Text vs. 2d vs. 3d - A look at immersive experiences across formats

You may have noticed that just about every game today is done in three dimensions. Even card games have cute little shadow effects. These days, form is seen as just as important as function everywhere; Take a look at a Ram truck sometime.

 

Some of us, however, remember being totally engrossed in games that didn't even HAVE graphics. Zork, Wishbringer, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, or even the original Oregon Trail (Thank you, MECC!) These games were on systems too primitive to display any kind of remotely convicing graphics -- Where do you put a photographic image when all you have to work with is a floppy drive?

Mind you, this really is progress, even if it's not strictly necessary. We've truly come a long way from "Kill the troll with the nasty knife". These days, you can see the troll, identify it as a troll (or at least a nasty thing bent on killing you) and whack it with the knife, or the shotgun or BFG or whatever. But does this necessarily give us a more immersive experience?

The answer would seem to be "not necessarily". Some of us got a neat little feeling of awe when we made rain with the rocks or stuck the babel fish in our ear. Those games gave us a community that traded tips when it got stuck, and the chance to step inside of a favorite book, or just run around solving puzzles in an amazing world of carnivorous man-eating plants and cryptic clues on matchbook covers.

All the earliest graphical games were, of course, two-dimensional. Nearly all of us have seen pong or one of its hundreds of descendants. The simple paddle game where you hit a square ball back and forth until someone missed it spawned both literally tens of imitators (Two were sold under the Odyssey name alone, Coleco had one named after the Telstar satellite, and so on) and many other games with a similar setup but a far higher level of technology (Most notably, Arkanoid.)

Adding graphics gave us the ability to paint what ended up being, if not realistic, at least an easily understandable picture. This is what really gave us the ability to bring games to life; It turned out you didn't need very good graphics to hold someone's attention. Consider for a moment the game Adventure for the Atari VCS (Later the 2600.) You were a small square which ran around a two-color map. You could pick up one object at a time and carry it from screen to screen. There was a sword that looked like an arrow, with which you could kill the dragons that looked like fat, vertically elongated ducks.

The point here is that many of us spent hours playing that game until we knew the mazes, could pull the key out of the gate with the magnet, and could slay dragons at a moment's notice. Not only was it state of the art at the time, but it was also a fairly well-designed game. It was difficult to get stuck in such a way that you were out of luck, though if you let a dragon chase you into the wrong place... er, oh, where was I? Right. The game was fun. It didn't need good graphics, nor did a hundred other titles on the Atari platform.

Our first brush with real 3d graphics was, amusingly enough, an Atari game called I,Robot. It used solid colored polygons rendered as a raster image (as opposed to vector scan, in which you draw actual lines.) It had no texture maps, and the polygon count was not what we'd call high by today's standards, but it was something that had never been done in a video game before. You could run around the levels and shoot at the birds, and it was all a little more real than the 2d games, even though it looked a whole lot worse, and played a lot slower than vector scan games like Star Wars which looked 3d, because it wasn't just a wireframe.

These days, you have fairly realistic graphics; The latest wave of computer games coming out on the most recent hardware today, like the Playstation 2, or on 500mhz plus personal computers with 3d accelerators, have a tendency to make you forget you're not watching a video. Notably, the intro (and gameplay) for Ridge Racer Type 5 on the Playstation 2 is very believable, if a bit plastic. To talk about why that is, we'd have to get into volumetrics, linearity, raytracing and radiosity, which is far outside the scope of this particular document.

But the point is, 3d is more powerful than ever now that we are beginning to approach photoreality in real time. As it is, it's possible to create 3d rendered objects that are indistinguishable from the real thing, or what we imagine the real thing to look like; Take a quick glance at Jurassic Park if you doubt that. The creatures in that movie looked and moved like they were living things, and we're just around the corner from being able to do that in a game you can play on your home computer, or on a console videogame system.

The problem with the recent rash of 3d games (and I use that word quite intentionally here) is that they keep popping up with bad stories or boring, unimaginative plots. Bad writing can kill anything; No amount of good writing will save a boring story. In order to have a quality game, you must do everything well. Naturally, it's easier to make a good text adventure than it is to make a good 3D game, because there's so much more to do.

Thankfully, the budgets have gone up, with the latest Final Fantasy game sucking up an estimated twenty million dollars in production costs. Of course, if they sell a copy of it to every Playstation 2 owner, they'll make their money back in spades; Today, games are sold in nearly every country in the world, and in great quantity specifically in the US, UK, and Japan. Most games in fact start their lifecycle in Japan, and if they sell well there and seem like they'll appeal to a US market, then they get a quick translation (all too quick, usually) and arrive here.

What we've been seeing lately are huge games like Final Fantasy VII or VIII, which have all the aspects of a movie; An engaging storyline, well-developed characters, excellent visual effects, orchestral soundtracks, well-developed packaging, and huge marketing budgets. Thankfully, this has brought us some beautiful games, though it's also brought us proof that throwing money at a game title doesn't make it good any more than throwing money at a movie. While many people enjoy Schwartzenegger movies like The Running Man, I doubt too many will argue that it's exactly fine cinema.

So, without being too biased, what are the finer and lower points of text, 2d, and 3d games, and what makes them good (or bad)?

Text Games

Text games have two big issues that make or break a title. First, the interface. If I can't write my commands in basic (if limited) English, I'm not interested in playing. There are plenty of text adventures that are too picky (For example, only allowing the word "Take" to be used to get an item.) Second, the writing has to be top-notch. If I see one misspelling in a text adventure, it breaks the spell. This is why the writers and the playtesters are different people. The writing also includes the plot, and if the plot is boring or unbelievable in an uninteresting way (which is going to vary from person to person, admittedly) then it ruins the game there, as well.

2d Games

This one is hard to pin down because there are so many different kinds of 2d games. There are shooters, fighting games (though those are going 3d these days), platform games, puzzle games, trivia games, and nearly anything else you can imagine has been done, but basically this covers anything that has graphics and doesn't have a 3d aspect. What makes a 2d game good, then, is going to vary broadly based on what kind of game it is. Essentially, the two big ones for me are play control and pushing the envelope of graphics. Play control is the big one, of course; A game can have bad graphics and still be fun, and I play a great number of retro games. I have more games for Sega Genesis than I do for Sony Playstation, and I play them more often. However, one of the things that really takes your breath away when playing a game is if it does have really beautiful graphics. The definition, however, of "really beautiful graphics" has changed a lot over the years, and it's been a fun progression to watch. Before the 8 bit systems came out, it was hard to get a recognizable item in gameplay, though you could draw some halfway decent pictures between stages. Pitfall on the Atari 2600 was a good example; You could tell the running figure was a human, but it didn't look much like one, outside of being bipedal and upright. However, pitfall had great graphics at the time, so it was cool anyway.

I should note that there are a number of games that are kind of halfway between two and three dimensions, and some that are not really three dimensional but are so close that they might as well be. Arguably, for a game to be three-dimensional you ought to have a pretty good amount of freedom, or at least be able to move along all three axes. Two good examples are Wolfenstein 3D, and Doom. Wolf 3D isn't really 3d, it's a 3d-appearing game on a two dimensional space. Doom, in fact, isn't truly three-dimensional either, though it's much closer; However, it cheats to preserve speed. Quake, however, is a truly three dimensional game, as evinced by the fact that you can have paths over paths.

3d Games

This brings us to 3d games, and what defines them, and what makes them worthwhile. First of all, I can not stress enough play control. What was extremely important before, in two-dimensional gaming, becomes perhaps the single most important thing here. If you can't move around your world, all that pretty three dimensional content becomes meaningless. The second item is speed, and it's a highly contested one, because how do you measure it? Do you base it on a lowest common denominator, or on the systems you'd like people to run the games on in a perfect world? This is much easier on console systems, of course, because there is only one system. Either the game runs well, or it doesn't, period. Thirdly, but no less important (because the loss of any of these factors will ruin the game) is the storyline. While this doesn't always apply, as in the case of the Atari Asteroids game we all know and love (who cares why you're blowing up asteroids? Just don't let them hit you!) it nearly always applies. A good story is part of the immersion, and you should keep the story going as you go through the game. Many games handle this with cutscenes, which is an acceptable way to handle it; Some of them give you story as you proceed through the game, solving puzzles, or collecting clues. Either way, never neglect it.

Finally, for 3d games, it's important to have your graphics look clean. This means no breaks at the vertices/edges, no pop-in (which is, unfortunately, buisness as usual), and so on. It's a lot harder to make a clean 3d game than a clean 2d game for the same reason it's harder to make a clean game with graphics than without; Complexity. The software for handling a text adventure will regularly take up only a few kilobytes. The software for handing even two dimensional graphics is rarely less than a couple hundred kilobytes, considering all it is expected to do (Graphics, sound, identifying collisions between graphic objects, and so on.) The software for handing a three dimensional game is frequently in the megabytes range (Half-Life is just over a megabyte, GL Quake is a mere 425 kbytes. Meanwhile, the entire game RC Pro-Am 2 for the Genesis takes up 256kbytes) and the complexity is, as might be expected, dramatically greater.

 

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