Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Directness of the Experience, and a Note on the First-Person Perspective

One element I love about the original Thief games is the directness of the play experience in them. This is an element of many older games, when cinematics and highly-detailed visual graphics were not an expected part of the experience. Low-polygon, or ‘blocky’ visual graphics allowed for the construction of larger, more intricate environments—without any ‘load zones’ breaking the experience—and also for a more direct connection between the player and the game environment.

            Look at recent games such as Dishonored (2012) or even the Thief reboot from 2014: the highly-detailed, cinematic scenery of the gameworld looks nice, but most of it is blocked off from the player, by either “invisible walls” or constructs such as large fences or stone walls. And if it isn’t blocked off, it can only be connected to at certain, predetermined points.

            This isn’t always the case. Dishonored did a good job of allowing the player to “blink”—or, fly forward, in the air, towards a ledge or platform—to most surfaces or ledges in the gameworld. But it doesn’t match to Thief and Thief II’s allowance for the player to climb or mantle up onto every surface in the game environment, whether it leads to anything or not. The 2014 Thief reboot is worse. Navigating its environment feel very clunky, and the connection with the buildings in the game world, as the player climbs about them, is indirect. Also, in Thief and Thief II, you can attach a rope arrow to any wooden surface. In the 2014 Thief, a rope arrow can only be attached to wooden beams predetermined, by the designer, to be ‘rope-arrow-attachable.’

Not just in the 2014 Thief, but in many new games, most of the game environment is just scenery that can’t be explored or interacted with. A pile of highly detailed barrels and boxes on the side of the street is, in feel, no different than a pile of solid cement would be. In Thief and Thief II, the player can jump on, touch, mantle, and, in general, interact with just about anything in the gameworld. Such freedom may lead to more easily being able to break the game, and it does depend on low-polygon, simple graphics. But these tradeoffs are worth the more direct experience, and make the game more fun.

A point to go along with this is that the first-person perspective in the Thief games is very important. (Though Thief III offers an optional third-person perspective, the game begins, by default, from the first-person view.) First-person gives the player a direct visual connection to the game environment. For a game like Thief, where atmosphere and non-linear exploration are important, the first-person perspective is key. It eliminates a barrier, and thus allows the player to get ‘straight’ to the experience.

This ‘barrier’ is the additional layer the player must deal with in third-person games of manipulating a polygonal character on the screen. For platformers like Rayman 2, third-person is key—playing platform game from the first-person perspective would not work well. Jumping across several platforms, as they move and so forth, requires a far-back, distant perspective. But Thief, an immersive sim, needs the first-person; controlling a camera, essentially what first-person is, allows for a more direct connection to the environment, key for a game where the exploration thereof is so vital.

(A third variant in more current games are first-person games where, though the player sees through the main character’s eyes, there is a still a body being manipulated; and so the camera, rather than being free floating, is like on the face of a person. Thief III itself is like this, which gives that more clunky movement, and less a sense of direct connection to the game environment, as the first two Thief games have.)

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