The Little Things

I’m not quite as old as dirt, but sometimes it feels like it. In my thirty or so years of playing games, I’ve built up a cache of experiences that I draw from every time I play a new game. It’s not a conscious or purposeful thing. I don’t play games to snidely compare them to others like them. It just happens. Sometimes it’s inescapable comparisons of ‘big’ things, like gameplay, mission structure, or premise (think Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row, or BioWare and Bethesda games).

Sometimes, though, it’s the little things, and these are the things that catch me off guard and make me think about how far games have come in terms of graphics, design, and narrative. Given the casual, personal nature of this site, I want to write about some of these moments as they happen. I don’t feel like they warrant much attention, but as the whippersnappers say, ‘I do what I want.’ So this will be the first in a series of such observations and commentary.

Having said that, I’ve been playing a lot of Dying Light lately, and I’m enjoying it pretty thoroughly. I’m a fan of Dead Island, though, and this is basically Dead Mainland, so it’s no wonder I took to it so easily. Early in the game I was running around, bashing zombies repeatedly in the head with underpowered melee weapons in the bleak urban setting, when I decided to cut across one of the few grassy areas on the map. As much as the game is designed to encourage constant movement, I had to pause at the top of the hill to admire the grass and other plants.

Dying Light Field
Dying Light – Field

I don’t know if Dying Light has the most beautiful digital greenage ever, but it’s pretty dang pretty. There is a diversity in terms of size, color, and type, and the placement makes it feel like it’s fairly realistically wild, with clumps and gaps placed where it seems they should be. A static image like this does it little justice, though, as the movement of the plants as they sway adds a lot to their realism. It’s oddly calming to behold, despite leaving you utterly vulnerable to the zombies ambling around you.

After admiring the lively field for a few moments, I moved on, but my mind kept working it over. One of my first thoughts was how, as beautiful as it was, it was still far from where it would need to be to exist as a realistic simulation in terms of an immersive virtual experience. I’m hoping that the new wave of virtual reality ‘experiences’ takes off and ushers in a new era of gaming (and general entertainment), but how long will it be before I can bend over and handle a single blade of grass, pulling and tearing it realistically, zooming in to observe individual cells? How long before leaves bounce and twist according to actual laws of physics and the variable wind patterns instead of pre-programmed swaying motions? When will I be able to pluck an apple from a tree, extract the seeds and plant them in fertile soil to grow a new tree that looks different than the last, all in a virtual world where this isn’t some core piece of gameplay? To create a truly realistic virtual reality, it’s these kinds of details that would have to be addressed. But that seems so far away, right?

At this point I was back to hacking at zombie faces in the game, but the thread of thought continued. How far we’ve come. My first memory of an open field in a 3D game was my first steps on Ocarina of Time‘s Hyrule Field.

Ocarina of Time Hyrule Field
Ocarina of Time – Hyrule Field

Stepping out into this field felt magical at the time. A real world in three dimensions. Grass, trees, mountains over the horizon. When compared to recent games, of course, it’s bland and bare, closer to the wastelands of a Fallout game than a lush and realistic field. The ‘grass’ is blurry dabs of color stretched over a flat canvas, and trees are likewise flat images pasted together to give the appearance of branches and leaves.

Hey, I’m not griping. At the time this was breathtaking, and some of gaming’s top designers worked on this. But we really have come a long way in terms of not only graphical capability, but artistic cohesion when it comes to piecing graphical elements together to make a realistic world for players to traverse. If we’ve come this far in twenty years, what will another twenty do? Maybe, just maybe, I’ll live to see a virtual world where I can pull those individual blades of grass or plants those apple seeds that I got from crushing a newly plucked apple from a tree. That would be pretty neat.

 

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