“Everybody sees things differently,” said Ray Harryhausen, the legendary stop-motion animator, some 20 years after he retired from making movies. “I can’t say that there’s any specific trick to it, it’s just trying to give the illusion that there’s something alive inside that’s guiding it.”
Harryhausen knew his business. That’s why his 1981 swan song, Clash Of The Titans, is still entrancing while its 2010 remake is already a forgotten footnote. A tiny stop-motion model of Medusa may not look real, per se, but she looks like something you can touch, as real and unreal as a vivid dream. The computer-animated Medusa is more detailed, almost as intricate as a flesh-and-blood creature, but it’s cold and lifeless. Just an effect. It’s missing that inner spark that Harryhausen imbued in his creations. The illusion of life, not the facsimile, sets the imagination on fire.
Video games, in their pursuit of graphical fidelity, have run into the same problem. Game makers too often make whatever looks prettiest rather than the most convincing illusion. New technology allows developers to create worlds of near-infinite detail, but the more visually lush it is, the more jarring it is when you buck up against boundaries.
BioShock Infinite is a perfect example. Here is Columbia, the fantastic floating city! Behold the lush gardens of its mad ruler, overflowing with roses and hummingbirds and gilded statues of a surprisingly fit Benjamin Franklin! There are posters to take in and little films to watch about Columbia’s history. And you can see all its neighborhoods aloft in the background.
Yet most of the storefronts and residential buildings you pass on your quest are just painted impenetrable walls, highly detailed but barren. Some of them you can enter and plunder for cash and goods, but it’s arbitrary which ones you can sneak into and which ones you can’t. The illusion of Columbia as a living, breathing place is shattered the second you try to open an apartment door and find it closed right after you ransacked the neighbors.
That’s okay, though! Not every game needs to be Skyrim, where you can trundle off into every single cave and cubbyhole to rummage for moldy books and axes. Hell, many games should be even smaller. Bloat is the biggest problem modern video games have, particularly the blockbusters. Part of the reason BioShock Infinite ultimately fails as a visual illusion is its insistence on padding out the story with periods of exploration when there’s really nothing to explore. Tons of modern games do this, just to occupy your time. When you start poking at the corners in Infinite, Tomb Raider, and any number of games targeted at a broad audience, their eye-candy environments become a burden. They’re just an effect, and once you recognize it, you get pulled right out.
Just because a method of creating a sense of space is old, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not still useful—like Harryhausen’s stop-motion tricks. Sometimes even the most explicitly unreal special effect, like Titans’ little robot owl, can be the most engrossing.
One parallel technique in games is the use of pre-rendered backgrounds. A pre-rendered background is a single static image that serves as a backdrop. Typically, the image features short, looped animations to give it color and life. The method was used regularly on the original PlayStation, since rendering full environments like those seen in modern games like BioShock Infinite was computationally difficult. Squaresoft’s trilogy of Final Fantasy games on the PlayStation constitute a touchstone of the form, as do the first three Resident Evil games, with blocky characters walking on top of these mostly still scenes. In classics like Myst, pre-rendered backgrounds made up practically the entire game and were viewed from the first-person perspective.
This all-but-forgotten method of creating game worlds offered a remarkable level of detail but almost no interactivity, which was fine for the games in which it was used. Since there was no expectation of being able to interact with every last inch of the place, the illusion of space was more complete. And because the scenes were static, developers could even more effectively control tone and perspective.
The best use of pre-rendered backgrounds was also one of the last. The 2002 GameCube remake of Resident Evil replaced the dry backgrounds of the ’96 original with vivid, atmospheric images thanks to the relatively powerful processing power of the GameCube. Whether the setting was a dusky wooden hallway lit by a single desk lamp or an overgrown garden, each scene was carefully constructed and presented from a precise point of view designed to maximize tension and potential for surprise. Rather than exploring a place meant to feel real, it felt more likely wandering inside a series of terrifying paintings (which is, more or less, exactly what it was). The illusion of being trapped in a nightmare was made even more powerful thanks to its limitations.
Pre-rendered backgrounds aren’t ideal for every game. They’re just one tool, but a useful tool, one that has been cast aside in the chase of the most gorgeous digital landscape. In the case of BioShock Infinite, it’s easy to imagine a slower, more thoughtful and painterly version of that game, using the sort of backgrounds that made Final Fantasy IX such a big place even though it was objectively quite small. Wandering through the streets of Final Fantasy IX’s Alexandria, you could only see certain storefronts and homes due to the limited perspective, and you could enter most of them to chat with the residents. Yes, the city was small and cordoned off, but the portion you could see was filled with life. You could always see its heart beating.
Everybody sees things differently. The best thing a creator can do is consider all their options, the full array of tools, to convince their audience of the life inside their work. To that end, a low-tech illusion can prove more effective than a high-tech facsimile.