Friday, 8 February 2008

The Art of Downsizing

‘Bigger is better’ could be an unwritten law of videogame design. When a sequel is announced it’s expected to improve on its predecessor, and along with gameplay refinements and a higher texture count, a larger world is always expected. Modern videogames are set in substantially bigger worlds than they ever used to be, at least in terms of the three dimensional era. An open-world game will often brag on the back of the box of how many square-kilometres it gives you. The term ‘open-world game’ has almost become a genre in its own right. The possibilities the player can have inside these sprawling cities or kingdoms is often daunting, promising to provide the illusion of a living world, enabling the player to interact as freely as they want. But I often get the feeling that the greater the game space is in scale, the more at risk it is of being diluted of entertainment.

I like the appeal of a small game. I think they can lead to a greater sense of involvement, and require more innovative gameplay design from the developers to keep them interesting. One of the best examples of what I’m hinting at is LucasArt’s ‘The Day of the Tentacle’, released in 1993 from the untamed minds of Tim Schafer and David Grossman. For those unfamiliar, the game is a classic point-and-click adventure title set in a single hotel-mansion, albeit a mansion crossing three different time periods you flick back and forth from at will. Still, the game space was small, but the possibilities were huge. I spent countless hours wondering through and around the building, and it remains amongst my favourite ‘game places’ to this day. What made it work? The characters within it were exceptional, from George Washington to Green the talking teenage tentacle. It’s collection of freaks, manic-depressants, slackers and inventors made the place completely believable.

It was also in the details. For a world to feel ‘living’ it needs to feel ‘lived in’, and posters on walls, pancakes stuck on ceilings, quarters left in broken telephone boxes and stains left on carpets accomplish this far more than a legion of nameless NPC’s walking around aimlessly ever will. The more packed with smaller details an environment is, the greater we should be able to identify with it, and the more satisfaction we’ll proberbly receive from exploring it. There is more back-story in the things scattered around my computer desk than there is to be found in the entirety of ‘Saint’s Row’s’ city of Stilwater. Another name given to these games is ‘sandbox’, a term made to describe a game where the player has access to a number of ‘toys’ in a confined space, but actually these game worlds could often be better compared to playing paintball in a desert.

Another good example would be ‘The Sims’. The hours upon hours I would spend tending to a single sim living in a tiny three-room bungalow is testament to what a real ‘sandbox’ game should be. Why was ‘The Sims’ so captivating and addictive to so many? Maybe it was down to the fact that everything in the environment was built, bought, chosen and placed there by you. Objects had a history, like the big TV you bought when Dave finally got that promotion bonus, that cheap cooker in the corner of the kitchen that set fire and burnt to death the woman you had him commit to marrying for so long, or the gravestone amongst the trees outside where her body now lay. Will Wright proved to designers that size really doesn’t matter when creating a world of depth and belonging.

So I ask for a change of environmental approach. ‘The Elder Scrolls IV’ was a brilliant game, but I found ‘Psychonaut’s’ Psychic Summer Camp far more memorable than Cyrodiil, a trashy house in ‘The Sims’ far more captivating than the triple cities within ‘Assassin’s Creed’, as beautiful as they were. Technology is always advancing, making possible the likes of ‘Mass Effect’ and ‘Crackdown’, but why jump to the large when there’s so much left to explore in the small?


Michael said...

Very interesting and thoughtful post, Billy. I'm ashamed to admit that for whatever reason, I never got around to playing "Day of the Tentacle." I plan to remedy that soon, and it helps that the game is manageable in length. With limited time and many games to play, it matters to me when a good game won't require 30 of my precious hours to complete.

Billy King said...

It's manageable in length until you get completely stuck, but that won't start happening until a few hours in (by which time you'll hopefully be so engrossed that spending 30 hours to figure it out seems worthwhile).

Thanks for the comment. I never expected the Brainy Gamer to be the first to post!