Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Set-piece action.

In a break from my usual pop-culture entertainment choices of TV, movies, and video games, I recently went to see a musical.

While I was sat there in the dark, trying to hear what the actors were saying over the rustling of sweet wrappers (I'm sure someone behind me had bought a packet of pass the parcel sweets, since they took ages unwrapping them, and also helpfully waited until after the loud musical numbers had finished and the quieter dialogue sections were going on before stuffing their inconsiderate faces. But anywhere, where was I? ... ) I got to thinking about whether a game structured as a play could work.

And by that I'm not talking story, I'm thinking of set and gameplay.

Set-wise it's pretty interesting. The stage had a basic structure that all of the sets had to fit in to (fairly obviously, I mean, if they went outside for a scene it's not like the audience could go with them), with chunks that slot in to the various places around the edge, and furniture that fills in the space in the middle. The sets tend to be slightly abstract and stylised as well - larger block shapes and a lack of fine details.

The up side of this construction is that all of the locations the script contains fit into one space, and that there is a fair amount of set re-use (both in terms of the same location revisited, and also in terms of some sets being mainly composites of other sets' bits and pieces). The down side is that the sets don't stand up to the kind of prolonged close scrutiny you're able to give most game locations, and also that scripts are limited in the number of locations they can use.

In a play the audience's attention is drawn away from that first negative point by clever use of lighting and pace, which focus your eyes more on the characters. Lighting systems are pretty good in modern engines though, so I'm sure that with proper set direction this aspect would be transferable, and with fewer polys used on the sets, very high quality character models could be used. The pacing is slightly more difficult though.

The main problem I've had while thinking through this idea is - how would the gameplay work? What do you actually do in the game? The obvious answer would be some sort of point-and-click adventure game, but I think the simplicity and restricted nature of the sets might interfere with that - plus each character's location on stage doesn't happen by accident, they're where they are because it works best visually and for the story. Allowing a player free reign to wander around would no longer ensure the best lighting for them, and would spoil the illusion of the set.

Adventure games are famed for their inventories too, which would require a large number of props on the sets, which may not be best for their simple nature (though it could work nicely in gameplay terms since interactive elements would stand out more - no more trawling the mouse around the screen to find an item only a few pixels big).

The dialogue in adventure games tends to be choice-heavy too, usually halting completely as the player gets to choice their next response, which would completely ruin the pacing of scenes. A few games have gotten around this (I think Mass Effect is going to have a go too) by giving the player a limited time to respond, tightening up the pacing of conversations and making it more interesting.

So overall, I'm still not sure if it could be made to work. But I think it would be interesting. It might even be art! Imagine!

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