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The Top 10 Creative Decisions Made Due to Technical Limitations

The Top 10 Creative Decisions Made Due to Technical Limitations

We always want what we can’t have. For decades, spectacle and realism have been the intangible holy grails for game designers and programmers, and who can blame them? Games that push the boundaries of their hardware are universally lauded for it, from the legitimate 3D of Star Fox to the still-unchallenged visual fidelity of Crysis. But looking back, what has this constant push to use what passes for high-quality graphics at the time of development brought us? Aside from a handful of groundbreaking classics, it’s left us with a cavalcade of games that age like milk in the sun, many of which look and feel like stiff, blocky crap less than ten years after release.

It’s a sign of great maturity and foresight when a developer embraces their technical limitations and chooses to work within them by altering their project, rather than trying to approximate their true vision with the inadequate tools at their disposal. Games that do this often age exceptionally well, or in some cases, have unexpected effects with influence beyond the scope of a single game. These games demonstrate the immense value of thinking outside the box.

#10: Jumpman/Mario’s design – Donkey Kong (ARC)

There’s a little factoid that often gets brought up when discussing the scope and legitimacy of video games in the past few decades: Mario is more recognizable to American children than Mickey Mouse. It’s always used as a reference point for measuring Mario’s success, but there’s another implication to it that’s always overlooked: Mario’s appearance is masterfully designed.

When designing Jumpman (as he was called at the time), Shigeru Miyamoto recognized two things that his contemporaries had not. The first was that 8-bit graphics suck at depicting things with remotely realistic proportions, and the second was that having a visible correlation between the images on the side of the arcade cabinet and the visuals on-screen made for much stronger brand recognition.

With that in mind, Jumpman was given a large cartoon nose and mustache to cover his mouth, which would be too small to depict using a handful of pixels, as well as a soon-to-be iconic red cap to hide his hair and eyebrows, for the same reason. Additionally, while most video game characters at the time were associated with a single colour, Jumpman was intentionally given a red and blue colour scheme to make him stand out from his peers, and allow him to be used alongside a wider variety of level palettes. In other words, every time Mario beats your favourite character in the annual Character Battle despite having almost no actual character, you have crappy 1981 arcade hardware to thank.

#9: No visible living humans – Penumbra and Amnesia series (PC)

Across all three Penumbra games and both games of its spiritual successor series, Amnesia (three if you count Justine), you never get a decent glimpse of another living human being. The relatively complex reason for this that the developer would like to give you is that isolation is a key factor of both series, and having other humans, friendly or otherwise, be constantly just out of reach creates that vital feeling of being alone, as well as a subtler sense that you’re being kept alone intentionally. The simple, more likely reason is that modeling and animating believable humans is hard.

If it sounds like I’m insulting Frictional Games there, I’m not (although when human corpses do show up in Black Plague, they are noticeably ugly). The uncanny valley can be devastating to a game’s immersion, and avoiding it in an otherwise realistic setting with human characters is unbelievably difficult. And there are plenty of moments throughout the series where Frictional clearly shows they’re omitting humans to create that feeling of isolation just as much as they’re doing it to cover their own inability. In particular, every game in the series has at least one moment where you expect to encounter another person, only to have the rendezvous wrenched away at the last possible second, or otherwise twisted in an equally defeating way (i.e. Agrippa’s appearance in The Dark Descent is a pretty loose definition of “human”).

The tension this isolation fosters is one of the great successes of both series, and it’s definitely something more horror games need to take notes from. That said, these games only get the #9 spot because the developers’ efforts to keep the player isolated despite the expanding story can feel a little contrived, as in the way every method of communication conveniently only works one way, or the scene in A Machine for Pigs where a massacre is supposed to be taking place, but all you ever see are glimpses of running figures in shadow.

#8: Parallel universe setting – The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (N64)

In the wake of Ocarina of Time‘s protracted 4-year development cycle, the next Zelda game needed to take a shortcut or two if it was to be released on the aging N64. Reusing the engine and assets of OoT was the first step, but Nintendo (at least at this point in time) seemed very averse to sequels that didn’t toy with some kind of formula, so in the move that would make Majora’s Mask a surprise classic, they came up with an ingenious way to justify the asset reuse in-game: Termina, the game’s setting, would be a parallel universe to OoT‘s Hyrule.

With that, the seemingly lazy practice of recycling models and textures became the game’s biggest narrative strength. Termina being a parallel universe freed Majora’s Mask from the constraints of a Ganon-centered plot and hero’s journey-based structure, and allowed the developers to experiment with a darker, subtly twisted vision. For any other sequel, this change would have been a footnote for reviewers, but in a series that’s notorious for adhering to a strict pattern from game to game, it was a huge and refreshing sucker punch. The fact that it’s still the most complete and well-implemented re-imagining of the series (contrast the last-minute twist of Link’s Awakening or the tedious sailing of The Wind Waker) also helped.

Another way this twisting of familiar features made Majora’s Mask especially interesting was by distorting the roles certain NPCs played. A mostly useless beggar NPC from OoT became an incredibly important banker in Majora’s Mask, while the adult and child versions of one character were divided into two separate sister characters. I know it doesn’t sound that important, but as a way of deflecting the ire usually aimed at those who reuse assets, its a remarkably clever tactic. Finally, I need to give a shout-out to the Zelda Oracle games for their clever solution to a similar problem: do it in reverse. Since Link’s Awakening already took place in a parallel universe (in a way), the Oracle games’ character reuse could be neatly explained by placing the game before it in the timeline, and featuring the original characters that Link’s Awakening‘s were based off of.

#7: Scene transitions and camera angles – Resident Evil and Final Fantasy VII (PS)

It’s long been accepted that cartridges are a pretty terrible method for storing data. But the rise of CDs brought a new hindrance to consider: load times. A black screen is instinctively thought to mean “something’s wrong” by players, so you can’t just ignore the time it takes to load a scene. The quick solution most developers used was to throw up a simple splash screen to assure players that no, their disc had not spontaneously combusted.

But the developers of Resident Evil had the brilliant idea of making the loading screen part of the experience. Instead of a static screen, Resident Evil‘s load times were masked with a simple first-person animation of a door opening. This worked so well at conveying events and maintaining immersion that when new installments of the series were released on the stronger hardware of the GameCube, the developers reinserted them despite no longer needing them, as playtesters were confused by the sudden shifts in scene that their removal created. Similarly, ever wonder why random encounters in Final Fantasy VII start with a twisting blur of colour and a camera angle that initially only shows the background, before swooping in in cinematic fashion to show the combatants? Same reason.

On a related note, the developers of both games apparently realized that 5th generation 3D was kind of unattractive and immersion-breaking once you got past the shock of the technological leap. For this reason, both games chose to use fixed camera angles for most environments, allowing for the use of the gorgeous pre-rendered environments both series became known for (which also happen to age quite a bit better). Final Fantasy VII also has the distinction of its development team completely jumping ship to a new platform to avoid the hardware limitations of the N64. This decision allowed for the extensive use of FMV cutscenes, heavily influencing games for years to come…for better or for worse.

#6: Procedurally generated content – Rogue (PC)

As limited as cartridges were, they were still a step above…uh…whatever storage medium was used in 1980 to distribute Rogue. Storage space was minimal, and developers had to get creative in order to work within their restrictions. And not just restrictions on the type of content (although there was plenty of that too — there’s a reason Rogue itself was displayed as ASCII text), but the amount. The concept of longevity didn’t exist at this point in time; when you can only store a very small number of challenges for the player, you can’t really make a long game even if you want to.

It is undoubtedly because it offered a solution to this problem that Rogue became immensely popular (well, as popular as you can get when you’re mainly restricted to college machines). This solution was to procedurally generate all of the game’s content — in other words, use an algorithm to get new, nearly random dungeon layouts and enemy statistics with each game, rather than manually code each combination into the game. With this system in place, the number of different play experiences the game could offer became functionally infinite, even though the game occupied the same amount of space as any other game at the time.

While this breakthrough was a stroke of genius, Rogue remains the most poorly aged game on this list, thanks to its text display, and its randomized gameplay that’s akin to rolling a die that explodes on any number lower than a 6. What really gives Rogue this spot is the enormous influence this mechanic would have on future games. In addition to inspiring an entire subgenre (creatively titled roguelikes), the games that owe a debt to Rogue‘s pioneering efforts range from Diablo and Borderlands to Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress.

#5: The doppelganger – Prince of Persia (PC)

On a smaller but better-implemented scale, the original Prince of Persia also ran into a problem with space limitations. Specifically, it was running out of space for enemy sprites (since Prince of Persia‘s claim to fame was rotoscoped animation, character sprites presumably took up a lot more space than usual). For whatever reason, designer Jordan Mechner was not satisfied with simply calling the project, with its current number of obstacles, finished, so he came up with an additional challenge that would circumvent the problem: a magical mirror that would create a doppelganger of the Prince. The doppelganger would share all of the Prince’s sprites, but would be coloured differently — an action that could be done at run-time, removing the need to store additional sprites.

Not only was it a laudably clever and generous decision by a developer who could’ve easily said “screw it,” and released a game he considered unfinished, but it also turned out to be a highlight of the game itself. The mirror and the doppelganger both fit perfectly into the game’s mystical, One Thousand and One Nights-inspired setting (at least aesthetically; I have no idea if there’s actually anything like that in the collection). And the way it is dispatched — sheathing your sword and merging with it — is an excellent example of silent storytelling through gameplay. So we can add that to the mountain of things that made Prince of Persia so groundbreaking.

#4: Fog – Silent Hill (PS)

How do you make a game with a PlayStation 1-era polygon count scary? For Resident Evil and its ripoffs, the solution was jump scares, a fixed camera conducive to masking the approach of jump scares, and limited resources for handling the monsters that appeared during jump scares. But that only really works in specific settings. What if you want your game to take place somewhere else, like, say, the streets of a small American town? Well, the PlayStation didn’t have the power for a particularly long draw distance, so objects were going to noticeably pop in if you went for an outdoor setting…unless you obscure the player’s vision.

This thought process lead to one of the most important breakthroughs in interactive horror, and the realization that games could not just handle psychological horror, but that they could excel at it. By blanketing the entire game world in an impenetrable fog, Silent Hill‘s developers were able to use the natural paranoia of the human mind against the player. Fire hydrants and shrubs briefly appear to be hostile creatures at the edges of your vision, and the town simply feels more ghostly and otherworldly than any other “ghost town” to come before it, as the buildings themselves seem to take form right before your eyes.

But the developers didn’t stop there. After discovering how conducive to horror the fog was, they crafted many of the game’s mechanics around it to maximize its fear potential. For example, the player is given a malfunctioning radio early on, which emits static and other unnerving noises whenever an enemy is nearby. On paper, this sounds like it would eliminate the horror by letting you know when you’re safe, but since it doesn’t indicate the direction of the enemy, and its effective radius is quite wide, it does the opposite — it makes you feel like you’re in danger all the time, from all directions. Finally, Silent Hill’s streets are intentionally confusing and interchangeable, completing the vital horror trifecta of making the player disempowered, confused, and physically lost.

 

#3: Little Mac’s size – Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! (NES)

Though the NES game is the most well remembered, Punch-Out!! got its start as an arcade game in 1984. This incarnation used the relatively powerful arcade hardware to reduce sections of the player’s sprite to a wire-frame, allowing players to see the full body of their opponent — a vital component of the game’s dodge- and counter-based boxing. But, when translating the game to the NES, the developers discovered that the wire-frame technique was beyond the limits of the weaker console, and any kind of transparency was out of the question. The only available alternative was to shrink the player character to half the size of his opponents, and thus, Little Mac was born.

Informing the design of a nearly forgotten Nintendo protagonist (at least prior to his Wii revival and appearance in Super Smash Bros. 4) may not sound like spot #3 material, but Little Mac’s size conveys far more than it suggests at first glance. Unlike Mario, whose limitation-influenced design exists almost exclusively to be recognizable, Little Mac’s size adds a layer of narrative and characterization to the NES Punch-Out!! that simply wouldn’t exist otherwise. Case in point: the significantly more generic arcade game that it was born from.

Game developers too often rely on players’ instincts to sympathize with playable characters by virtue of being playable, so it’s always appreciated whenever gamers are given a more concrete reason to hope for the protagonist’s success. In Little Mac’s case, this reason is that he is visibly and demonstrably weaker than all of his opponents. His diminutive stature makes him the implicit underdog in any fight he participates in, even against the game’s intentional punching bag, Glass Joe. Furthermore, it provides an indisputable explanation for why the player must carefully avoid and counter their slow, brutish opponents repeatedly, while said opponents can flatten you with a couple of decent hits.

#2: Stealth – Metal Gear (MSX)

Metal Gear, the progenitor of the stealth genre, originally had nothing to do with stealth. In fact, it was intended to be a soul-crushingly generic military action game. Fortunately for everyone, the computer it was being programmed for (the Japanese-only MSX2) had severe limitations regarding the number of on-screen sprites, resulting in flickering and crashing with only a handful of visible objects. Because of this, Hideo Kojima (in his pre-1998 days before he began his apparent daily dose of crazy pills) adjusted the project to focus on avoiding enemies, and history was made.

Kojima reportedly had trouble endearing this goal change to others, with his superiors once going so far as to dismiss the stealth-based game as “not a game” (which is hilariously prophetic, given the cutscene-heavy nature of its sequels). This was a sentiment that Kojima himself must have shared on some level, as he continually adjusted the direction that the avoidance gameplay would take. This moved the emphasis from a simple “no combat” mantra, to a game centered on escape, and finally, to hiding and sneaking.

Inventing an entire genre is about as grand an achievement as a game can realistically hope for, and Kojima’s design decisions deserve all the credit they can receive. But there’s another aspect of Metal Gear‘s development that’s almost as interesting. Still fearing that his creation would not be engaging, Kojima made one more alteration to the game’s focus: the plot. The intention was to give players a reason to be stealthy, so that even if they didn’t enjoy the unconventional gameplay, their actions were given broader significance that would hopefully keep their attention. The result was that Metal Gear had possibly the most engrossing plot of any 80s video game. And yes, this means the increasingly complex and groundbreaking plots that later Metal Gear games became known for…are just a side effect of their creator’s lack of faith in his own design decisions.

#1: Difficulty Curve – Space Invaders (ARC)

OK, so influencing an entire genre is pretty impressive, but there’s something even more rare and spectacular, something so difficult to pull off, and so reliant on being at the perfect place at the perfect time, that only a handful of games can ever claim to have done it: influence the entire industry. By now, everyone is aware of the concept of a difficulty curve, if only unconsciously; a game is expected to get harder the farther you get into it. But, like every game design principle, the idea of a difficulty curve didn’t just appear fully formed in the collective minds of players and developers. It needed to come from somewhere, and that somewhere was Space Invaders. And it happened by accident.

Originally, the titular aliens in Space Invaders were planned to advance at a constant speed, a plan that likely would have left the game forgotten, as its increasing difficulty formed a huge chunk of its replayability. But, as with Metal Gear, the game’s hardware couldn’t smoothly handle anywhere near the large number of enemies its designer, Tomohiro Nishikado, intended. Unlike the MSX2, this limit didn’t manifest as a game-ruining crash, and instead slowed enemies’ movement to a crawl. After realizing that defeating enemies would gradually increase the speed of those remaining, Nishikado kept the “glitch” and fine-tuned the game with it in mind, turning a potentially devastating oversight into the principle that would inform almost all progression in video games from that point on.

Space Invaders deserves credit for a lot of things: it popularized shooters, lives, background music, and high scores, and convinced several future developers to join the games industry (among them the previously mentioned Shigeru Miyamoto and Hideo Kojima). Hell, it even had a cover mechanic 28 years before Gears of War made such a feature a staple of the third-person shooter. But this less superficial aspect of its design is rarely acknowledged. Many games on this list have been influential because of the creative decisions I’ve discussed, but all of them pale in comparison to the difficulty curve of Space Invaders. It might take a while, but you could probably list all of the games that owe something to Donkey Kong, Rogue, or Metal Gear, but it would be easier to list the games that don’t owe a piece of their design document to the primitive technical specifications of Space Invaders.

Conclusion

If it’s not evident, I love it when developers let their limitations frame their projects. Some wonderful things have spawned from changing the theory to fit the practice, and often from games that would’ve been completely unremarkable if they’d been allowed to form as they were originally envisioned. I wish I could say this list is definitive, but there are probably hundreds of equally intriguing examples that only their developers know about.

As always, I’d like to close with some honourable mentions:

The Morph Ball and Varia Suit – Metroid and Metroid II: Return of Samus: The designs of the Metroid series’ two most iconic power-ups were both Plan B’s. The Morph Ball came about because the artists couldn’t adequately illustrate Samus crawling, and the Varia Suit’s enormous shoulders exist because the original Gameboy’s monochrome screen couldn’t display the palette swap the first game used. They were excluded because the Morph Ball only really became interesting in later games, and how the hell could I make a decent write-up about Samus’ shoulders?

Dracula’s curse – Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest: Simon’s Quest includes a “curse” mechanic that causes the world to become substantially more dangerous at night, effectively giving the game a horror element despite its NES-level production values. Unfortunately, the mechanic was notoriously poorly implemented otherwise. Why yes, I have watched Egoraptor’s Sequelitis; why do you ask?

Half-Life universe setting – Portal: A game expected to be much lower-profile than it became, Portal was set in the Half-Life universe to allow its small team of developers to reuse the series’ assets for their little side project. Excluded because they didn’t use the setting for much beyond background jokes.

And that’s it! I hope you’ve enjoyed this foray into gaming trivia, and for any aspiring designers out there, I hope you’ve learned the importance of knowing your limits.

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