Thursday, November 15, 2018

Uneven Polish

I already talked about Red Dead Redemption 2 in the last blogpost so I'd rather not focus on it entirely again here.  Having said that, playing more of the game has made me think long and hard about realism in video games.  When you have something like two-thousand employees and five years to work on a game, it's impressive what you can do in terms of realism.  Still, resources are always finite and developers must ultimately make hard choices regarding what to emphasise and what not to.

Having a truly realistic simulation is a pie-in-the-sky goal; something that developers might strive for, but never actually achieve.  Instead, it comes down to choosing what to focus on.  One aspect of Japanese game design that I find endlessly amusing is their willingness to circumvent difficult bits of design work if it doesn't add much in terms of gameplay.  Take, for example, pouring a drink, eating some food, or even changing one's shoes.  Trying to model these interactions requires complex fluid dynamics, object collision meshes or texture deformation.  In other words, it's a programing nightmare.  So why bother when it can be faked via a clever mix of camera angles and blocking scenes?  The hassle of making pick-up/put-down, open/close, and eat/drink animations was bypassed in the first couple of Resident Evil games by cutting to menu or loading screens.  Is it great visually?  No.  Does it save the developers a mountain of work.  Yes...and by doing so allows resources to be put toward other more paramount features.

So, what are these paramount features then?  It varies from game to game.  It also depends on the genre.  Tight controls matter a lot more in a fighting game than they do in a walking simulator.  Seamless transitions don't matter much in a turn-based strategy game, but they are pretty important in open-world action/adventure games.  Those are some of the more clear cut examples, but there are times when the decisions on what to dedicate development resources toward is a lot less obvious.

Animation priority is one of those areas where the designers have to make a hard choice between precise controls or realistic movement.  I tend to lean in the direction of the former more than the latter in terms of personal preferences, but some of my all-time favorite games (Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and the Souls series) place their priorities firmly in the animation-over-input camp.  Meanwhile, games such as Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, Ninja Gaiden, and Vanquished (all known for having snappy, responsive controls) failed to hold my interest.  Hmmm...maybe this is a case of me saying I want one thing even though I actually prefer the other?  I can certainly see why some players would find it frustrating to play games that give priority to animation though.  Seeing something bad about to happen and being powerless to do anything about it is rarely a fun experience.  Then again, sometimes bad controls aren't necessarily a problem if the game accounts for the limitations they impose.

Tank controls are a great example of this.  If the kind of enemies you're up against are slow moving, then the lack of player character agility isn't such a huge problem.  If the enemies are fast and nimble thought...well, you've just introduced a receipt for aggravation.  Another example is aiming assists.  It helped make those awkward fixed camera angles more bearable up until the franchise switched to an over-the-shoulder perspective in Resident Evil 4.  Conversely,  Rockstar titles, starting with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, have used a snap-to aiming system that has made the gameplay I bit more tolerable to folks like me who have been spoiled by mouse and keyboard shooters.

These solutions circumvent the problems, but they don't really solve them.  Surely a more elegant solution must exist?  Perhaps more resources should have been directed to them?  I sometimes feel that way about Read Dead Redemption 2's menus, controls and tutorials.  As is, it's a case of some parts being polished smooth while others still feel a bit rough. 

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