Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sweat the Details (or Why I Love Scoggins)

The devil is in the details. That's the whole basis of the uncanny valley, after all. The details don't really exist until we reach a certain point of fidelity, at which point those small variations from reality become more and more noticeable. The more there is that's right, the more the wrong stands out. The uncanny valley is normally discussed in terms of representing human beings, but importance of detail is selling a place/conversation/idea as "real" is still tremendously important. We just don't end up with something as creepy as this when we're not talking about simulating people.

This has certainly been discussed elsewhere before, but I recently finished a game thinking about this again. I'll leave you to guess which it could be for a moment, to briefly discuss how not paying attention to the details can do significant harm to a game's ability to immerse.

Scott over at Experience Points does a great job of breaking down the lack of attention to detail in Heavy Rain. Unlike contemporary film and television, games rarely use the modern world as a setting. Even when they do, they're either laden with the supernatural or isolated to areas the vast majority of the audience is unfamiliar with (e.g. Normandy or the nameless battlefields of the Middle East and Central Asia). Becoming even more grounded than their last release, Fahrenheit, Quantic Dream went to great lengths to make it clear Heavy Rain was about making decisions in the real world.

And aside from one of the characters having reality augmentation glasses, at first, Heavy Rain seems to have hit the mark. But, as Scott so well notes, look more closely and things are odd. From the number of characters on the license plates to the dialects used by the ostensibly American characters, there's a number of small things in Heavy Rain that just aren't quite right. Some might say this is splitting hairs, but what matters is as soon as you start to notice these things, it's not possible to stop noticing them. The incongruities can pull the player out of the experience, reminding them they're not seeing a real place, not dealing with real people or real consequences.

So, which recently released game nails the details and creates a real sense of place? Well, while I do have some sense of what Normandy is like, Armadillo and Blackwater seem familiar now. But what I can really tell you is that I've been to Scoggins, Minnesota. In their latest game, Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent, Telltale has managed to evoke quite precisely what a tiny, snow-bound Minnesota town feels like. And it's not just the stuff you can pick up from listening to a couple episodes of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion.

My dad's family are all Minnesota Swedes (hence my ethnic name), so I'm probably more receptive to the Minnesota-ness than most. I never lived there for longer than a summer, so I can still feel nostalgic rather than just embarrassed. But from the innkeeper's offer to prepare the eponymous hero some "hotdish", to the Elks-but-not Lodge, it's all very familiar. Even the Hidden People are reminiscent of the stories my grandmother used to tell and fit well alongside Huygen's Gnomes (I know it's Dutch, but it's close). Apparently Graham Annable's wife is from Minnesota as well, which explains its authenticity.

(As an aside the film Drop Dead Gorgeous not only nails the absurdity of beauty pageants in small towns, but small town Minnesota in general. It's dark, but not as dark as Fargo, and hilarious. I highly recommend it.)

In terms of gameplay, it's easy to contrast Puzzle Agent against the Professor Layton series. And Layton is good, don't get me wrong. On balance, the puzzles are probably a little bit better than Telltale's. But the characters and places in Professor Layton are kind of flat. It's vaguely European by way of Japan, but I didn't find it nearly as evocative as Scoggins. And the Twin Peaks-esque sense of dread is far more interesting than Layton's G-rated mystery solving.

Of course, it can be noted that Puzzle Agent has much lower fidelity than Heavy Rain. The style of Annable's Grickle is much easier for Puzzle Agent to live up than it is for Heavy Rain to live up to reality. But maybe that's just another reason to not chase photo-realism. By choosing the stylized option, Puzzle Agent blurs focus on the details that don't matter and emphasizes those that do. Even those making more realistic games would benefit from looking at how a sleepy Minnesota town was created from extremely simple 2D artwork. Scoggins is a place far more real than the Philadelphia of Heavy Rain. We'd all benefit from thinking about why that is.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would be such a great thing to have a real aesthetic diversity in games. I can't understand why we don't see more stylized graphics.

I'm guessing sales and marketing concerns... But is it not a strength? Games like Zelda: The Wind Waker, Okami, Muramasa or -uh- DeathSpank really stand out from the crowd.

"But maybe that's just another reason to not chase photo-realism."
What would you say the other ones are?

July 20, 2010 at 11:46 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Hugo I don't really understand it either. It's harder to art direct, that's a big thing. Art direct that's more than just "as real as possible" is a risk and the biggest publishers risk-averse is nearly all measures.

But looking at smaller studios and totally indie folks, there's a lot of great experimentation with unusual art direction. Limbo, just released today, is a good example. Or Ace Team's upcoming Rock of Ages.

As for chasing photo-realism, for one, making photo-realistic assets is crazy expensive. It also requires more horsepower to push massive poly models. And at a certain point, it all starts looking exactly the same. Grab five of the modern shooters from this year's E3, mix and match the screenshots and almost nobody would be able to tell them apart.

July 21, 2010 at 11:17 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

"Games like Zelda: The Wind Waker, Okami"
One game that divided a fan community, and one that while critically successful [and one that I adore] failed financially.

I think it has to do with the market. Team Fortress 2 was part of a greater package, and people adore it now, but what if it was a stand-alone on launch?

Obviously this isn't 2007, and we're seeing a different market. One that's ready for radically different art styles. If PoP 2008 was released this year it would probably be better received. Games like Super Meatboy are lauded for a lo-fi retro look. And yes, Death Spank stands out from the rest because it's doesn't look anything like the rest.

And Nels, I was on the fence about Puzzle Agent, but you pushed me over the edge. Downloadin' now.

July 24, 2010 at 2:02 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Matador I hope you like it! It definitely hits close to home for me, but I think there's plenty of goodness there even for folks that don't wax nostalgic for the land of 10,000 lakes.

July 24, 2010 at 4:36 PM  

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