Friday 15 November 2013

Wish You Were Here... part 2

Having looked previously at Music and Cohesive Ecosystems, part 2 continues exploring ways digital environments are made to feel like intriguing, living spaces.

The illusion of life...ANIMATION
Imagine a static Green Hill Zone where the water didn’t fall and the rings didn’t spin and the TVs didn’t buzz. Sonic, however beautifully drawn, would be running through a dead space. The dancing sunflowers and endlessly cascading waterfalls on the horizon add weight and tie the world together convincingly. A simple looping animation gives the illusion of life just as it did in the intro shots of early cartoons. Animated backgrounds appeared on 8-bit hardware but they really flourished in the arcade and the 16-bit era. SNK Neo Geo beat-‘em-ups especially highlight how beautiful art and a few looping frames can make a location really pop.

And in order to sell that world, the characters must tally with it. IEpic Yarn Kirby is made from the same material as his surroundings and his animation couples with the base environment to make the simplest interactions satisfying: threads give under his weight as he lands; pulled cords draw platforms closer; patches rip off to reveal passages under the quilted façade, bulging as he walks beneath. The embroidered take on the familiar elemental settings is charming enough but the real joy comes from watching Kirby lurch and transform into a car with a double-tap or begin skating on ice, pirouetting to change direction. My moveset is minimal, but it doesn’t feel restrictive. I can’t affect or modify the world much but the animation makes it a satisfying place to inhabit nonetheless. Spaces mirroring real-world visuals and physics present a challenge to designers. Filling a room with destructible objects is all well and good but the bare space that remains once you’ve compulsively incinerated every last crate/barrel/panel is usually a hollow, uninviting one - a problem compounded in First Person Shooters when your protagonist isn’t onscreen to provide visual interest. Seeing the player character impacting the environment convincingly gives it a persuasive tangibility, and again, this becomes even more complicated when representing a 'realistic' character.

The original Banjo-Kazooie is my most replayed game. Nuts & Bolts boasted a fantastic
vehicle building system but was let down by dull missions and the weight of expectation.
Nutty Acres was so beautiful you were almost content just cruising around testing your
toy box creations. Almost. Nintendo Land uses a similar patchwork art style to great effect.
Good character animation makes you invest in a scene. I could watch Banjo’s backpack for hours, bouncing with each plod through the field grass, and it makes me forgive/forget that this grass is actually one large textured plane with collision toggled off. Conversely, watching my character ‘skate’ through Albion’s beautiful grasslands in Fable II was alienating and it took time for me to accept that ‘quirk’. This is one reason MMOs remain unattractive to me – the fidelity of the world is too often negated by simplistic animation and character behaviour. NPCs run into walls and get stuck on scenery. They cast spells repeatedly and repeat lines and say things entirely out of context. In time I’m sure I could appreciate Skyrim for what it does well and celebrate the meme-friendly incongruity, but accepting those limitations seems at odds with the beauty and potential of the world at a macro level. Being drawn deep into an MMORPG is a frightening prospect knowing how engrossing they can be and how obsessed I can get. Exploring a living, populated world that evolves irrevocably over time would be fascinating but I dare not enter. One does not simply walk away from WoW.

Admittedly, I’m a sucker for blue sky in games and perhaps it’s unfair to condemn areas designed to elicit discomfort or oppression. If Ravenholm were an idyllic haven, it would conflict with the narrative drive to get-the-hell-outta-Dodge. Valve’s uninviting environments are still engaging and the bleakness of City 17’s concrete makes the escape to the mountains in the following episodes all the more striking. Resident Evil 4 was full of stunning locales that delivered a nail-biting and varied experience but, fun as it was, I’m not rushing to revisit Salazar’s Castle. It served its purpose beautifully. Now point me at the blue sky…

Valve don't want me rolling out the picnic blanket in Ravenholm. Check out Electric Blue Skies
for some great virtual photography from Half-Life 2 and many others
But pretty sunsets and mountain ranges alone don’t make me want to visit a place. I spent a few hours on Crysis’ tropical island marvelling at the foliage and the water (and I royally shat myself when the shark began circling). As a playground for emergent gameplay it was interesting, but I got lonely and bored. Give me a bear and bird bounding around Treasure Trove Cove any day. Give me Mickey Mouse marching through the Enchanted Forest on the Mega Drive or the 64-bit mist over Lake Hylia before sunrise (something the 3DS remake couldn’t quite recapture). That mist made me feel the crispness of the morning, the possibilities of a new day.

Impossible is everything...MEANINGFUL INTERACTION
Beauty alone can’t make a space compelling – it needs to be mechanically motivating. Non-interactive set dressing looks great but ultimately disappoints. Perfunctory backdrop detail is easily (and often unavoidably) exposed when the player is forced to search for the interactive component. Fumbling around to discover which of the cupboards actually opens ironically tests my suspension of disbelief in a way that highlighting said element does not. Watching Tom & Jerry cartoons from the ‘40s, the viewer can quickly identify objects in the environment that the characters will interact with in any shot. The background plates have a washed-out painterly appearance under the outlined animated elements. Rather than take you out of the scene, it’s actually rewarding to recognise that the poker by the fireside is about to become significant – it fosters anticipation of what’s coming next. As with video games, it’s vital that the viewer quickly understands what’s important. Making the background façade indistinguishable from interactive elements exposes the unreality of the scene because players are unable to perform the simplest of tasks. A door! Oh, it’s just a texture on the wall. An apple hanging from a tree! Maybe I can…no, just set dressing. A poker by the fire!? Wow, that’d be fun.

What to do, what to do...
Now I don’t expect fully functioning PCs in the shady corporate office I’m infiltrating but I want my character to be able to do something with them, even if it’s touching the mouse to get rid of the screensaver. The glowing mission critical object was born to guide players through all the non-interactive shit, but one has to ask if said shit is really needed. Are those banks of inactive PCs contributing enough tonally to outweigh the frustration of non-interactivity? The glowing object and breadcrumb trail are fudge solutions and rarely have any narrative context. Navi, annoying as she was, was a clever answer to multiple design challenges. Targeting enemies and highlighting POIs in a 3D space were handled by one system in the guise of a contextually relevant character. In a full library she could locate the one book you needed and it would make sense. Without her you’re left to look for clues in camera angles (borrowing a filmic device) or to follow the glowing breadcrumbs or shiny object. Fine, but why not just put the book on a table and stop pretending?

The whole library is faked to create atmosphere. Developers are intent on making visually credible worlds but rarely have time and resources to create non-critical content. Therefore the player is presented a plastic feast, nailed down to maintain the mood. In the ‘90s the shock of seeing environments realised so beautifully muted the issue. Resident Evil's prerendered backdrops created and preserved tension successfully as dioramas but their limitations were evident once the novelty wore off. The fully 3D environments of following instalments have created new problems. Blundering into the scenery (gun drawn), blindly tapping and testing the surroundings for goodies you know are hidden in random locations kills the mood the developers have crafted and tests players’ patience. In Revelations, a Metroid-style scanner (the contextually legitimate sibling to the glowing object) does its best to maintain a sense of player accomplishment that the glow might strip away but risks making the whole shebang feel like work. Making every cupboard in an environment interactive is within the scope of the current gen but time and resources are required to fill them. And is the equivalent of searching for lost car keys off the critical path worth recreating? Overlook a lockpick in Bioshock Infinite and maybe you’ll miss an audio tape, losing out on a fascinating narrative nugget. I played that game for the story, so it had me obsessively hoovering resources from desks and cupboards. It became a real chore. It made me nostalgic for Rapture. When does fidelity stop adding to the environment and detract from the core experience? (And on the subject of fidelity, why can’t my mutha-fuckin’ RPG obliterate that puny lock!?)

[F] Search. [F] Search. [F]-[F]-[F]-[F]-[F]...
I don’t need a meaningful system behind every object but I want something to justify its existence in the world. Deus Ex let me login to PCs and access emails, and I could uncover more of the story myself. The audiotapes in the original Bioshock were a beautiful contrivance but how long can these techniques continue to convey narrative before they pall? Who’s dropping these personal logs conveniently in my path to stumble upon? And in chronological order too! The Navi-like companion/guide became a cliché almost immediately.

Is it even fair to call these ‘devices’ problems? Art needs direction. I’m not irritated when a director uses his lens to highlight a dress hanging in a protagonist’s wardrobe or when an author has a character improbably reveal vital plot points. Concise storytelling demands framing and coincidence. The issue lies with the fact that I’m being presented possibilities in a video game. The illusion of choice is advertised and I feel short-changed when I discover my options are severely limited. Of course Batman is The World's Greatest Detective - my nan would be if she had Detective Mode in her specs! The cowl tech provides context for the glowing item, but really? Sherlock doesn't need any of that shit. The very best narrative games are quickly forgiven because the story engages you so well you ignore inadequacies in the peripheral environment. Unfortunately video games aren’t renowned for the quality of their writing and picking the world apart is all too easy when you’re bored and looking for something to do.

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