Cheeseburger, Plain

This year, I turn 35. I am long past the age when I realized some things make me feel old. It was extremely depressing the first time I looked at a hot college girl and realized I was in high school when she was born. It was extremely depressing the year I realized that me and spicy food just don’t mix. (However, I did get a large amount of reading done that year.) As a gamer, it is really strange to be able to explain to my Castlevania-obsessed nephew about how a large majority of the games in that series over the last 25 years are about Simon Belmont’s relatives, and to remember playing all of them when they first came out (when I was 10).

Whether it is age or just my natural propensity toward nitpicking remains to be seen – but it seems that the older I get, the more certain things annoy me, both in gaming and in life. The thought that has been lately whipping my brain into a fevered desire to lecture all you young whippersnappers in how it was better in the good old days is that everything always has to be “taken to the next level” or everybody will think it’s lame.

I mean, if a character’s drinking a healing potion, why can’t they just, I dunno, pull a flask out of their backpack and drink it and say “ahh” as their health bar is replenished? Is it really necessary that they throw their head back and levitate in the air inside a pillar of light while the wind blows their hair around? Can a person not shoot an arrow without a giant glowing rune appearing behind them? Can a ninja not hit a man with a giant serrated edged broadsword without it looking like a fireworks factory caught fire during a landslide?

I love things that glow. I love things that sparkle. I love neon-colored stuff in general. But when I was growing up, these things meant something. It meant that you were pulling out the BIG GUNS. The glowing sword was the one that was going to KICK ASS. Games today add extra glow-trail effects to lightsabers. They’re LIGHTSABERS. They are already glowing. That is what makes them cool. You don’t have to add explosions. Make them cut something in half and make the wounds glow. That would be cool.

Why is everything so amped up? In videogames, I can see a need for this back in the days when graphics weren’t as detailed and you couldn’t really tell what was going on. In comics, you sometimes need motion lines and starburst effects to indicate motion or impact. We live in the year 2010. We don’t have flying cars yet, but we do have the ability to animate characters in such a way that I can tell when they’ve been hit with a spear without the use of a solar flare to track the weapon’s movements. Don’t believe me? Look at Heavy Rain. There are fights in that game that last several minutes and you never get bored. Exciting, grueling, viscerally interesting fights. Nothing glows, nobody reaches POWER LEVEL TEN THOUSAND OMG, nobody shoots a fireball at another person. There is no excess – there is simply good cinematography and the right cues (visual and otherwise) to engage the player. Admittedly, few games are done in the style of Heavy Rain, but its lessons can be applied to other formats.

Here’s the thing. There’s a reason they call them “special effects”. If every effect is special, then none are. They don’t make an impact anymore. It says a lot to me that the game with the fight scenes that really sticks out in my mind is the “plain” one. It also gives me the least indigestion. Now get the hell off my lawn.


  1. Dude, my grandmother actually played D&D with us once… once.

    .-= Tourq´s last blog ..Crux Tel, the Shadar Kai – Steal this Background =-.

  2. Shilling says:

    I think you may have hinted at the reason for the overdone fireworks: “simply good cinematography and the right cues (visual and otherwise) to engage the player”. Most visual artists for games aren’t actually that good at making things seem real, solid, visceral and interesting (any good visual artist can get completely lost in the amazing details of the utterly mundane). SO they distract you from the poor animations by throwing in lots of magical swirly shapes.

    They are using abstract symbols to convey what they find themselves unable to telegraph in human terms – in the straining of muscle, the beading of sweat, the gritting of teeth. You know, the little things that really speak to us. Shame.

  3. It’s the central idea of image. Businesses and industries have gotten far too used to the idea of selling image, forgetting that there’s a tradeoff on the other end, that you sacrifice substance for shiny. You’re right, they’ve gotten out of touch with the visceral, the grounded, the gritty stuff. But not just gritty. Real.

    Like Shilling says, the little things that speak to us. So much so that we have our reality, and then we have video-game reality, where things are shiny and flashy and we expect them to be that way. It’s coolness overapplied.

    The unfortunate formula goes like this:

    cool = sales
    cool++ = sales++

    forgetting that:
    cool > threshold = burnout
    cool++ = burnout

    which necessitates:
    cool++ even more to = sales

    Not that over-the-top coolness can’t be fun. *glances down at my own latest blog post…*
    .-= Andy´s last blog ..Giant Robots! Dice! OVERDRIVE! =-.

  4. You are describing why I gave up on Final Fantasy games. While fighting a giant 5-legged woodchuck exactly like the ones that you beat easily 6 levels earlier, you swing your sword using your most frequent attack mode and what rises up from behind you? Why, it’s the god that Zeus worships tipping over an entire volcano to pour the planet’s lava supply on that one, hapless woodchuck. This process takes at least 30 seconds, including at least 3 seconds of pure glamor shot, wherein the god+ flares his nostrils and furrows his left eyebrow with disdain. During this period, you get up, make coffee, check your email, and look in the mirror to see if your nostrils flare the same way. When you get back, you see the woodchuck isn’t quite dead, and wait while it runs up and slaps you with a ladle full of bingo chits, causing a giant, glowing “1” to hover momentously over your head.

    BTW — when you reach 48, you become, well, a bit snarky.

  5. While I can agree with you that some effects are too over the top, using Heavy Rain as a template is just not practical.

    That the fights were choreographed is problem number 1. Were you to translate Heavy Rain’s combat into a more free-form system where punch = triangle and dodge = square, the result would be just the same as any clumsy brawler. The hyper-realism would probably actually make it even worse, with incredibly realistic characters stumbling around in a decidedly unrealistic way. The fights only work (and very well, at that. Beat the game just a week ago) because every single move has been scripted. Take that away, and the fights would just be boring and awkward.

    From a design standpoint, there are actually practical reasons for including flare and all that beyond the “so it looks cool” factor. Lighting up moves with special effects adds a lot of distinction to every attack. In multiplayer this enables you to identify what moves your opponents or allies are doing immediately – dying because two different attacks have similar animations is just plain not fun. For singleplayer games, it remains important in differentiating your character from the chaos in the background.

    Case in point, there was a big fan uproar about Diablo 3 being “too bright/flashy” in comparison to its bleak predecessor. Some community members even Photoshopped screenshots to be more in line with what they thought was appropriate – darker, bleaker, etc. The lead artist at the time went through the pictures one by one and explained why that just doesn’t work for gameplay – you have to be able to differentiate between your character and enemies at ALL times, and what is the point of having several attacks if they only have minor aesthetic differences?

    The whole article can be found here:

    Again, I agree that these effects can be distracting when used in excess, but their existence is more meaningful than you might think.

  6. I definitely agree with your general sentiment that a lot of pointless graphics around simple actions is a bad thing, but I think if it was to be made into an actual argument then several more examples would need to be given. For instance, Michelle’s example for not playing Final Fantasy games is very specific and in my experience with any of the FF games (older or recent ones) it sounds more like conjecture than anything of actual substance.

    I can definitely see what you’re talking about being a big problem, but maybe I just haven’t played the right games to experience it that much yet.

  7. That’s it I’m naming my baby Vanir
    I’ll name my dog Vanir.
    I’ll get a table with a veneer.
    .-= Trevor´s last blog ..Achievment: =-.

  8. Bartoneus: I dunno, I had that exact problem with FF7 which is why I never finished it. When I watched The O beat it, fighting the final boss just involved casting “Knights of the Round” over and over again took forever and completely killed the tension for me.

  9. “The thought that has been lately whipping my brain into a fevered desire to lecture all you young whippersnappers in how it was better in the good old days is that everything always has to be “taken to the next level” or everybody will think it’s lame.”

    Hey, I agree with you on this. Back in the day, in many RPGs, PCs actually were mortals in games, instead of superheroes in armor at low levels. I know your big focus is on the visual side, but that’s one of my big complaints about tabletop culture.
    .-= LordVreeg´s last blog ..edited Flaming Skull =-.

  10. you can avoid indigestion by eating high fiber foods.”**

  11. now, i am suffering from bad indigestion and sometimes it is painful too.`;*