or find a way to break the level geometry and fall outside of the map. For games focused on telling compelling stories or creating fair competition, these problems could ruin the experience for everyone.

In these cases, fully destructible environments would ruin the fun. They would ruin the core concept of the game. To get the best of both worlds and create a game that worked narratively, gameplay-wise, and allowed for full destruction would be a massive undertaking. For the same reason player choice is often so limited, destruction must be limited. Full destructibility can have many permutations, can alter the game in so many ways that the cascade of changes it makes could, theoretically, be limitless. And developers simply don’t have the time or money to think up or find solutions for them all.

There is also the idea of continuity, especially in story-led open-world games. If a player levels a building in one play session, will it still be levelled when they come back the next day? If not, what’s the internal logic behind it being repaired so quickly? If yes, what if it was important for a later mission? Magically waving away any carnage the player wrought might distract from the main narrative and take players out of the moment.

That being said, some games thrive on the chaos of destruction. While the AAA scene has been focusing on realistic graphics and balanced gameplay, smaller indie titles have taken up the mantle of the destructible environment.

Image: EA/DICE - Multiplayer maps need to be very carefully tested if destruction is involved.
Image: EA/DICE – Multiplayer maps need to be very carefully tested if destruction is involved.

The Voxel Revolution

Teardown is one such game. This indie gem is a series of heists like no others. As may be expected, players are tasked with finding and extracting their prize within a given time limit, but what makes this game stand out, however, is how they can accomplish this. You see, in Teardown absolutely everything is destructible. Every wall, every building, every vehicle explodes, crumbles, and collapses realistically, sending fully rendered debris flying. The fastest route to your goal isn’t sneaking in through the skylight, it’s tearing down an entire wall with a blast from an RPG.

This simulation-level destruction is only possible thanks to voxels. Essentially, these are 3D pixels, cubes which can be used as building blocks to create anything from blades of grass to imposing skyscrapers. And, just like knocking over a tower of Legos, destroying anything made out of voxels sends these cubes tumbling and crashing down in every possible direction and with impressively realistic physics.

Voxels essentially mimic particles, and so can be used to simulate all manner of physics objects, from the bricks of a building to flowing water and raging fire. The only problem is, they are cubes, and must be digitally represented as such. This means that unless a developer is willing to build complex models out of thousands of voxels in an attempt to achieve more natural and realistic-looking graphics, all voxel games are going to have a hint of Minecraft to their looks. And, as current computer hardware is optimised to produce polygons, high-resolution assets made from voxels are far more difficult to create.

Image: Tuxedo Labs - In Teardown literally anything can be torn down.
Image: Tuxedo Labs – In Teardown literally anything can be torn down.

The Power of the Cloud

So, if voxels are out of the question for high-end, ultra-realistic AAA games, what else can be done? The answer is ‘server-side’ or ‘cloud-based’ destruction. In theory, this means the hard number-crunching and processing power needed to recreate realistic destruction with realistic graphics is done on the developers’ side, using their hardware and sparing the player’s. As long as you have a good enough internet connection, your PC or console can focus on running the rest of the game smoothly while a server on the other side of the world does all the heavy lifting behind the scenes.

But therein lies the problem. Players need a good internet connection, anything less than perfect and they will encounter some noticeable lag as data is transmitted to the developers’ server and back. And watching a building collapse several seconds after the explosion went off puts quite the dampener on things, no matter how pretty it looks.

Unfortunately, no game seems to have gotten this right just yet. Crackdown 3 promised the “power of the cloud” would allow for near-limitless destruction, but once the game finally launched, it was nowhere to be seen. The technology wasn’t up to snuff. But they may be hope. A recently announced game called The Finals, led by ex-Battlefield and Battlefront developers, is hoping to use server-side destruction to, quite literally, change the game.

The premise of The Finals is that it is a post-apocalyptic game show where opposing teams must face off to steal and protect large sums of cash in virtual recreations of iconic cities. And the main hook is, of course, the ability to raze every building to the ground. The game is only at the Beta stage at the moment, with no clear release date, but early footage looks promising, with skyscrapers collapsing in plumes of dust and a rain of metalwork as players blast holes in their walls as they hunt each other down. If it looks this good on release, perhaps the future of destructible environments is finally here.

Image: Embark Studios - The Finals is hoping to show the gaming world that destruction is king.
Image: Embark Studios – The Finals is hoping to show the gaming world that destruction is king.

While there are many reasons why developers might not want to include destructible environments in their games – the time and money cost, the fact that it may ruin the experience – there’s just something so damn satisfying about seeing support pillars crumble and walls blast apart. It makes games feel so much more real, and can add a layer of strategy often missing from shooters. Just imagine running around the streets of GTA VI, watching the world crumble and explode around you. So, here’s hoping developers start bringing destruction back, even if it’s only a little, because if server-side computing works, there’s no reason not to.

Max Longhurst is a keen gamer, avid writer and reader, and former teacher. He first got into gaming when, at the age of 8, his parents bought him a PS2 and Kingdom Hearts for Christmas, and he’s never looked back. Primarily a PlayStation fan, he loves games with a rich single-player experience and stories with unexpected twists and turns.