For Our Consideration

Resident Evil

Use Your Illusion

The goal for developers shouldn’t be the most detailed game world but rather the one that’s most convincingly alive.

By Anthony John Agnello • July 2, 2013

“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.

BioShock Infinite

BioShock Infinite

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.

Final Fantasy IX

Final Fantasy IX

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 Titanslittle 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.

Resident Evil

Resident Evil (2002 remake)

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.

Final Fantasy IX

Background art for Final Fantasy IX

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.

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138 Responses to “Use Your Illusion”

  1. Citric says:

    One of the things I like about old school Square is the efficiency of their world building, everything that exists is there for a reason. It’s partially due to the limitations of space and stuff, but it’s nice to play a game where I never feel like I’m wasting my time.

    • Girard says:

      I haven’t played any newer Square stuff – can you give an example of how their later worldbuilding became less economical?

      • Dave Dalrymple says:

        I’d say that most of their RPGs still use that efficient/economical/purposive approach. There aren’t huge tracts of empty land in Final Fantasy XIII-2

      • CrabNaga says:

        In Corridor Simulator XIII, pretty much every distinct environment has nothing really special about it; the environment doesn’t really change from the first time you set foot in it to the time you’re railroaded out of it. Same scenery objects, same textures. It’s economical in that it overuses its art assets, but that’s not a good thing. 

        • djsubversive says:

          Corridor Simulator describes way too many games. XIII, however, always conjures up “Fly! His name was Jason Fly!” and 3 panels of a headshot.

          XIII was a fun game.

      • Citric says:

        The sheer number of NPCs you can’t talk to, for instance. Older Square games you could talk to everyone, in a lot of the recent ones there are specific people willing to talk, and a lot of background objects meant to give the city “life” that are usually just set decoration. They’re there to fill space, which means there’s a lot more space, and much of it doesn’t have much in it outside of the set decoration.

        It’s not bad, but it’s not economical.

    • neodocT says:

      From what I’ve read about it, FFXIII-3 seems to feature a Majora’s Mask-like world, where you have a limited time to know the world and save it. It sounds exactly like Majora’s Mask, actually, but I think that’s a good direction for the FF games: a smaller but fully explorable world.

  2. caspiancomic says:

     I am always happy to throw a big fat co-sign on any article that heaps praise on Final Fantasy IX. The cities in that game really are terrific, in spite of the fact that they are functionally tiny (and get smaller as the game progresses- plot events later in the game permanently lock you out of parts of Alexandria and Lindblum.) It’s funny which “tricks” succeed or fail in creating a sense of scale or intimacy in games. I’ve always felt that the enormous sandbox worlds of the GTA games felt tiny and without personality, while a place as relatively walled-in as Lindblum has always felt enormous for me. Maybe it’s the sense of implied scale- Lindblum is probably 95% implied space, appearing massive from a distance but only allowing the player to poke around a few measly neighbourhoods. GTA games on the other hand attempt to allow you to go everywhere, and those cities just haven’t got enough personality to go around.

    (Another perfect example of this? The World Ends With You. That game’s Shibuya only covers about two dozen individual screens, but feels lively and lived-in and intimate and specific.)

    Actually, AJA, this reminds me of a terrific article you wrote not so long ago examining cityscapes in various games. I appreciated your mentioning Rabanastre from FFXII, since for all that game’s faults, it had some wonderful, genuine feeling environments to explore.

    Oh, and one more thing: I would personally love for pre-rendered backgrounds to make a comeback in some form or another. In a recent thread a few of us were waxing nostalgic for the bricky early modern polygon golems of the PS1 and N64 and the like, and I think that the combination of simple polygonal characters with lush pre-rendered backgrounds is pretty doable for a modest indie outfit these days. I would be pretty giddy for a game that was styled after PS1 era Final Fantasies.

    • Citric says:

      Know what else had great pre-rendered backgrounds? Legend of Dragoon. The game had its problems, most of it involving a terrible translation, but they had amazing background artists. It also really knew how to give a sense of scale, cities weren’t too huge but they loved to shrink the player character down to something small in certain areas. It didn’t actually take longer to explore, but the manipulation of scale helped in the illusion of a big vibrant city or a bustling market.

      There are many things wrong with LoD, but the background art is one of the things they got right.

      • PaganPoet says:

        Ever play SaGa Frontier 2? The game is mediocre, but the art (and music for that matter) is amazing. Gorgeous watercolor prerendered backgrounds and sprites.

        • aklab says:

          Seconded. That game looks sooooo good. 

        • Harrowing says:

          That game is unreasonably beautiful. It had some surprisingly innovative gameplay concepts, too, and a very strange story structure. I have a soft spot for SaGa in general, though, so I’m probably biased in my love for it.

        • PaganPoet says:

          I never actually finished the game, to be honest. I seem to remember there being an incredible spike in difficulty, and I just never made it through. Perhaps I should give it another chance. It also might be that the PS2 era SaGa games are souring my memory of the game (because those games were truly awful; same with the PS2 era Mana games)

        • Dave Dalrymple says:

          I rented that one solely so I could get a save file (which unlocks a hidden boss in Legend of Mana.)

          I played for a few hours, and had no idea what was going on.

      • ProfFarnsworth says:

        Legend of Dragoon is awesome.  I love the background, gameplay, and the wonderful amount of time you get to explore the world.

    • Girard says:

      I think the main limiting factor that led to their use, though, was processing power rather than development resources, which is why we haven’t seen many games use them lately. And why I’m not sure the style would offer any incentive for an indie outfit.

      If you have the budget and time to painstakingly render a highly detailed backdrop, and the system you’re targeting can render that model in real-time, it makes sense to just do that, and capitalize on that versatility (e.g. support of multiple resolutions, ability to move and transform the model, etc.) rather than just outputting a baked-in bitmap after spending all of that time, money, and energy creating the model.

      Making a pixel-art background is a ‘retro’ style that also saves time and resources for a modest indie developer. Modelling and rendering Lindblum, on the other hand, is a ‘retro’ style that is probably no less time and resource intensive than rendering a real-time metropolis like Rabanastre.

      Maybe low-poly models walking around on paintings or photos would be something an indie dev could do, though that probably wouldn’t count as “pre-rendered”.

      • Bad Horse says:

        I’m shocked, SHOCKED, to start seeing love for pre-rendering. It’s straight-up ugly to modern eyes – FFIX is easily the prettiest game to use it, and it still looks like the characters are floating above a painting. If anything is a cautionary tale about chasing higher resolutions and more photorealism before the tech is ready to do it, it’s pre-rendering.

        Not only is pixel art is easier to do for cheap, it has the great virtue of looking like an actually unified world. For that matter, today’s fully rendered games look considerably more united as well. 

        • CrabNaga says:

          It’s all about perspective. Pre-rendered scenes allow you to see said scene from a custom-tailored angle. You’re not going to get that with pixel art. The Shin-ra Mansion in Final Fantasy VII was creepy partially because of the oblique camera angles that were used in the pre-rendered scenes, for example.

        • Roswulf says:

          As CrabNaga notes, at the VERY least it’s a great way to create a certain kind of ethereal, disconnected creepiness, especially for younger gamers who don’t have the conventions of past console generations imbedded in their gaming intellects.

          But I agree that pre-rendered backgrounds are a limited tool.

        • I’m kinda leaning towards @Bad_Horse:disqus here.

          I certainly don’t hate pre-rendered backgrounds, but this led to the exceedingly annoying habit of developers hiding items and reveals behind fixed camera angles and mundane objects. I find it odd Agnello praises that aspect, while I loathe it. The character should be able to see/hear a threat in front of them, whether the camera is focused on that threat or not. Nothing blows more than walking down a creepy hallway, cutting to a new camera angle, then SURPRISE licker in your face. It’s bullshit when its done in movies, and it’s bullshit when done in games.

        • PaganPoet says:

          I don’t necessarily disagree with your point, but I think you’re basing your argument off of history and not potential.

          Yes, most of the PS1 output of Square is quite hideous to look at today. Many of their SNES games (Chrono Trigger, FFVI, Secret of Evermore/Mana, etc) have aged far more gracefully than those games. However, the potential for something new is there and I think it’s worth it for developers to consider prerendering as a viable option for their game if it fits with the gameplay, etc.

          Part of what makes the PS1 FF games so jarring is that they have incredibly detailed and lush environments, with blocky, flat-colored character models. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be so. I mentioned it elsewhere in this thread, but SaGa Frontier 2 took a much more cohesive watercolored art direction, and in my opinion, it remains one of the best looking games for the PS1:

          And as much as I love sprites, they have one limitation that prerendering would not: lack of variety. No game company is going to pay their artists for hours on end to create a lamp sprite that will be see once in the entire game and never again. Therefore, every single house you enter has the same lamp, same plants, same windows, same beds; it will never feel like a “real place” because too much about it is too uniform. 

    • Destroy Him My Robots says:

      *dusts off soapbox*

      It’s not rendered, but Attack of the Friday Monsters! A Tokyo Tale is set to be relased outside of Japan. It will be the first Millenium Kitchen game that makes it, and although it’s not their best you and everyone else should buy it.

    • Kyle O'Reilly says:

      I’m going to piggy back off you Caspin to drop off this link to hi-res uploads of so many of the beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds that were in FFIX

      Also, I’m not sure if you ever played GTA IV but that world is about as far from tiny and character-less as anything I can imagine. I’d suggest giving it a try sometime, it’s one of the most convincing worlds in game-dom.

      • neodocT says:

         That was awesome! Really made me want to replay the game.

      • caspiancomic says:

         I feel like I owe you some kind of apology for only having the power to like your comment once. That’s a killer thread, thanks for bringing it up.

        (Fun aside: the thread mentions that these background renders are from the now defunct Square USA, which had offices in Hawaii. LPer The White Dragon did a pretty comprehensive and very interesting Let’s Play of the game in which he uses FFIX as a springboard to start a discussion of Hawaiian culture and history, and even goes into detail about how the Hawaiian team’s influence found its way into the finished game.)

    • Harrowing says:

      I’m always happy to see love for Final Fantasy IX crop up. It’s one of my favorite games of all time, and something I can always replay at the drop of a hat. It’s like comfort food in video game form, largely because it feels like such a fully-realized, comfortable fairy tale world for all the reasons you and this article listed.

  3. Cloks says:

    It seems that real mastery of a craft is conveyed when you look at a finished product and it seems like it would be easy to recreate. Yesterday’s article about The Lost Vikings had me thinking about how it should be easy to create a good multi-character game – one just needs to copy how they had levels that could only be completed with the characters working in tandem. This is the essential thought laid bare, missing all the levels that went into creating levels that don’t just require all characters to be used but ones that are concise, rewarding, different and enjoyable.

    It seems like it should be easy to create a lived in world with all the examples that have preceded where gaming is at right now but it’s hard to achieve the levels of mastery that came before without the same application of craft. One of my favorite game worlds is Day of the Tentacle‘s three distinct periods that are each very real environments changed by the character interactions (another good multi-character game!). Double Fine has managed to continually create these great worlds (check out Stacking for the most recent example) because they utilize space so well and create dense environments filled with memorable characters. This is where many modern games fail for me in world-building, even though Skyrim and Borderlands 2 had huge worlds they had very few memorable characters and those that stick in mind are only because of how broad and brashly drawn they were.

    • Girard says:

      Speaking of DoubleFine, the first thing I thought of when I read the opening quote (I could have sworn Harryhausen was also invoked in the headline or subheading, but I guess not…) was DF’s Amnesia Fortnight game Brazen, which was basically a Monster Hunter clone where the monsters were deliberately choppily animated to resemble Harryhausen beasties.

  4. Merve says:

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding the premise of the article, but I think I disagree with it. The illusion of a video game as a living, breathing space is shattered the second you stop engaging with the video game on its level, and to an extent, that’s a choice on the player’s part. To use the example of barren storefronts and locked doors – which are a staple of many 3D action games nowadays – I can choose to see them as a limitation of the game, or I can choose to see them as a genre convention.

    I feel as if gamers don’t always make enough allowances for such genre conventions, but people tend to accept them readily in other media. For example, I went to see Avenue Q a couple of weeks ago – it was awesome, by the way – and since it’s an Off-Broadway production, the theatre couldn’t accommodate fancy systems to switch sets. Because of this, indoor scenes and outdoor scenes both used the same brick-wall backdrop, with a small fold-out table attachment for the indoor scenes. One could choose to pay attention to the fact that the set was being reused, or one could simply go along with the table and slightly changed lighting as representing “indoors.”

    Perhaps this is a slightly unfair comparison, since stage productions are several layers of abstraction removed from reality, whereas as video games are better to create “believable” spaces, due to their immersive nature. This may create a sort of “uncanny valley” effect in video games, where they’re so close to creating “realistic” spaces that their limitations become all the more conspicuous. The issue is that this “uncanny valley” kicks in at different points for different people. I look at a painted-on storefront and think “genre convention,” not “illusion ruiner.” I think gamers would do well to revise their expectations if possible and default to the former view. One can’t reasonably expect to do everything in a video game that one would be able to do were the space it creates actually real. It’s better to go with the flow and let yourself be taken in by the space than to fight against the current and concentrate on the space’s limitations.

    • George_Liquor says:

      Yeah, I agree. To me, pre-rendered vs full 3D backgrounds amount to the difference between matte paintings and studio backlots; in the right hands, both techniques can pull off believable environments. In BI’s case, it’s not hard to imagine Booker encountering locked doors and empty streets once the shooting starts. That doesn’t shatter the illusion for me nearly as badly as running into, say, an entire beach populated by clones who’s heads you can stand on.

      • DrFlimFlam says:

        I love BI unapologetically and was never TOO bothered by the cardboard cutout feel of most of the buildings, but it reminds me of old cartoons growing up, where you’d see a rock painted differently from the other rocks, so you knew that one would crumble. Much like this, in games many doors and buildings that cannot be accessed look like the background, whereas buildings of importance look noticeably different.  I’m sure it’s more about resources than anything else, but it takes me out of the immersion when I can practically see the frame behind the painted front.

    • CrabNaga says:

      At the very least, I feel like game designers should give some sort of gameplay reason for why some doors can be entered and some cant, for instance. The new Fallout games come to mind, where practically every door you can’t go through is either boarded up or has debris blocking it. This can get a bit ridiculous after a while, and sometimes I feel like the devs knew this (I recall at least one point in the games where there’s a blocked door with a gaping hole in the wall right next to it). 

      The real pitfall here is trying to make what makes for a good space in a videogame and what makes for a good space in reality, and trying to make the best of what you have (man-hours, processing power, etc.). Once you go through a bunch of Fallout 3‘s linear-apartment-building-dungeons, you’re tipped off to the fact that you’re being guided through an amusement attraction, that you’re not really exploring but just taking in the sights (while you blow the heads off some Super Mutants, though).

      I feel like a gamer’s immersion is going to be ruined no matter what, as long as the game is long enough, or has enough repetition.

      • djsubversive says:

        In Fallout 3, one of the museums (or maybe the National Library) has a locked door right next to a gaping hole in the wall, with another hole leading into the locked room.

        But the amusement park metaphor is pretty apt for Fallout 3. It’s a bunch of neat little attractions with almost nothing to connect them to one another. Also, Little Fucking Lamplight. 

        I hate Little Fucking Lamplight. That place kills my F3 playthroughs every time. WHY AREN’T THEY ALL DEAD OR ENSLAVED?!

        • The_Juggernaut_Bitch says:

           So that you can do it.  Go to Paradise Falls, do the Slaver Quest, then go back and enslave the little shits.

        • djsubversive says:

          @The_Juggernaut_Bitch:disqus but… they’re like 200 feet from the source of the East Coast Super Mutants! “Murder Pass” is a mild inconvenience when you’ve got 40 not-ogres and a whole cave of fresh meat.

          And Paradise Falls is way too close for them not to have already found Little Fucking Lamplight. I get that the world is static until the player shows up to do everything, but it still annoys me.

          I’ll try to not murder every asshole at Paradise Falls sometime. It’s tough, though, because Eulogy has a pretty sweet hat and murdering people because I want their clothes is pretty much standard procedure in 3/NV (see also: Vulpes Inculta in Nipton).

        • The_Misanthrope says:

           The old “PC as the only person who gets anything done in this world” RPG trope always grates on me.  Some RPGs try to disguise it–Fallout 3‘s random “mini-encounters” almost create the illusion of a living world–but you still can’t help noticing that you’re running all over the place to do jobs for lazy NPCs.

          If I could ever be bothered to learn how to code properly, I’ve always had the subversive notion of creating a RPG where the quests time out in game time (or real time, if I’m feeling really sinister), so the PC can’t just let things go forever.  How they time out could vary from another hero finishing the job to some adverse effect befalling the quest-giver (ie the shop goes out of business because they didn’t acquire the 10 hobgoblin spleens they needed to stay afloat).  Even better, this could even extend to the main questline; If you wait around too long on that, the world could be fucked.

          • The Mountain That Posts says:

            I know your comment here is from a full year ago, but i’d highly recommend you check out the game “Starflight” – one of the greatest games ever made. (I have it for the Sega Genesis)

            It’s highly underrated, but influenced pretty much all RPGs ever. And has exactly what you describe, you work against a time limit(of several hours of gameplay time) to beat the clock of your sun flaring and destroying your home base.

          • The_Misanthrope says:

            There is an emulated version (sans sound, unfortunately) on the Internet Archive:


            I played a bit of it and I like the free-roaming, we-won’t-hold-your-hand nature of it. I will revisit it when I actually have some time to sink in it.

        • djsubversive says:

          @The_Misanthrope:disqus S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl has timed side-quests. They’re pretty generic “get me [animal part]” or “kill [dude]” affairs, but they’ve got time limits. You just don’t get paid.

          Apparently, GSC had to tone down/impose limits on the AI or else, once the Brain Scorcher was down, they’d clear Pripyat and the CNPP and find the Wish Granter before you did.

          A-Life is pretty neat for “just” being an AI behavior system. It tracks all the NPCs in the game-world, even the ones on other maps, and they go about their business while you’re still trying to pop bandits with a shitty Makarov and a leather jacket in the Cordon (although the leather jacket is the first thing to get upgraded, since there’s a merc suit in the rookie village).

    • GaryX says:

      I think it’s less about creating any sort of “realistic” place where you can explore every nook and cranny, but it’s all about the creation of a sense of “place.” I think this is something video games do really well intrinsically: despite a lack of technical prowess, worlds like Hyrule, Zebes, and the Mushroom Kingdom felt like a place from their very beginning. For whatever reason, though, as technology has increased, critics seem less and less capable of accurately gauging a games ability to create a sense of place instead of supplanting it with “immersion” which, to me, are two very different if occasionally intertwined concepts.

      You mention the space of the stage, and I largely agree: most good stage setting lives and dies not by its ability to create a realistic world but, rather, to create the impression of a world. I recently saw The Master Builder at BAM, and despite the relative simplicity of the stage, it accomplishes everything it needs to do by its own parameters. It wasn’t particularly the best stage I’ve ever seen, but it’s sparseness fit the tone of the work and created a–pun very much intended–framework that grounded the action on stage and through which it could be given context, scale, and position.

      It’s probably telling that Agnello uses Bioshock: Infinite as an illustration here (at least, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt of it not being just fishing for “let’s quickly reappraise something we all liked”) rather than the original Bioshock. Despite how much I loved the former–a lot–the latter was certainly better at creating a sense of immersion: one felt like they were in this decaying city and had a certain agency in it’s post-downfall state. I would argue, though, that both Bioshock and Bioshock: Infinite both create a sense of place effectively, only the former engages that place within the text of the work itself while the latter uses it more as a framework–a grid of coordinates over which action can be related. Both of these methods are valid in its own way.

      In this way, I don’t know that I fully accept the conclusion that a non-fixed perspective/fixed perspective is analogous to CGI/stop-motion special effects. They’re both techniques to accomplish the same goal, and in the case argued above, are effectively the same thing. Bioshock: Infinite‘s use of Columbia isn’t far removed from Resident Evil‘s use of Spencer Mansion. You can look at both and mentally strip away the detail and embellishment and leave yourself with a bunch of corridors a player runs through, shoots at things in, and leaves, but you can look at a Rothko and just see the simple geometry that makes it up, shrug, and critique it as not that complicated but it’s entirely ignoring the effect produced from the aesthetic processes that enter into that geometry (and no, I’m not but B:I or RE on the same level as a Rothko). Fixing the perspective of Bioshock: Infinite wouldn’t necessarily make it more measured or painterly–it’s already filled with quite a few “quiet” moments for a AAA first person shooter–changing the entire intent and structure of the game which, in my mind, is something very different and like looking at a tree and lamenting it’s not a bush. Even Resident Evil‘s or Final Fantasy IX‘s respective tones and pacing aren’t derived purely from the perspective so much as what the games set out to do. In fact, the former (particularly the remake) frequently features tensely fighting  agile enemies (hated those Crimson Heads). Taking a deep breath and relaxing in the foyer of Spencer Mansion is the same as decompressing by the beach while an anachronistic version of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” floats along in the distance. They may be seen from different perspectives, but their quiet is equally as loud.

      (Sorry for the long comment, everyone. I’ve just been thinking a lot about video games, architecture, and place lately.)

    • I agree with Merve here,and had thought about this earlier this week. At some point, we have to acknowledge that games, like movies/comics/television, has a set of conventions and limitations that we’ll simply have to deal with and accept. In fact, we TRIED a living world. It was called Shenmue, and look what happened there. And I LIKE Shenmue.

       I also wish to expand further.

      The problem with “huge world details” isn’t the huge world, per se. It’s
      the random objectives. I would argue, quite strongly, that the thing that’s
      killing gaming (in respect to this article) might be over-exploration.

      Let me explain.

      So I’m playing The Last of Us. I’m not done with it, and I love it to bits. But I find myself exploring every nook and cranny, looking for Firefly Pendants and comics. And then, at some point, I think to myself, why? This is a game about survival, pain, loss, etc., and I’m busying myself looking for collectables? Context be damned – it’s an achievement/trophy hook and it’s obvious.

      I shouldn’t be exploring. I should be “scavenging”. I should be deciding whether risking my life for needed supplies is warranted, or if I should just get the hell out of there. I should be looking at stuff on my own, not snagging 23 of X or 14 of Y. The Final Fantasy games were fairly good at this – if you went off on your own, you could find more story bits. Chrono Trigger was even better. It just seems that developers are creating these giant worlds and are tossing knick-knacks everywhere to forced gamers to look at their world. That takes me out of games more than anything. (Sure, I could theoretically skip collecting things, but, c’mon, I’ve been bred an item collector, I’ll die one.)

      • neodocT says:


        At least the comics reminded me a bit of Watchmen, in which a comic book storyline comments on the main plot. Plus, Ellie liked those!

  5. Spacemonkey Mafia says:

       Of all of Harryhausen’s work to embed, War of the Worlds is a pretty interesting choice, given both it’s origins as a novel, and it’s most infamous and arguably affecting incarnation as Welles’ radio play.  It’s a pretty good set-up for directing the argument backwards to the stultifying inclusion of visuals into storytelling.  That by providing any imagery, the participant is robbed of their most effective tool for creating a whole universe.
       I don’t believe that; I’m a big fan of visual interpretations.  But it does present the fundamental hairiness of the argument.
       So it’s kind of a question of immersion and sophistication.
       While it’s true you can squeeze into even the most random frozen and tundra-clenched of troll sphincters in Skyrim just to see what’s inside; The likelihood of it being the realm’s 400th copy of the Wolf Queen, Book IV and an iron helmet can dull the immersion just as surely as if that monster bottom was not available for foraging.
       As for how sophisticated game graphics have become; In my full-on old man mode, I do wonder about the space for creativity with such concrete and defined character designs.
       As a kid, I filled reams of paper with my own versions of Mega Man and Link.  Playing with variations and ideal forms, straying pretty far from any information provided by simple 8-bit sprites.  I’d like to see how kids approach game characters now.  If there’s still the playfulness, or if it has become more of a study in refining the closest possible likeness to a character.  What can you really do to riff on Master Chief?
       But at the same time, a game’s sophistication can truly surprise and spark an idea that would never emerge otherwise.
       In both Infinite’s painted facades and Skyrim’s recycled Scooby-Doo chase scene backgrounds there were so many wonderful bright lights and deft ideas.  As games keep advancing, it’s an ongoing problem of stuffing twenty pounds of notions into a ten-pound bag.  Elements will get short-shrift and feel diminished because of it.
       I love games of every graphical era (not you, first-gen polygon).  And that includes the big, sometime incomplete murals that technology keeps pushing forward.    

    • Girard says:

      The abstraction of many older games definitely invited you to complete the visual universe more than many highly-resolved games do today. This was also aided, in Nintendo classics, by the depiction of characters changing with each game which kept things mercurial and less canonical – Mario and Link never re-used a sprite or model from game to game, even on the same system (apart from ‘side stories’ like Majora’s Mask, I guess), which was a stark contrast from, say, MegaMan. Certain motifs described a character, but no one definitive image.

      This is probably why those early Mario games could generate so many wildly different visual worlds when people tried to flesh them out: the Mario art on promotional materials, the Super Show cartoon, the Super Show live-action segments, that batshit movie, and all the different interpretations in grade-school notebooks throughout the early 90s.

      At this point, Mario has kind of settled and become a fairly boring, consistent Mickey-Mouse cipher, though his games are still of course fantastic and quite varied. It feels like the Zelda games have continued to do a better job of changing things up from game to game (though they’ve returned to the WindWaker well perhaps too often).

      However, it seems like fan art communities are as robust as ever on-line, even for contemporary AAA games with highly-resolved imagery. So maybe that kind of interpretation and engagement won’t ever go away. But I do think that the more abstracted visuals required a certain, specific kind of “filling in” of information (just as the abstracted narrative of Mario games required a degree of “filling in” on the player’s part) that more visually resolved games don’t.

    • Kyle O'Reilly says:

       While the 88-man concept art teams of triple A studios pumping out the same Jungle levels for Call of Duty ad nauseum is a bit depressing, there is always hope in the rising Indie game movement.

      Look no further than the spell-binding Proteus to see a game where the details are left almost entirely for the player to fill in.  What are those tiny pixelated statues for, is that a house, what just flew by, etc? 

      But I also agree that in those 88-man concept art teams there are often a lot of talented individuals.  I was actually impressed with a lot of the environment art in the latest Halo which gave it’s a world a strangely monolithic feel to it.

  6. George_Liquor says:

    Bubo’s cameo in the Clash of the Titans remake violates a very important rule of cinema: Never make fun of a good movie in the middle of your crappy one.

    • Aurora Boreanaz says:

      That made me SO ANGRY!  Especially when I was watching it in the second-worst-3D-conversion next to The Last Airbender.

    • The_Juggernaut_Bitch says:

       The movie was boring as fuck without that scene… but it was that scene that moved me from “bored” to actively, seethingly hating the film.

  7. ProfFarnsworth says:

    Another game that did lush, wonderful, and adventurous backgrounds is Enix’s Illusion of Gaia.  It really makes the whole world seem plausibly there with a minor amount of detail and builds a substantial amount of work with a simple map.  

  8. GhaleonQ says:

    Does anyone appreciate this outside of role-playing and adventure games?  How do you think this manifests itself?

    I always appreciated how Sly Cooper and the console Klonoas told a story with their level designs.  For many levels, it wasn’t like “someone lived there,” but it definitely felt like you were viewing 1 functioning part of a whole ecosystem.  I think Sucker Punch did it better than in Infamous (and they couldn’t do it in their theme park of Rocket: Robot On Wheels) by moving away from the obstacle course format of The Thievius Raccoonus in the sequels.

    However, I LOVE lifelike aspects in shoot-’em-ups.  Obviously, nearly all are auto-scrolling, but the real problem is that the conventions of shoot-’em-ups dictate a clear field.  Vertical Cave games, for instance, tend to be very spare because anything more would confuse the player in the bullet hell.

    However, a game like Ridiculous Japanese Title/Terra Diver solves this problem by telling a linear story in the background of the level.  (I think the Sin And Punishment series is similar.) Watch the final boss appear and disappear below you as you get in position for a strike.  There’s the suggestion of a larger battle going on underneath you as you intercept it, and it makes for a wonderful build without distracting too much.  Hitoshi Sakimoto providing the background track doesn’t hurt.

    And, cripes, do we want to post fighting game backgrounds?  Some of those suggest so much with so little.  Too much detail and you run into Anthony’s notion of, “Hey, why are there only 20 frames of animation looping?”  Too little and you might as well have a blank background.  The right amount suggests that it’s a temporary moment happening for just this fight and that it’s not “a stage.”  1 of my favorite video games, the Bakumatsu Romance/The Last Blade series, has stuff like turtles crawling across the playfield’s rocks  (which aren’t in those .gifs) and a parade being the center of attention.

    (Bonus semi-related content: a former professor of mine talking about the uncanny valley and perception. )

    • Dave Dalrymple says:

      As much as I love the Ratchet and Jak games, it’s hard to believe that anyone actually lives in these worlds. 

      • DrFlimFlam says:

         I can’t think of a platforming world this side of Mario where I believe there’s a real world out there, and Mario only because so many games have fleshed the fantasy world of dragon turtles and Italian plumbers out.

    • PaganPoet says:

      I like that you mentioned the Sly games, as they are really good about making believable worlds (in that Looney Tunes-esque way of course) that show life and variety. Granted, much of the “life” of course is all the guards and enemies, but still.

      I especially liked the Old Western bit of the most recent Sly game. I spend forever searching for all the treasures and clue bottles and never seemed to get bored with it thanks to all the little details.

  9. PaganPoet says:

    I think the Mass Effect did a pretty impressive job in making its cities feel alive. Citadel, Ilium, Omega, etc. Even though they shrunk in the later games, they’re always packed full of residents, shoppers, club goers. Some of the conversations you can overhear are pretty hilarious (I’m thinking specifically of a quarian complaining about a human trying to hook up with her to a turian in a club in Mass Effect 2)

    • 2StoryOuthouse says:

       The shrinking of environments was one of my least favorite aspects of the Mass Effect sequels. Tedious elevator rides aside, the Citadel is where the first game came to life. In later games, the size diminished to reflect the decreasing amount of game time spent there, but I still longed for more excuses to explore. An communal interspecies space station makes for a pretty compelling setting and there were definitely plenty more stories to tell there.

      • Girard says:

        Mass Effect seemed to become increasingly interested in how efficiently it could channel you to the next corridor-shooting-sequence as the series went on, which was a shame.

        • Bad Horse says:

          But that’s efficiency in storytelling, isn’t it? So much of the first Mass Effect was just empty space, especially the Citadel. Empty corridors, the long-ass unpopulated bridges on the Presidium, randomly generated rock #3302 with like 4 things on it that take 15 minutes to drive between – to me, it’s not exploring, it’s just walking/driving.

          Really, in 2 and 3 they’re funneling you to the game parts of the game, whether it’s a conversation with words or bullets.

        • DrFlimFlam says:

           I felt like ME was generally better than corridor shooting, kind of a Gears-lite, but the setting and story put it above for me. I just wish the game had a better handle on how to deal with six powers for one character. Especially in the first game.

        • Girard says:

          @Bad_Horse:disqus : If ‘efficiency’ is the ultimate goal for storytelling, they should have just cut out all of that meddlesome interaction and made a movie.

          The first game had some problems with poorly designed attempts at complex/large systems (e.g. stuff like the equipment/inventory interface, or the planetary exploration), but the later games decided to, rather than fix those problems, just lop off any and all complexity, resulting in something less RPG like and more like your average Call-of-Shooty type game with some TV-grade space opera grafted on. Which is probably fine for people who like shooters, but since I don’t, I found the movement away from exploration and discovery and toward picking up ammo clips in corridors full of waist-high walls kind of disappointing.

      • DrFlimFlam says:

        I remember first stepping foot on The Citadel, and how it felt to me at the time, as if I had landed on a real space station I could explore. It soon became obvious that the scope of this location wasn’t nearly as big as all that, but it was definitely a place I wanted to spend as much time as possible in.

        In general I preferred the way Mass Effect games cut out the bloat of exploration, which was never BioWare’s strength, in favor of more linear progression. The way they direct storytelling and action is what sets them apart; open world exploration on any scale is generally not what they excel at, and the more unfocused worlds suffered as a result.

      • aklab says:

        I had the opposite experience: played ME1 a few years ago, and am now about 20 hours into ME2 for the first time. And I only just now went to the Citadel, because I remembered it being so dull and frustrating. I would always get lost, trying to remember which single NPC waited at the end of which series of 5 interchangeable Space Hallways with a dozen identical Space Doors. I would rather drive the Mako over a barren rock than revisit the Citadel of Mass Effect 1!  

        So I was pleasantly surprised at how much more…manageable the Citadel is in ME2. To me it (and Ilium and Omega, like @PaganPoet:disqus said) still feels alive and vibrant, you just happen to be in a small part of it. 

  10. DrFlimFlam says:

    While I find myself frustrated in general with the stagey way in which games create realistic-looking universes with very limited interior, i can’t help but call out the bloat mentioned in this article as a problem. Skyrim, as identified, has lots to do, but not all of it is interesting. For every fascinating dig site with history and puzzles and a plot within the dungeon there’s another random cave with some dudes and some giant spiders. It can be fun but from a narrative place it comes up almost completely empty.

    While even a bustling metropolis has maybe two dozen buildings at most that can be accessed in these games, they’re also, in general, the vast majority of what you can see. The bakery might be closed, but the food stand and the armory are both open, and you’re never led to an area of town with enemies but no other significance. They’re all facades, but at least one is trying to make sure that the facade you’re experiencing is what matters.

    I’ve said before that the big change this upcoming gen should be more livable worlds, with more buildings you can enter and more activity going on beyond the game’s specific point at a given time. This is true, but I wonder how much of it will be interesting, and how much of it will just be more uninteresting bloat.

    Like any good poster here I’m replaying the ME3 trilogy, and one thing I’m struck with is that aside from all the strip mining (ye gods, the strip mining), what the player experiences in this game is what matters. It’s part of a mission or it’s not there. Unlike ME1, which involved the least technologically advanced mode of surface transport in the galaxy over boring and annoying terrain, ME2 is all about directing you to these set pieces so you can enjoy what’s been set up for you in the scope of the game. There are tons of places to go and lots to do, and that’s what you see. Endless roaming for some more rare metals is not part of the experience anymore.

    • Dave Dalrymple says:

      I’d like a way to make an RPG experience even more unique to the player, one that couldn’t be replicated on a subsequent playthrough.

      That’s one of the big draws that multiplayer games have. Human beings are unpredictable. Likewise, the “unshackled AI” that you find in a Grand Theft Auto game keeps things interesting. Sandbox games get boring when the same actions always have the same outcomes.

      What’s missing from online and sandbox games, though, is lasting consequences. There’s always another flag to capture. Hookers respawn.

      I could also get behind a shorter RPG that’s more like a Civilization game. Even if you play it the same way every time, there’s no guarantee that the result will be the same.

      • DrFlimFlam says:

        It would take a publisher with serious stones to allow you to kill someone who was important, or put you away in jail for cold blooded murder that brings you ever closer to your own demise as time passes.

        One of the bummers about marriage in Skyrim is that I am now the savior of Solitude, I have my own excellent home, the lady of Solitude is single, and that’s it. I have to settle for one of the women who hvaen’t died accompanying me to spider cave 27.

      • TaumpyTearrs says:

         In State of Decay, the open-world zombie game I’ve been playing on my brothers X-Box most of the stuff that happens has a permanent effect. Houses you scavenge through don’t respawn items (which is important to limiting to your resources). Survivors who you don’t encounter or help in time can die before you meet them, and even your allies can die when they venture out on their own if you don’t help them in time. There is a limited number of vehicles in the world, and they stay where you leave and remain in the same state of (dis)repair, unless you build a workshop to fix them and even then you have to bring them to your home base and leave them in a specific spot.

        And in terms of immersion, basically every house and building in the game can be entered and scavenged, except for a few trailers and storage units I have encountered. And the other characters do stuff when you are not controlling them, and the game does stuff when you aren’t playing it.

        I’m really digging it, and it makes the world feel really alive (despite all the death). Even when it can be frustrating, like when I am scavenging ammo from a police station on another side of the map and hear that a zombie horde is over running my base, it just makes the game feel right.

  11. Roswulf says:

    Like many other commenters, I think I disagree fundamentally with this argument. I suppose it comes down to “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.”  I can only offer a visceral and unsupported no it doesn’t. I hate Bioshock Infinite, but for me it was completely successful as a visual illusion.

    I think for Anthony we have fallen into the uncanny valley of level design. He would be far more comfortably in either a more realistic and livable or a more impressionistic and guided space. But so long as a game offers new things to do- and that includes new images of interest- this is not a problem I share. This may simply follow from our various histories with gaming. Other than Myst (stupid Myst- man was I terrible at Myst), I have never played any of the pre-rendered games Anthony cites. I never had a console, so the conventions that defined the comfortable limits of interactivity and realism in gaming environments for Anthony.

    In this sense, my uncanny valley comparison is off-base. The uncanny valley is more or less a universal human phenomenon. We all know the human face and have similar reactions to it. But a door to a bicycle repair shop in a non-bike-based game means different things based on our past gaming experiences.

    • Kyle O'Reilly says:

       This uncanny valley of level design does create an interesting problem.  How detailed do we make our levels now that we have the processing power to render every fabric on a flag waving over a desecrated building?  I think Anthony takes for granted that most gamers don’t expect to be able to open every door in Columbia.

      Because while we are all about immersion, everyone knows in the back of their head that this is a computer program that runs on a finite infrastructure and cannot make every room in every city, intricately detailed to the point of true immersion.

  12. lylebot says:

    The related question that is most interesting to me is:  what are the properties that make a special effect “believable”?  Gollum in LotR/the Hobbit is totally believable; Azog, by contrast, feels strangely hollow and weightless (despite his size).  Both were created by the same effects studio, both with the same mo-cap and rendering technology, both supervised by the same guy, neither meant to look fully “human”, yet one works and the other doesn’t.  Why is that?

    I agree with the premise that there are low-tech effects that are quite believable and high-tech effects that are not.  I sort of suspect that on balance high-tech means more believable—we just remember the best low-tech ones from the past because they stood out against a sea of mediocrity.  But within the “low-tech” or “high-tech” groups, what are the distinguishing characteristics?

    • Roswulf says:

       The lazy man’s answer is that Gollum is portrayed by Andy Serkis, and Azog isn’t (you may mean the Great Goblin-who actually was not mo-cap- but it doesn’t matter).

      Yet the lazy man is also kind of right- no matter the technology, we are going to remember those special effects creations imbued by a human artist with personality and life. What makes one Rennaissance painting of a dieing saint surrounded by angels powerful and another utterly forgettable?

    • mizerock says:

      Yeah, something about the physics of his motions just seems wrong. Yes, he seems “weightless”, because a body of that mass shouldn’t be able to move that fast. And if, somehow, the muscles WERE able to whip limps into place as quickly as the man wearing the mo-cap suit, bones would snap, and tendons would tear. Imagine building a puppet that size? You couldn’t move it so quickly, and you wouldn’t try to do it even if somehow you could. And that whole town would have been torn apart and crushed by his shifting weight long ago.

      Gollum is small and wiley.

      • DrFlimFlam says:

        Gollum has a realistic, herky-jerky movement. The CG creations of The Hobbit in general feel video gamey in a negative way, not really on the same plane of existence as the cast.

  13. johnshinobi says:

    Baten Kaitos had maybe the most beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds in a game, ever.

  14. Ben DeVictor says:

    I think it’s amazing that the Resident Evil remake still looks better and more atmospheric than 95% of games 11 years later. I guess that’s due to the pre rendered backgrounds.

    But seriously, compare this shot from the remake (2002)

    with this shot from the RE5 DLC that took place in more or less the same “mansion.” (2009)

    • neodocT says:

       REmake and RE0 are fucking beautiful games, and I still think prerendered backgrounds go well with classic Survival Horror games. The graphics are just one more limitation on the player.

      • GaryX says:

        I think both of them work in different ways. It’s like a static shot versus a lock tracking shot (especially in the way one always looks better as a still). I do wish more games would employ them, though. I was also fond of Silent Hill 2‘s sliding fixed perspective. I thought that worked really well without gimping the controls so much.

    • PaganPoet says:

      I’m sorry, there’s a mansion in that second pic? all I could see was Chris Redfield’s triceps.

  15. neodocT says:

    I love Dark Souls, and one of the main features in that game is that the world looks gigantic and lived in and old, yet it’s relatively quick to traverse and explore (or it would be, if not for the enemies). It’s a very large world in which you’re always guided by an invisible hand as to where to go next. There are hundreds of paths, and each of them has a purpose and a story, and nothing’s simply throwaway to fill space and make the player waste time.

    Except for Bligthttown. Fuck Blighttown.

    • Kyle O'Reilly says:

       Blighttown is a necessary evil I think and actually contributes to the authenticity of the Dark Souls world.  The Swamp is disgusting and poisonous so obviously no one would want to live in it, but the disgusting infected who lived down their would never be allowed up to the normal level of the burg or even higher to Anor Londo so they had to build a shanty town along the base of the castle walls.  It also creates a very interesting verticality to the level design which is new at that point (the water mill style elevator thing you have to drop down is a vertigo inducing experience).  I’m sure there’s also some social commentary about sticking the diseased and blighted at the bottom of society but that seems like reaching.

      So anyway, despite it’s thumb snapping difficulty I think Blight town offered great atmosphere and gets a bad rap from Dark Souls players.

      • neodocT says:

        I perfectly agree that the idea of Blighttown was excellent, for all the reasons you pointed out. And I do really appreciate the vertical design portions. Pretty much everything up against the wall is great, including the path with the poison ninja guys.

        Having said that, I still think Blighttown suffered from very poor level design overall. It’s mostly a large, brown, dark expansion of mud, with absolutely nothing in it aside from a path to Ash Lake and Queelaag’s Domain. And not only that, but you also move more slowly, can easily get poisoned and have to fight infinitely respawning flies. Ugh. And it’s exactly because the game is normally so focused and the challenges so fun that Blighttown really stood out as sucky.

        • TaumpyTearrs says:

           Those fucking flies are what killed it for me. I could deal with moving slower and poison and all that shit, but when you add in the respawning flies it just became irritating and plodding instead of difficult and slow-but-determined.

      • GaryX says:

        It makes sense in world, but that doesn’t excuse the game for not being mechanically in sync with it and for all that damn slowdown.

  16. stakkalee says:

    Obsidian’s newest, Project Eternity, is going to use some snazzy pre-rendered backgrounds complete with dynamic lighting and other elements – it looks gorgeous so far.  You can check out one of their developer videos about it here.

    • DrFlimFlam says:

       I backed that one!

      • stakkalee says:

        I can’t decide if I’m more excited for PE or for the new Shadowrun Returns.  I haven’t played an isometric top-down game in a while and I’m starting to miss them.

        • DrFlimFlam says:

           I’ve never been good at getting into the CRPGs of yore, and I’m hoping this acts as a good intro for me to dig into my GOG collection of old classics like the BG games.

        • djsubversive says:

          SRR does look pretty good, and it comes with an editor! yessss!

        • stakkalee says:

          @DrFlimFlam:disqus I saw that GOG sale and I had to stop myself from buying it since I already owned most of the games.  I really enjoyed the Baldur’s Gate series (and Icewind Dale, to a lesser extent.)  As a huge D&D nerd they had everything I could want – an engaging story, some compelling (and some hilarious) characters and a familiar setting.  Thinking back to the world Bioware created, all of the spaces, the cities and keeps and forested areas and whatnot, everything felt really spare, but in a good way.  Like there was very little fat in the games – almost everything that was there was there for a reason.  I hope you enjoy your digging.
          @djsubversive:disqus That editor, ooh that editor.

    • djsubversive says:

      ProjectEternity GOGOGO.



  17. Aurora Boreanaz says:

    I strongly disagree that 3D worlds are somehow less immersing than pre-rendered ones, with one major exception.  The biggest thing that took me out of being immersed in Skyrim, for example, are repetitive areas.  When I have to go through yet another tomb full of Draugr, and know that those bodies in alcoves are going to stand up because they have armor and weapons, those coffins are going to burst open, and I’m going to have to “solve” a puzzle with three pictures on rocks and/or a metallic key in a big door, then I get irritated.  Some of the most sacred locations in the world are protected by a Match-3 puzzle and a couple slightly stronger bad guys, and the treasure inside is mostly just garbage armor?  Really??

    On the other hand, the areas where they actually spent some time on design can be pretty damn breathtaking.  Most of the major cities, and a lot of outdoor areas, are completely delightful.

    • DrFlimFlam says:

      Exactly. If your barrow doesn’t have a story, I don’t want to be there. I imagine some do, but I have much more fun living it up in Solitude than I do wondering how this cave is different than the last one.

      Though in my opinion Oblivion was worse in that regard.

      • Aurora Boreanaz says:

        Definitely.  Oblivion was so damn boring, especially with the freaking Oblivion Gates.

        • DrFlimFlam says:

          I specifically ditched the main plot after taking Boromir to tat first town to keep the Gates from popping up everywhere. I would love for Bethesda to patch that game to greatly reduce the Gates and fix the levlling.

        • djsubversive says:

          @drflimflam:disqus You said “Bethesda” and “patch” but you must have meant “mods” and “fix” and those almost certainly exist.

          Unless you’re playing a Bethesda game on not-a-PC, and if that’s the case, I hope Oblivion was the last time that happened (because lessons must be learned).

      • GaryX says:

        Yeah, Morrowind was different for me, though, in that almost none of the dungeons had a story, yet I loved running through them anyways. I always wonder if this is some illusive quality embedded in the game or just because it was my first Elder Scrolls. I’m beginning to suspect it’s the latter. At the time it came out and I played it, the prospect of all these nameless, almost pointless dungeons made the game seem more alive to me. Now, they’re just expected–another part of what the franchise “is.”

        • Aurora Boreanaz says:

          No, I agree with you.  Morrowind’s dungeons were fun and exciting…largely because you never knew if they were going to be full of wimpy rats, or super-enhanced vampire lords.

        • DrFlimFlam says:

          There is a bit of sameness when you fire up the latest open world Bethesda game. I enjoy Skyrim quite a bit but also haven’t ever played it quite as feverishly as Oblivion, and even with the praise of folk around here i can’t quite get into Fallout NV like I did with its predecessor.

        • djsubversive says:

          @drflimflam:disqus But New Vegas is an Obsidian game. Bethesda was just the publisher (and QA, which is not their strong suit).

    • Roswulf says:

       But would this problem be solved by substituting pre-rendered repetitive areas?

      I’m genuinely asking- is their something about 3d worlds that lend themselves to repetitive images? I suppose it technically wasn’t pre-rendered but the bad, repetitive environments of something like Dragon Age 2 seem like they could easily transfer into a pre-rendered world. Am I missing something?

      • Logoboros says:

         I discuss this below, but it’s that the 3d worlds have limited objects. You have two predesigned “table” objects you place in a room. You have three “rubbish piles” that you can insert into your environment. And you’re responsible for filling in all 360 degrees of every space with elements.

        You limit the PoV frame to a set scene, and you can devote much more time an energy into filling in that scene with fully customized elements (if it’s a pre-rendered CGI background) or hand drawing all those elements (if it’s a bitmap background).

        • Roswulf says:

          Ok, I’m still not getting it. How do 3-D worlds have limited objects any more than pre-rendered worlds? Doesn’t every background painting of a table need to be created just as every interactive table needs to be created, and both are limited only by development resources(and memory? I guess?). And isn’t there pressure to reuse resources (why not have all caves look the same? It helps profit!) under both systems.

          Now I understand that the relative resource commitment means that you can get more pre-rendered tables for the buck. And that if we hold the art budget constant, that would lead to a more visually diverse game (essentially trading depth for breadth). Is that the heart of the pro-pre-rendering agument?

        • Logoboros says:

          I can paint a background of, say, a wizard’s study cluttered with all kinds of weird little skulls and bottles and totems and all kinds of details. I can paint in the books on his bookshelf in different sizes and heights and colors and differing degrees of wear and tear, etc. And I can do all that a thousand times faster (and more “realistically,” if realism is desired) than if every single one of those skulls and bottles and books, etc. had to be 3d modeled and textured. So a 3d modeler asked to make a wizard’s study is very likely is not going to handcraft every item in that study — as someone producing a painted background would — but they’re going to use the same orc skull that they have in the object library to place in caves, and they’re going to use the same table that they use in the pubs, and they’re going to use the same stonewall texture that they use for the castle interiors, etc. The very way 3d environments are constructed pretty much requires the repetition of elements (and that scales — use the same table in two places; then you end up using the entire same house in two places).

          Can you recycle elements in painted environments? Could I walk into the exact same painting of a wizard’s study in two different cities in Baldur’s gate, for example? I would certainly be technically possible, but because it’s relatively so much easier to produce a new, totally different backdrop (compared to having to produce a totally new 3d environment), it happened fairly rarely (at least in PC games — 8 and 16-bit console games certainly reused rooms quite casually).

        • Aurora Boreanaz says:

          It’s easy if you look at it this way: Pre-rendered environments are like photographs of a 3D area.  Sometimes they have moving parts, but it takes up far less memory to have a photo of a beautiful library full of books than it would to have a fully 3D exploreable area with the same amount of detail.  Like exponentially more memory.

        • Logoboros says:

          Addendum: Having just gone back and looked at some YouTube videos of Baldur’s Gate, I was a bit surprised to see far more repeated objects than I remembered in the backgrounds — though looking at Baldur’s Gate II, that seems to be a stronger example of something much closer to hand-tooled backgrounds — though even then there are definitely repeated trees and floor textures and such. (Point and click adventure games would be a truer example of entirely unique backgrounds for every scene.)

          However, in defense of the Baldur’s Gate-type environments, though there is repetition of elements, there’s still an enormous variety of elements and there are still a LOT of unique elements that you’d only encounter once as specific objects in specific environments — and those counterbalance repeated trees. (For example — and I may be proven wrong, but we’ll see — in the starting village of Baldur’s Gate I, as well as in its cities, there are no repeated builidings. Every structure is a unique model. And that’s very powerful (even if some of the trees and lampposts are identical).

      • DrFlimFlam says:

         I thought the thrust of the article was that we’re seeing more of these worlds with the same or similar amount of actual interactive content. That showing more as a result of our more “in world” perspectives means developers show us more of everything, but we’re not getting much more out of it. Just doors that can’t open and mysterious roadblocks that keep us from seeing more than what we want to see while also pointing out very specifically that we cannot see what’s there.

        • Gryffle says:

          I think you’re hitting on it here. I think it’s part environmental uncanny valley, but even more I think it’s due to games adding more areas to look at without adding more points of interest. The Final Fantasy games are perfect examples of towns that show you just what you need to see, and nothing more. You get small, bustling scenes that suggest a bigger world without showing it, and there’s not a lot of space wasted on shops you can’t enter, or people’s houses or whatever. It’s efficient, and it creates a sense of space that can be filled out by the player’s imagination. On the other hand, in a massive game like Skyrim, where you can go everywhere and look at everything, towns need to be filled out literally, just so that the game lives up to its own sense of scale. And then you get towns that are full of boring stuff at best (another room with a fireplace and some cups and a bookshelf) or illusion-shattering stuff at worst (painted on doors/identical rooms etc).

          I think the level of detail is simply not scaling with the size of game worlds. I just finished Sleeping Dogs, whose large, open-world map is made up of four smaller town areas that are all pretty similar in look and feel. I feel like if they had made the map a quarter of its size but made more buildings and shops enterable, it would have been a much more engaging world.

    • djsubversive says:

      Remember, Skyrim is full of assholes, whether they’re living or dead (before you meet them; they’re almost always dead afterwards, unless they’re magically unkillable. they’re still assholes, though).

      The spell Summon Bear With Lute makes those Draugr tombs much more bearable (no pun intended). “Oh, great, another room full of zombies that will jump out of their alcoves and burst through their coffins as soon as I pass an invisible threshold. Better summon a bear to play Dick Dale’s ‘Misirlou’!”

    • Phillip Collector says:

      Or how about when you’re playing a third person cover based game? Anytime you walk into a big room with waist high objects littered about you immediately know that you’ve just walked into a battle arena and as soon as you walk passed the invisible line that triggers the action, boom! the room is going to be flooded with enemies.

    • His_Space_Holiness says:

      Hey man, people don’t build tombs to entertain you! Sometimes they just want a nice place to keep their dead relatives, okay?

  18. Logoboros says:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the Baldur’s Gate series yet. I think it’s rather a shame that the isometric RPG has basically died as a genre in favor of first person or over-the-shoulder RPGs (which involves changes to many RPG game mechanics beyond just how the world is presented, but the world is what I’ll focus on).  Those matte-painting backgrounds (though Black Isle did a great job of creating the illusion of depth, of making your party’s sprites appear integrated into an environment and not just floating on it) pretty much guaranteed that you weren’t going to get the kind of direct repetition of elements that you have in something like Skyrim or even just the general sameyness that comes with walking down a road that repeating the same road texture every ten yards and is surrounded by clones of the same five trees and six stones, etc., that you have in virtually every 3d-world fantasy RPG. (Well, I suppose there were mini-maps that repeated in Baldur’s Gate, such as the random road-encounters, but in those cases the map hardly mattered.)

    There’s definitely something of the Harryhausen effect with those maps, in that they definitely broadcast a sense of having been lovingly and individually crafted in a way that is very perceivable (kind of like seeing the fingerprints on an Aardman stop-motion figure) compared to polygon landscapes that may well have been crafted with just as much attention — but you just can’t tell if that tree is there because the designer deliberately placed it there or because they used an object painting brush to cover a huge swath of the landscape in procedurally generated “forest terrain.”

    • CptMurphy says:

      Seconded.  Also, regarding living, breathing, cities, as referenced above in Mass Effect: the city of Athkatla in BG2 remains unsurpassed IMO as a fleshed-out city.  There are so many stories that happen in every single part of that city that it actually breaks the story progression a bit, because it’s so compelling to find every quest down every blind alley instead of rushing to confront Irenicus once you’v raised the cash to do so.

      Also lost in the isometric-to-3d RPG movement: the fantastic tactical combat.  A lot of times in BG I felt like I was playing the world’s most immersive RTS strategy game, controlling a SWAT team of high fantasy badasses.

    • djsubversive says:

      Project Eternity Project Eternity Project Eternity.

  19. duwease says:

    I think games have lost a vital sense of scale once 3D environments became the norm.  The necessity of navigating a 3D world (especially when “game thing” are happening that require your attention) requires that the camera angle be slightly up and behind you, meaning that most of the screen is taken up by floor and the bottom of walls.  And I can’t think of a set designer alive that can make a vast array of fascinating floors and bottoms of walls.

    Compare that to games where the camera angle is fixed away from the player, to constantly highlight the environment and really *soak in* the architecture and sense of place.  In my mind, it’s no comparison.  Occasionally in 3D games, when things are calm, you have the ability to stand still, look around, and soak in the environment.  But when it comes time to move on and do something, you’re back to looking at floors and bottoms of walls, and the grandeur of whatever vast cathedral you’re traversing is relegated to offscreen again.

    • GaryX says:

      I don’t know if I totally agree with that. I think, yeah, there’s too harsh a separation of view/engage, but for me, one of the predominately unique aspects of architecture and “space” is its ability to be at once 3 dimensional and flat. By pulling the camera up to an “objective” space, you can indeed get the pictorial image, but you lose a certain unique power to have these spaces that alternate between the flat, captivating image and the utilitarian function of movement and program.
      (I say this, though, as someone who’s totally a sucker for axons.)

      Also floors and walls can totally be fascinating.

      • duwease says:

        I do think it *can* be done with 3D movement.. it just generally isn’t.  Scaling a tower in Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry 3 and surveying the environment from that vantage is breaktaking.  But normally you’re, say, in a crypt which does indeed look like it *should* be fascinating, with its ancient architecture and embedded waterfall..  were the majority of your time not focused on the floor or the back of a box while you hide.

        • GaryX says:

          In those particular cases, I think it’s more a programmatic issue in that there’s a real disconnect between form & function. One shouldn’t necessarily follow the other, but games tend to separate them harshly. I think it becomes more about engaging that architecture and embedded waterfall (which is sort of done in Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry 3) in an organic way rather than just pulling the camera back.
          At the same time, though, I think an argument can be made that focusing on the back of the box in the midst of a vast, beautiful space is exactly where the potential lies in 3D game design. There it fluctuates between the grand and the mundane: the plain table that’s gathered around in an exquisite hall. Designers just need to be smarter about how those two feed into one another. How is crouching behind the box informed or a part of the surround environment? How does what I see from behind the box work both mechanically with the game but also aesthetically with the design. The box can be at once a respite, a piece, a lens, and/or an antithesis.

  20. Phillip Collector says:

    If you want to talk about immersion breaking, I’d point to item collecting more so than how the world is rendered. Specifically speaking collecting the same dozen items through out the game in order to boost health, or build up your arsenal. Eating half a hotdog in an ashtray heals bullet wounds! Scissors are more ubiquitous than knives!

    Are these game mechanics going to continue to be acceptable as video games become more photo realistic looking?

    On a related topic look at this clip from Battlefield 4: 

    On the one hand you’ve got a high level of realistic visuals but then you have an old school button prompt that completely undermines the seriousness of the situation they’re trying to portray.

    Side note,I’ve never understood when people complain that they can’t open every single door in a game. I can’t do that in real life (nor do I want to), why would I want to in a game? That’s not the point of the game. The point of the game is to save the day, NOT to walk into every home in the world like a termite inspector.

    • DrFlimFlam says:

      I love that JRPGs fully expect you to rummage through homes, and that the people who live in them accept broken ceramics as the cost of the world being saved.

      Some great webcomics have paid homage to the dumpster-diving Booker DeWitt.

      • Dave Dalrymple says:

        Even in the SNES days, JRPGs were satirizing and subverting the gaming convention of grabbing everything in sight. Use a ridiculous trope long enough and we come to accept it.

  21. His_Space_Holiness says:

    I love that Harryhausen War of the Worlds clip because it looks for all the world like a drunk Martian who just crashed his spaceship into a tree.

  22. Carlton_Hungus says:

    I agree that too much focus is on the most realistic graphics but I feel as though Bioshock Infinite isn’t the worst offender in this category.

    Bioshock Infinite (like Borderlands, but less so) doesn’t seem to be going for the same level of realism as The Last of Us, Tomb Raider, Uncharted, etc…  Infinite retains some elements of whimsy in its design that I think makes it work, even though it looks pretty you know you’re playing a video game.  The others TLOU, etc… also all look pretty but occasionally run into “uncanny valley” problems, and the more realistic they try to make the game look, the more the unopenable doors, repetitive shops, stick out like sore thumbs.

  23. Logoboros says:

    Here’s another nostalgia-blast: anyone here remember a 1996 game called “Titanic: Adventure Out of Time”? It used prerendered environments like Myst, but part of its gimmick was that they were done as iPix photos — one brand of the 360-degree photo technology we now find in Google Streetview. And, indeed, you moved around rather like in Streetview, animating quickly from one fixed position to another. It created an interesting sort of hybrid between a 3d world and a 2d one.

    There’s a playthrough on YouTube here:

  24. Andrew Howie says:

    During the PS2 period, I really missed the pre-rendered backgrounds that were common in PS1 RPGs. I honestly thought they looked a whole lot better than the real-time 3D backgrounds of the time. It wasn’t until Final Fantasy XII and Valkyrie Profile 2 that I really saw the merits of fully-3D JRPGs. 

    I think it would have been really cool if Square had kept the same style in FFX as in FFIX and instead used the system’s graphical power to render even higher-quality character models. They would have looked great against the backdrop of high-resolution (meaning 480 vertical in this context) pre-rendered backdrops. Not that FFX looks bad–not by any means! I just don’t know that such a linear game really benefited from fully 3D environments.


    this irritates me because I remember back in the day all critics and gamers did was complain about pre-rendered backgrounds, whining “bawwww I hate the fixed camera angles! bawwwwww I hate the tank controls! bawwwwwww I hate how uninteractive they are!”, never mind the fact that the REmake looked fucking AMAZING at the time, far better than most games on the market at the time, because it dared not to be your bog standard 3D it had to be punished 

    so here’s a problem I’ve always had with gamers, they love to fucking whine too much and kill good things, such as pre-rendered backgrounds, which are 100% dead and not ever coming back

    how about you all start to be appreciative of stuff more?

  26. hubrisofsatan says:

    No mention of oddworld?