Wandering Above a Sea of Fog (February 2022)

Another month is here! The world sure does keep on spinning, doesn’t it? In addition to everything going on, you know, out there in the world, I have been extremely busy making things big and small. They are either private or NDA projects, so not well suited to a public blog. It has been very fun, but has left only the time to dabble a little in this month’s massive releases. But that dabbling, and especially the conversations around those releases, have got me feeling a lil’ Martin Scorsese about the state of the industry.

We are living in the thick of the open-world era. The conventions of the Ubisoft model have been spreading through AAA games for over a decade now and show no signs of stopping. In fact, I do not believe it is possible for it to stop. The overwhelming anticipation and celebration of open-world reimaginings of game franchises feels to me like an extension of the undaunted centuries of domination of perspective drawing in art history. It is the logical ramification of a trend that was set long before our grandfathers’ grandfathers’ were born, and it may easily outlive videogames. To explain this, I will need to summarize some history. It will unfortunately be a bit crude and reductionist, so I hope the experts among you will forgive my quick and dirty attempt and please correct me with details.

Raphael’s The School of Athens

Western culture, as part of its colonialism, has championed the superiority of perspective techniques in art since the 15th century. Drawing in perspective is a technology that was developed as a science and deployed as proof of providence against “lesser” peoples. The artists in Europe were the best in the world, the argument goes, because they could render scenes that warped and bended in ways that mimicked human bifocal sight. Deviance from this paradigm in other parts of the world was dismissed as savagery, even as techniques from African and Eastern art were appropriated as Cubism and other expressions of the reactive Modernism movement. Rendering in perspective thus became a global default mode of image making as all artists had to engage with the expectations carried by imperialism.

I bring this up not to say that perspective drawing itself is problematic or bad, but to contextualize our present moment. We live in a global culture that has been trained for generations to prioritize the horizon line and the reproduction of bifocal sight. Our tastes are informed by art history. Those tastes are well known to marketers and developers, who have a commercial interest in satisfying mass market expectations for visual beauty.

Wizardry (1981) and The Portopia Serial Murder Case (1983)

In videogames, the race to develop 3D graphics was part of this hegemony of perspective visuals. Even before the technology was capable of rendering real-time polygons, games tried to emulate a “3-D perspective” using static images, vector lines, and crude sprites. Early dungeon crawlers like Wizardry attracted audiences with its crude vector based first-person perspective, and adventure games like King’s Quest and Myst would leverage static background images to give scenes the illusion of perspective. Even on underpowered machines like the Famicom, Yuji Hori’s Portopia squeezed clever sprite allocation to achieve a perspective effect. When the Super Famicom released in 1990, its shiniest new feature was “Mode 7” which scaled a single texture in pseudo-3D space. This technology formed the basis for its graphical showcase launch title, F-Zero. In all of these examples, the novel presence of perspective gave weight and legitimacy to the visual art, which were celebrated at the time as exceptional graphical achievements.

The early attempts at perspective suggested a potential for videogames to come. Players had been imaging and anticipating Virtual Reality decades before it could be realized. When Doom and Mario 64 arrived, they were impactful not because they created entirely new visions for games, but because they fulfilled the promise that games would have real-time, embodied perspective spaces. Why did this matter to people? Because with a perspective view, videogames could join and surpass the cultural standard of Good Art. Our subconscious values for what looks better than something else, which were formed as part of an ancient political machine, compelled us to race for 3D graphics as quickly as possible.

Of course, even today perspective is not the only rendering style used in videogames. The counterpoint to perspective is orthographic. Orthographic refers to a camera view that flattens 3D space so that parallel lines do not warp ocularly. We often see is used in overhead views for games like SimCity or side-view games like Castlevania. Orthographic renders grids without ambiguity, so it is better at communicating planar relationships in space. This makes distances and hitboxes easier to read — important stuff for many genres! Perspective, meanwhile, is better at communicating how objects relate to a single subject: the eyes of the camera. Essentially, orthographic views can be more “objective” while perspective cameras are more “subjective.”

Gear of War and Gears of War Tactics

Despite their individual strengths, in the mass market we can witness a palpable preference for game graphics that utilize a perspective horizon. While I would not say that orthographic projection is unpopular (SimCity was one of the most popular games of its time, after all), what I do feel confident saying is that when a franchise converts from orthographic to perspective the audience grows, and when a franchise loses the perspective horizon line then the audience shrinks. We can see this in the receptions to Gears of War Tactics and Hitman/Tomb Raider Go, all games that moved away from their eye-level cameras towards a more orthographic projection. These spin-offs are all critically acclaimed, but they are considered amusing diversions. They have never maintained the full audience of the horizon-line originals, nor even given the chance to entertain such ambitions. On the other side, when Grand Theft Auto and Final Fantasy and Fallout and dozens of other franchises jumped from orthographic roots to over the shoulder 3D the shift definitively established their new defaults. Because art history and technology are perceived as linear, the “jump to 3D” is assumed as a matter of fact, and overhead orthographic projection is treated as a regression.

The effect of this art history does not end there, I believe. As a mass culture we prefer images where the camera mimics our sight by warping in perspective and resting at eye-level. We want our images to look like we are there, to transport us to a virtual reality. That is why open world game design has become ubiquitous as soon as technology allowed it. “Open world” is an extension of the values pushed by perspective art. Our culture has told us for generations that the superior art is one which feels like a habitat, viewed by a subjective individual, that could stretch infinitely beyond our of sight.

The subconscious narrative goes that Europeans were advanced because their science and training could turn a flat image into a three-dimensional space. Photography then dethroned painting, as it captured that subjective reality perfectly. Cinema then became the dominant force in culture because it added motion to photography. Since then cinema has remained the sun that all other mass market culture rotates around; even if more money passes through the games market our visual imagination remains in conversation with film. But, the linear technofetishist narrative says, if games have a perspective camera at the accepted angle, and have photoreal textures, and the horizon stretches forever in an open world, then games will surpass film and become the Most Art.

People love this trajectory more than they love games. We love games, sure, but we crave virtual realities more. Games are activities, they are things that we do. But visual art history does not consider the doing of things. The hegemony will not validate activities, but what it will validate is the creation an infinite subjective reality. Centuries of art history tell us that what we, an audience, see is more important than what we do. Games are just an excuse to sit in a vast virtual habitat, and we love that.

Or we think that we will. No Man’s Sky attracted out of control fervor in the build up to its release because people were convinced that the dream of an infinite horizon would give them apotheosis. Some were convinced that No Man’s Sky would be the last game they would ever need — the fabled Forever Game that could surpass art and reality. Of course, when it actually came out people were struck by reality. No Man’s Sky is infinitely large thanks to its sophisticated and brilliant procedural generation system, but the activities within the game were simple and quickly became uninteresting to the vast majority of players. Those activities have steadily improved over the course of many updates and are celebrated by the dedicated few who have continued playing, but it still pales in comparison to the dream that so many people deluded themselves into imagining before the game became a tangible reality.

This has happened with many games before it, and will continue to happen with many games after. With very little evidence people are eager to believe that some time soon they will have a digital world that they can live in. If any attention was paid to the activities within, then there would be more questions as to how these open world formats serve a game’s play. Unfortunately it seems to take many people dozens or hundreds of hours before they ask themselves whether walking across vast, empty spaces is meaningful at all.

The foggy horizon promising a mysterious yet conquerable world in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog has been reproduced ad infinitum by game marketing

This has been a very long way around to say that I have been playing a little Pokémon Legends: Arceus and Elden Ring. I have not spent nearly enough time with either to dig into them deeply, but the reception to both crystalized my feelings on this topic. Both games have been hailed as a sort of “coming of age” for the two mega franchises. Though they come from different backgrounds (Pokémon as a top-down pixel game and Dark Souls as a 3D action game) these latest entries are the first time they adopt contemporary open world design. The shift for Pokémon appears more radical, since it is not just a structural shift for gameplay progression but also a camera change, while Elden Ring‘s change is more subtle. No matter the scale of the change, the narrative around the two has been the same: These games are finally realized visions.

Witnessing this consensus emerge for Pokémon Legends has been eye opening. Pokémon has come of age by offering expansive vistas and a shoulder level camera. All other elements of the game experience can deteriorate, and it scarcely matters. The visual fidelity can plummet, the programming can run unoptimized, the gameplay systems can be made tedious, the art directions can clash, the writing can strike out, the sound design can falter, the animations stiffen, and none of that keeps this game from being a “step forward” for the franchise. For my money, the only crafts that have not suffered in the transition have been the music and the UI design, but neither of those are what I would consider best in the series, and certainly not strong enough to carry critical reception of a game. This is now heralded as the hopeful new default for Pokémon games going forward, on the adoption of its culturally validated camera alone.

I have heard the argument that the game has resonated because the gameplay is better, and that its success signals a victory of good game design triumphing over poor visual art. However, I do not believe it. The improvements that have been described are a streamlined UX, tedious battle menus cut out, the gym structure being discarded, and how nice it is to quickly catch Pokémon without having to always battle them. These changes are all subtraction. This is, perhaps, a cruel conclusion, but these are improvements only to people who do not like playing Pokémon games. Not to say they are not for fans of Pokémon! Many a Pokémon superfan has expressed their love for this game. But I think generally people like the idea of Pokémon more than they like Pokémon games, and that is why they like Legends: it is the idea of a Pokémon game. One that is validated by tastes formed from hundreds of years of reinforcement as to what art should be.

There is a chance I will spend more time with Pokémon Legends and get hooked on the gameplay of sneaking up on large monsters and dodge rolling away from attacks. But in the hours I have given it, it has not given me satisfaction or made any of my efforts feel well spent. The long term playability of the game is almost irrelevant — like with No Man’s Sky what brings people to purchase a game is a dream. The dream promised by Pokémon Legends is that now you can inhabit the world of Pokémon. The horizon is the limit, go out and explore. We are attracted to that dream of a virtual reality, and what better reality to live in than Pokémon’s? That dream is all people need, the game is just an excuse. A dream medium.

I have less to say about Elden Ring, but I believe the trend is the same. The changes are more subtle, and I am much less experienced with FromSoftware’s repertoire than many of the other people discussing this game. I also have to disclose that I know people who work at Bandai Namco, so I am limiting the scope of my opinion to avoid my biases. Elden Ring‘s mandate is obvious, though. It seeks to expand the series beyond its relatively niche roots to compete against the likes of Horizon: Zero Dawn and Assassin’s Creed, which have been at a higher mass market weight class despite Dark Souls‘ popularity and influence. To do so it has adopted their open world conventions. This, coupled with the billing of world famous fantasy author George R.R. Martin, have made Elden Ring the most anticipated game of this year. It was not Martin’s involvement that has made it an instant critical success, though. The open world design is what has captivated players and had them celebrating a new evolution that they hope will become the default going forward.

As with Pokémon, I am skeptical about this uncritical celebration. There is not the same broad deterioration of craft as there is in Legends, but the new format is not a universal improvement. Its biggest benefit is that the open world design is more accessible to a broader player base, because a difficult section can be abandoned and beneficial experience or gear can be attained elsewhere so the player will be better equipped when they return. This is like how a puzzle game can be ground to a halt if the player is stumped on one puzzle, so contemporary puzzle design offers puzzles in batches so that there is always possible activity. This is a very valuable change to the Dark Souls series, which is notoriously difficult and has many players dropping off early. However, the open world solution is an imperfect implementation. What challenges are there, where the player should go, and how long it takes to reach there are all obscured. Typically, this series tightly curates these questions. It is by design. By going open world, Elden Ring does the opposite of design. Players now assume the burden of getting lost, finding their way, choosing what they need and when, and crossing large distances without any certainty that the effort is meaningful. Dark Souls is known for asking a lot from its players, so I don’t mean to disparage the existence of friction. The issue is that the activity is not meaningful. In one of the few pieces I saw take a critical eye to open world design, Renata Price described Elden Ring‘s traversal as frictionless. It is made to be as easy as possible because it is a band-aid to the fact that it must exist at all. Traversing in Elden Ring is a lost opportunity. It is a new problem introduced by the open world conventions that are still in want of a solution. Those of us who hoped that FromSoftware’s designers, who are among the best in the world, could have matched their brilliance in combat design with a revolution in open world design are left a little disappointed.

FromSoftware changed the course of contemporary game design by respecting the player. The Dark Souls games are demanding, but they trust the player to develop their abilities and reward them with satisfying experiences for that effort. The people who climb their mountain are all happy they have done so. Even though FromSoftware’s games drop cruel traps and force players to repeat arduous challenges, they never waste the players’ time. It is all valuable. This is why it stings to sacrifice the tightly designed gauntlets on the alter of open world conventions. It is now much easier to waste time. Elden Ring doesn’t disrespect the player, but it does stumble and apologize and concede. We have a big game now. It is vast, you can explore all over, a new virtual reality. I hope that dream is worth it. We can’t go back. Our values, imbedded in imperialism almost as old as Elden Ring‘s ruins, can’t imagine it.

This essay owes a debt to this paper from Dominic Arsenault, Pierre-Marc Côté, and Audrey Larochelle from the University of Montreal. I first encountered the ideas in Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware, where the Super Famicom’s Mode 7 was given a similar art history context.

What other stuff have I played this month?

  • Fire Emblem Heroes (iPhone)
    • The 5th anniversary celebration was this month, and it got me to give this game a proper go now that I have completely poisoned my brain with Fire Emblem games.
    • For those unfamiliar, this game takes the horny chess tactics game and micronizes it to a miniature gatcha version.
    • Only four units can be brought into battle, and the field is a 6×8 grid. Tinier than a chess board!
    • As with most gatchas, characters are unlocked through a lottery system that is paid with a resources that slowly becomes harder to acquire without paying money for. Fire Emblem has a 700+ character roster, so it is good fodder for this system!
    • I have barely touched my orb stockpile, though, because I quickly stumbled into an unbeatable team.
      • Edelgard is a tank who can absorb serious damage and has a guaranteed counter attack to nearly every blow she receives, including magic attacks (which would normally be a tank’s weakness). Crucially, she heals back half the damage she deals out. I buffed her attack so she deals a looooooot of damage, letting me drop her straight in the action and usually seeing her health still capped out after being dogpiled.
      • I use Yuri to chuck Edelgard into enemy lines. He has special abilities that allow him to swap places with someone after moving, and then to move again after taking an action. So I run into battle with him, swap him for Edelgard who can still move and attack, then move him back up to meet her. He has ranged attacks, so I can keep him behind her wall.
      • Eldigan is a dragon riding dancer, meaning he can fly over terrain other units cannot and then give an adjacent unit an extra turn. I usually use him to give Yuri and extra turn and a chance to attack after chucking Edelgard.
      • Lastly, I have Evelyn for healing. She is a horse rider, so she can travel farther than normal healers. She also has a Physic staff, which lets her heal at a distance and occasionally heals my entire party at once. I have no trouble keeping her out of harm’s way and healing the squad if anyone falls into trouble.
    • Astonishingly, these characters are also among my favorites from the entire franchise roster. So I really don’t have any motivation to collect more!
    • Usually gatcha games hold onto player’s long term motivations by dangling desirable characters at nearly unreachable distances, but I have so far been completely happy to just have little chess puzzles to tap away at during breakfast.
    • After a month I am sweeping all the asynchronous multiplayer matches I have been in, but I am certain that will change as it sorts me into higher tiers. Eventually the game’s challenges will scale and it will force me to hunt for new characters to form new strategic teams, but so far not!
    • Despite this being the game I have had the best time with all month I do not recommend it to anybody. This is my hell pit to live in.
  • Hunt: Showdown (PS4)
    • Last month I wrote about a hunting game so I thought it was be funny to write about a completely different hunting game with a similar name for this month. I changed plans, though, because there is almost nothing I can say that this video by Super Bunnyhop doesn’t say better. Everyone I know who has played this game has done so because of that video, and he’s not wrong about any of it; the game is good!
    • You got squads of players racing to find a lovecraftian monster lurking in one of several dilapidated buildings surrounded by fields of zombies. Whoever kills the beast gets a token that must be carried out of one of the map’s exits to win. Players can kill each other and claim the token, which naturally transforms the experience partway through from player vs environment to player vs player.
    • I described this game to my parents by saying it was like Predator, but make it Frankenstein. That’s not a good description at all, but they said they got it?
    • I played a handful of rounds with my brother and it was so much fun. The zombies lumbering around made for engaging combat challenges that filled the gulf of time between battling other human players. It made the pacing feel more flush than a battle royale game, which are always very staccato.
    • I can’t get into this for NDA reasons, but a lifetime ago I worked on a game that had a very similar mandate to Hunt: Showdown. That project transformed so completely that it is unrecognizable now, but it was very surreal and humbling for me to play this game and see it accomplish design challenges that I thought were impossible. There is a lot of invisible work that is handled masterfully, and it could have collapsed very easily.
    • Okay you know what, forget what I said earlier this was the most fun game I played this month. Get it on PS4 and play with me.

POST-POST SCRIPT: Are you kidding me they already announced another open world Pokémon game coming out this year??? Here I was feeling like you’d have to pay me to spend more time with Arceus, those cute new monsters are about to get me into paying for another one, aren’t they.

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2 responses to “Wandering Above a Sea of Fog (February 2022)”

  1. […] Wandering Above a Sea of Fog (February 2022) Esteban Fajardo draws association between our recent elevation of open-world games with the west’s long-standing elevation of perspective art technique. […]

  2. […] Wandering Above a Sea of Fog (February 2022) Esteban Fajardo draws association between our recent elevation of open-world games with the west’s long-standing elevation of perspective art technique. […]