This is the internet, a digital dreamscape where fantasies are allowed to rage unbound. Frequently this power is used to multiply the number of penises on anthropomorphic foxes, but today let’s spin a yarn of only slightly less incredulity. Let’s say you’re on a blind date. You’re excited because your social graces, honed to precision through years of Doritos and Maury Povich, have long lain dormant from disuse. She arrives and boy… boy is she messed up. Her nose is skewed, her face scarred, she has an eyepatch, and her hair is cut very short and dyed green. As you mumble hi you timidly shake her hand.
Looks like you won’t be spending this evening at your desk, lovingly dubbed “The Op Center.”
As cut and calloused fingers close around your hand, a grip far stronger than yours opens your eyes wide with surprise. You exchange platitudes and inevitably discuss your vocations. She seems mildly impressed that you’ve made manager at the Cinnabon (it took two years, after all), but after hearing her occupation, suddenly all your fear and worry turns into fevered dreams about the boastful posts you’ll be making on 4chan the next day. Why?
Because you just landed a date with an ultra ninja rockstar commando assassin.
Suddenly this girl went from jacked up to downright hot. Things in this world are situational, and almost anything can be excused in the right circumstance. Even though I must use a transition that is far too abrupt and jarring, videogame developers can use this to their advantage as well. Limitations – technical or otherwise – can prevent studios from creating the sort of game they originally envision. Usually developers ram their heads against these limitations, struggling fruitlessly against them and hoping that players won’t terribly mind any resultant gameplay shortcomings. As anyone who has spent time with gamers will tell you, they aren’t accepting of much.
Instead, the clever designer will embrace the limitation, work around it, and set the stage in such a way that makes these limitations much less obvious. EA Montreal’s Skate It exemplifies this perfectly. Porting the Skate experience to the Wii was a delicate challenge. The Little White System that Could offers a number of freedoms not available on the 360 / PS3 – namely in the area of player input. EA Montreal jumped all over this by fully incorporating the balance board for what is hands-down the most immersive skateboarding game made to date. Sadly, EA Montreal didn’t think to include mall cops with the game to shout at you while you play. I guess there’s always Skate It 2.
Yep, even more realistic than that. They said it couldn’t be done.
The Wii also comes with some obvious limitations. As any resident forum-dweller will tell you, the Wii has the computational powers of a solar calculator (one of those plastic Dora the Explorer ones). The developers had to stare down one cold, hard reality — Skate It would never, in any quantum universe, look as good as its cousin on more powerful hardware. Most developers would try to push the graphics as far as they would go and hope that the new controls would make up for it, but EA Montreal did something much more elegant.
Skate It takes place in San Vanelona just like the other Skates, only during a nebulous natural catastrophe known as "the disaster too gnarly to be named." This provides a setting with a number of natural and convenient benefits. The first is that, due to the disaster, all the inhabitants of San Vanelona have been evacuated. This neatly excuses the fact that the Wii simply can’t draw several pedestrians milling about and still maintain a playable framerate. Additionally, representing ruined structures with simpler geometric shapes is not as instantly offensive to the eye. If you see a gigantic blurry box that’s supposed to be an office building, you’ll immediately balk. A gigantic blurry mess of squares and triangles that’s supposed to be rubble, on the other hand, isn’t quite so grating. It’s rubble after all, it’s supposed to look like a jacked up mess.
That’s not to say the wool is completely pulled over players’ eyes. It is a Wii game, after all, and sometimes it looks downright awful, but the emotional impact is significantly reduced by setting the stage properly. The implication is sneaky — it doesn’t look that way because the Wii can’t handle anything better, it looks that way because it’s supposed to.
Bethesda worked some equally clever magic in the downtown DC areas of Fallout 3. Creating a ruined urban area presents a number of design limitations. Street upon street of ruined building would look bland. Players would get bored, not to mention lost. Additionally, while a complete, intact building has simple geometry and texturing, a semi-crumbled building requires more varied textures and geometry. Additionally, creating a whole city of uniquely destroyed buildings would make any art director’s head explode.
I find it poetic that this is one of the first image results for a Google image search of “Fallout 3.”
There are a number of problems here – the game needs a place to purge old texture data from memory and load new stuff in, the player needs to see different environments to keep from getting bored, and artists need to focus their efforts on a few poignant areas instead of a massive, sprawling city. They accomplished this by breaking downtown into a few enclosed areas connected by underground subway tunnels (to varying degrees of success, depending to whom you ask). This gives the player an illusionary sense of scale for the city while not actually having to make the whole damn thing, and keeping the environments fresh along the way. The game has a convenient place to load up new texture data, and designers can focus on smaller areas, keeping the game dense.
Limitations are going to be a part of the creative process in games, that’s just an eventuality that every artist has to accept. Instead of just struggling against and ultimately resigning to these limitations, why not acknowledge them, own them, and ultimately incorporate them? A bit of clever sleight of hand can excuse even the most annoying gameplay.