Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Visual Composition

     Visual composition is rather different in games to any other media; in 3D games, this is complicated by the third dimension, but the same problems can occur in 2D games, too. This is because the environment, and what the player sees, isn’t entirely under the creators control; the player moves the character, changing the viewpoint completely. This could be likened to stage design; however, the game does not play out on a set script- scripted events must be triggered by the player, and the player cannot be relied on to flawlessly play their role, otherwise there would be no ‘game’ at all.

     For a pretty literal example, check out this video of someone reaching the border of an area in Ocarina of Time using glitches; you can immediately see the huge gap between where the cliff just cuts off and the flat plane of trees hovers behind it, creating the illusion of the area being surrounded by out-of-reach forest. Needless to say, creators use tricks like this all the time (although they are significantly more refined with todays graphics) to create illusions that there is no reason the player should ever see through. However, that was a simple example- much more complicated is the art of direction via composition. A few posts ago I talked about the level design in Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy- this is exactly what I mean. After all, the difficulty in a game should always be what to do, and how to do it; never where to go. To go back to the stage metaphor, the game needs the player to ‘play their role’ in order to progress, but the player doesn’t know their lines, and cannot receive stage directions because the game itself is about figuring them out for oneself- furthermore, the game has to maintain a delicate balance between crediting the player with enough intelligence to figure out where to go and making the path obvious enough so as not to hinder exploration. A pretty good example of this done both right and wrong is actually, once again, Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Actually, almost all Zelda games suffer from this; the only way the player knows where to go next is through cutscenes. This was incredibly common in games of its time, but Zelda (not just OoT, but all Zelda games) has no excuse, being brought down by what it boasts: a huge, lush world to explore. In many games (although this method of direction is fairly lazy) the player can usually assume that they should go to the place they haven’t been yet, or the only way that isn’t blocked off. But in OoT you step out into Hyrule Field and the only way you know to head to the castle is because you’re told to. And if you’re the type to skip through the text dumps (in which case, to be fair, Zelda probably isn’t for you), you’re on your own. There’s so much to explore and so many things to do that trial and error just doesn’t really work here. And then the game delivers a HUGE “screw you” in the form of making it near-impossible (that is, an experienced player who knows the trick might just about make it in time) to reach the castle before nightfall, when the drawbridge goes up and you’re surrounded by endless hoardes of skeletons. The very first Zelda was the worst; not only is there absolutely no way of knowing where the next dungeon is, you don’t even have to go into the cave on the very first screen. If you were to simply walk in any other direction, deciding to explore the cave later, you would be wandering around completely defenceless.

     However, in contrast to the overworld, dungeons in Zelda games have always been ingenious in their construction. As soon as the player finds the new piece of equipment in the dungeon, everything falls into place; puzzles suddenly make sense, new doors are opened, and the way to the boss gradually becomes clear. As soon as you get the bow, you know you’re headed through the door with the shootable eye above it, once you have the mirror shield and discover how to bounce light at certain symbols, the rooms with symbols and beams of light suddenly make sense.

     And so, to finish, let’s take a look at how leading the player on can be used to hilariouseffect (skip to about 4:30 to 5:30 to see what I mean).

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