Why crispy video game landscapes tickle your brain

You might not notice when the background of a video game is scientifically accurate, but geophysicist Mika McKinnon does.

'The Elder Scrolls'

When it comes to the look of natural settings, or even the marble of a building, creating the right texture gives the game “almost an easter egg of plausibility,” McKinnon says.

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“It gives you a way of having a silent bit of extra storytelling that you're not using up narrative time and attention and focus to have," McKinnon says.

'Beyond Skyrim'

McKinnon is a geophysicist who consults in the entertainment industry, on everything from TV shows to video games.

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She works mostly on open-world or “sandbox” games, where players can explore or gather resources.


When designers seek her expertise, they’re usually looking for a way to give their game some kind of internal logic, whether it’s based in reality or a completely made up world.

'ARK: Survival Evolved'


Sometimes it’s as simple as “[They] want a mountain and they don't know what type of rocks or what type of geology would lead to different types of mountains,” McKinnon says.

A touch of reality also “makes things a bit easier from the player standpoint,” McKinnon says. If the player is looking for a particular resource, like gemstones, gold, or iron, she can advise on where those materials are found in real life.



For instance, gemstones are formed in metamorphic rocks, which are rocks chemically altered by heat and pressure.


Where can you find metamorphic rocks? In a mountain range.


Gold forms around rocks interacting with hot fluids, deep underground.

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So perhaps a game designer should put their gold ore near a volcano or hot spring.


Iron ore, on the other hand, can now be found in sedimentary rocks.


An in-game environment could be gently rolling hills with gorges.

Skyrim does this particularly well, McKinnon says. So well even, that another scientist created a realistic geologic map of the game’s universe.


One of McKinnon’s current favorite games is Yonder, and she especially loves a setting involving a small ocean island and its basalt columns, which perfectly mimic real basalt that formed from magma cooling quickly as it hits water.


Other notable games she mentioned were Dragon Age, Don’t Starve, Monster Hunter, Call of Duty Modern Warfare, and Ark Survival Evolved.


“The most important thing, no matter what level of realism you're going for, is to have consistency in what the in-universe rules are,” McKinnon says.

'Dragon Age'

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