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Saturday, 27 April 2013

Games from a parallel universe

A decade is a long time in gaming. I look back at my book Game Architecture and Design, co-written by Andrew Rollings, and it's clear how different today's triple-A games are. (Technologically, that is.)

GAD is a big book. If you're in the interrogation business and waterboarding isn't getting results any more, consider investing in a copy. A couple of clouts around the lugholes with this meaty tome and those terrorists will be singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" with at least as much enthusiasm as Roseanne Barr.

One problem Andrew and I had was that we needed to discuss the concept and design stage of games without referencing real games whose creators would not have appreciated our putting words in their mouths. Where time didn't permit us to interview those creators, we got around it by making up games that could stand as generic examples of their genre. Andrew and I both being physicists, this came as naturally to us as starting with the case of a spherical cow.

It worked perhaps a little too well. For a couple of years after that, I'd have people asking me in job interviews how they could get hold of games that we'd actually only dreamt up to make a specific point. Then, looking at GAD the other day, I realized that some of those examples do make for quite tantalizing game concepts. And, since we quite often end up talking about games or gamebooks that might have been, here's one. This is just as it appeared in the GAD chapter on "Look and Feel" back in 2004, by the way, so you'll have to make allowance for the ten-year-old comparisons:

The world of Gaze is La Vista, a single vast city that is technologically advanced (electric cars, computers, surveillance satellites) but socially conservative.

Our first view is a gray, unchanging surface that is moving like a featureless landscape below us. Then, catching sight of an observation port, we are able to take in the shape and size of what we're looking at. We realize the gray material is the skin of a dirigible, which moves slowly away like a weightless ocean liner to reveal...

…the retro-futuristic cityscape of La Vista. This is the city of the future as imagined in the 1930s and 1940s: vast office blocks, streets like canyons, gleaming skyscrapers of concrete and glass catching the sun. It's bright, clinical, and overwhelming.

Our viewpoint descends through wisps of cloud around the highest buildings. Recall the futurist architecture of the Third Reich, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the Empire State Building, The Hudsucker Proxy. The quality of the light is hazy; the daylight turned to brass close to street level by the fine dust of those swept-clean city streets. Sleek cars like huge cryo-capsules whoosh down tarmac avenues on silent tires. Looking along the block, the avenue goes on and on until lost in the distance, unchanging like a reflection in a pair of blue mirrors.

The crowds on the streets are uniformly dressed: the men in dark suits, the women in gray or white dresses. This is not a world like ours with a dozen different fashions and colors. And that means that the occasional splash of color on a hoarding or in a window display is all the more striking.

And it's quiet. The cars are electric and make very little noise. The people hurry to work without a word. In our opening shot from high above the street, the first sound you hear is just the lawnmower hum of the dirigible's rotors.

What feature of all this is startling? We see it as the camera spirals down, taking a leisurely view of the streets and the people and then turning towards the center of the city as it reaches ground level. We're now looking into the burnished bronze glare of the sun. What we didn't see before was a massive statue that towers above the buildings, matching the highest skyscraper. At first it might evoke a resonance with the Statue of Liberty, but then we see the spiked crown, the balance, and the blindfold. This is not Liberty. It's Justice.

Main playing screen
Gaze is an action-adventure game and the main screen is a third-person view like in Enter the Matrix or Max Payne.

Something we must decide: Does the view ever cut, or is it a continuous tracking shot throughout? Grim Fandango and Dark Earth use the cut and all shots are static, allowing pre-rendered backdrops. This favors adventure games with strong storylines, because you can use the cut to create suspense: a sudden high angle with the hero far below, a shot from behind as a door opens, etc.

In such games as Tomb Raider and Enter the Matrix, the story matters less. Action is more important and so a smooth tracking shot is sustained throughout. Where every action counts, the player doesn't want to keep switching views.

The graphics engine will determine if the number of characters on screen would be an issue. It would be nice to be able to at least hint at the heaving mass of humanity filling the streets during the rush hour, so as to make more of the utterly deserted streets during the rest of the day. Obviously, the first-person viewpoint always has the advantage that it's one less character on screen. In any case, Gaze is a game of suspense and nail-biting tension rather than in-your-face bloodbath action, so, in fight sequences, we'd expect only a few opponents to be on the screen at any one time.

Our thinking on this has been that we'll probably go for a continuous third-person tracking shot most of the time, as per Max Payne, with very occasional cuts or pre-scripted camera movements at key dramatic moments.

Overview screen
Our original impression had been that, between encounter areas, we'd switch to a 2D map of the city on which you'd click to go to a new location.

The problem with that is that it's not immersive. It would be far better to have a seamless way of moving between the two views. The ideal would be to pull back from the hero in the close-up main view, and keep moving up and away until you had a high-angle shot of the city with the hero now a tiny figure down on the streets. Not quite as ideal, but almost as good, would be to start pulling out and then cut to the high-angle shot.

Obviously we'll want to keep the screen as uncluttered as possible. We'd prefer to avoid having a status bar. Instead we'll show injuries on the hero himself (a torn shirt, scratches, bruises, and so on) and by the way he's moving (bad injuries cause a limp, he hunches down nursing his arm, and so on).

Selecting items from your inventory takes you to an extreme close-up of the hero pulling items from inside his jacket, while the full range of items in the inventory is shown across the bottom of the screen. (This view will be more immersive than switching to just a clinical scroll-through item list.) You pick items using either arrow keys to get him to pull out one item after another or with function keys tagged to the full inventory of items shown at the bottom of the screen. You can reorganize items in the inventory so you'll have at hand those items you'll need in a hurry.

We need to decide how to handle items that are dropped. We could say you can deposit items only at a storage locker, say. Otherwise, it's possible to get a very cluttered screen with far too many objects on it. Another way is to have a generic "dropped object" graphic and you discover what the object(s) is/are only when you pick up that graphic.

For character style, think of those chunkily drawn private eyes in big suits that you get in comic strips from the 1940s. Bob Kane, creator of Batman, seems to have been the main influence on that style.

What we’re envisaging is that most people in La Vista (the city) seem heavy set and move a little stiffly. Their chiseled features evoke a robotic impression. Don't make too much of all this, though; be subtle. Just because they're conformists doesn't mean they have to stumble around like sleepwalkers!

But our hero, Bracken, is a free spirit, not a cog in the machine, and the graceful way he moves tells us that. The same is true of Gaze, the mysterious woman for whom the hero is searching and who seems to hold the key to changing this stagnated world. When we get to animating the characters, it will help to think of Bracken as a hawk: proud, swift, capable of both fierce concentration and ferocious activity. Gaze is a tropical fish: fragile, languid, ethereally beautiful. The incidental characters share a kind of late ‘40s uniformity so, to mark a contrast with that, imagine the protagonists cast as silent-movie era stars: Rudolph Valentino for Bracken, Louise Brooks for Gaze.


  1. Sounds like a cool game. Where can I get it?

    J/K ;)

    In all seriousness, that does sound like a cool world. I actually really like seeing the snippets of ideas that never went anywhere. They're heavy with promise of what might have been.

    1. Thanks, Ashton. I'll post up some more might-have-beens before too long. Ah, if only Kickstarter had been around 8 years ago, I could have done some of these projects with the amazing team-mates I had at Elixir Studios. *sigh*