Saturday, April 12, 2014

Adventures in the Third Dimension

There's a very odd yet demonstrably reliable observation I heard from I-forget-which source. A pen-and-paper GM remarked that despite their (sometimes frustratingly) creative approaches to breaking whatever puzzles he threw at his players, they would consistently miss or be surprised by anything situated above their characters.
Gamers never look up. It's become a catchphrase. Try it with your MMO guild. See how much vertical detail they've missed despite having run through a particular location many times over.

As one example, it took me years (and at least three characters) despite having praised the majestic facade of Thorin's Hall in LotRO over and again as a successfully memorable location and example of good virtual landscaping, to notice the gigantic bust of Thorin carved into the mountainside above the entrance.

Gamers never look up. Isn't that wild? I mean, it's interesting especially when you consider that biologically, neurologically, a human is still very much a primate, having developed in a largely arboreal setting before tramping the savannah and straightening its spine. Our much-vaunted binocular vision, our startlingly powerful natural aptitude for estimating ballistic trajectories, our instinctive relegation of linguistic markers like "high" and "low" to value judgments, all point to our residual pre-human adaptation to a vertical environment.

Yet games remain flat. Here, where our imagination should soar, where that enduring simian fascination with climbing and jumping could be given free reign, we instead find ourselves exploring "maps" which are indeed no more three-dimensional than a sheet of paper. Flight simulators aside, most genres should logically be scrambling to exploit the novelty of truly three-dimensional environments, yet self-limit to horizontal levels or maps.

Gamers never look up because they've been taught there's nothing there. If you hear a sound or voice from above you in a computer game, it's more often a sign of distance than direction. It's used as foreshadowing for an upcoming boss fight. Strangely enough, it's very, very easy to imagine vertical landscapes which would fit any FPS, RPG or strategy game: a sheer mountainside riddled with crevices and overhangs, a canyon, a maze of skyscrapers or the logical setting of a cave system. This is even if we ignore the more outlandish ideas like asteroid fields, oceans, fights between zeppelins, etc.

There have been a few outstanding examples of three-dimensional games, but for the most part they've been ignored by both gamers and game-makers alike. Homeworld should by all rights have sparked a new craze of 3D RTS games yet remained a widely-acclaimed, narrowly-played anomaly, unsuccessfully copycatted a few times then forgotten. Half-life's barnacles at least forced players to look up. One of the best examples of 3D FPS was the HL mod Natural Selection with its wall-climbing, vent-crawling and occasional huge chambers through which the bat-like Lerks hit-and-ran at blinding speeds, but due in equal parts to bad luck, bad management and low funding, it failed to live up to its potential. With Half-Life2, the mod Insects Infestation took this concept even further and was even less successful.

There's something holding computer games back from true three-dimensionality (not just figurative but literal) and it goes beyond the difficulty of control. Yes, it is true that a mouse and keyboard make a poor interface for rotating in a 3D environment, and consoles have always been ahead of PC games in terms of flight simulators and dynamic platform-jumping adventures. But the examples I mentioned above gave, if not ideal, certainly workable solutions to this problem. Natural Selection and Insects Infestation intuitively incorporated (alliiiiteration, whee) wall-climbing into pre-existing strafing movement mechanics used in any FPS. Though somewhat daunting at first, Homeworld's controls used a very intuitive object-centered command system to remove as much of the tedious scrolling and rotating as possible. Developers like Gas-Powered or Ironclad have picked up on this and incorporated into mouse-zooming to great effect... but retained two-dimensional maps for Demigod and Sins of a Solar Empire, respectively.

So why don't we have games in which we rappel down skyscrapers or bounce off the walls of canyons or fight our way up waterfalls like salmon? As far as I can tell, developers are content to leave true, practical three-dimensionality to flight simulators. Do they fear their customers' fear of such novelty in RTS or FPS games? Or do they themselves simply have so little experience with the concept, being themselves former gamers who never looked up, that they are not capable of portraying environments more alien than maps and levels, warehouses and grasslands?

edit: There has been at least one reasonably popular and very creative 3D FPS game in recent history, and that's Portal. Somehow it does not jump to mind... possibly because it so aggressively avoided FPS tropes that it cannot be taken as representative of anything but itself.

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