Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Should pre-rendered backgrounds make a comeback? by Lee Morris

With the Resident Evil and Grim Fandango remakes being released early this year for PS4 and Steam, I thought it'd be a good opportunity to discuss a long forgotten tract of video games, the lost art-form of pre-rendered backgrounds.

Just a reminder then. A staple of the mid to late 90's and a hallmark of the PS1 era, games were often presented with pre-rendered backgrounds, in which moving 3D polygonal character models were embedded into static 2D pre-rendered landscapes. Notable games in the style include monster-hits like Final Fantasy VII and mega-smashes like the early Resident Evil entries. The style was very common on the Playstation as it was less capable of rendering full 3D environments than its 64-bit N64 cousin. The pre-rendered style was also prominent in the point-and-click genre of PC adventure games in titles such as Broken Sword and The Curse of Monkey Island. Since the Resident Evil remake on the Gamecube in 2002 though, the pre-rendered background style has all but vanished. It didn't make an appearance at all last generation.

Neither did Gex. But I think we're all fine with that.

I say 'style'; was it a style as such though? Or was it just a product of its time which arose due to technical limitations and was rightfully omitted from the medium once full 3D rendering could properly take over? Was it a style through necessity like Mario's moustache? Or is it a unique stylised way to present a video game which could possibly make a comeback?

I personally would love to see it back. I'm biased really. I loved FFVII VIII and IX, Dino Crisis, Parasite Eve and all the PS1 hits that made it special. I don't know if it's just the nostalgia talking but I think these games still look gorgeous. I mean, they look horrible, they do, they actually do, the characters look like idiots... but the backgrounds still look the part I think.

I think games with pre-rendered backgrounds look rather filmic, more so than some of their 3D rendered cut-scene laden counterparts perhaps. As much as I love roaming round in a 3D environment, I still appreciate the simplistic minimalist static-cam feel of PS1 era games and the calm sense of tranquillity they engender. The environments appear like a series of stunning photographs, the art director being more capable of accurately lining up their shot and framing the setting accordingly with the atmosphere they wished to create. They can also do the often gorgeous concept art justice.

Survival Horrollers Alone in the Dark and many of the early Resident Evil games occasionally used a particular static-cam shot known to film-makers as 'the Dutch Angle' in which the image is shot from near the ground and framed tilted to the side to create an unsettling feeling. Can't really use this effect in over-the-shoulder cam horror games as implementing it mid-action would probably feel like a camera glitch. Pre-rendered backgrounds allowed for these natural variations of shot choice without seeming jarring.

Japanese film-maker Yasujir┼Ź Ozu actually used static cam shots exclusively in his films. This was his signature style and gave his films a unique mood with a static sort of feel (I haven't seen a single one of his films to be honest but thought I'd throw his name in the hat here). The shots being a fixed camera act like a sort of security camera, giving a fly-on-the-wall effect. If it can be a style choice in cinema then I think it could be a style choice for new video games.

Now I'm not suggesting that the likes of Dead Space and The Last of Us would have benefited from static shots and pre-rendered backgrounds; that wouldn't work, though it would be funny to see a hilarious PS1 demake of them or something. I think only RPG's, adventure games and old school survival horror games with puzzle elements tend to suit it really. It'd be nice to see some new IPs adopting the pre-rendered style though, especially with today's 1080p (and soon eventually 4K) graphics allowing for some incredibly detailed backgrounds. It would be great also to see some series' return to their pre-rendered roots, chiefly Resident Evil and Final Fantasy of course which have wandered off the tracks a bit since turning fully 3D. 

Of course, in some ways Final Fantasy XIII should have gone off the tracks more.

I do love Resident Evil 4 and bits of 5 and 6, but Final Fantasy has bit the dust in my view since going full 3D in FFXII. Final Fantasy X and Resident Evil Outbreak on the PS2 hit a sort of middle ground with fixed cameras that would pivot, this worked well, but in full 3D they became very different games. Resident Evil just became more of an action game which is OK but FFXII and FFXIII just felt very plain and empty compared to previous entries.

Capcom revisited the original mansion from Resident Evil 1 in full over-the-shoulder 3D in a piece of Resident Evil 5 DLC, albeit with a slightly altered layout. It was novel to see it but I couldn't imagine the original game working with that camera. The mansion felt smaller, though not having to wait 10 seconds to transition through each door might have had something to do with that.

"Stop it! Don't open that door!"

As far as a Final Fantasy VII remake goes, I don't think it would work in full 3D. Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core showed that to me as even locations I had a lot of fond memories of appeared flat and mundane when transported into 3D. Midgar felt like a regular mundane typical city in Crisis Core. When it was framed a certain way in Final Fantasy VII it seemed more colourful and interesting. Not being able to look around certain corners and under certain rocks was what gave these settings their mystique. We could only assimilate what being in these environments would be like through the limited number of viewing angles given, and that 'less is more' element is perhaps what made them work. I hope that if Square Enix do remake the game eventually they would redo the 2D environments and make them look stunning.

Square Enix recently returned to pre-rendered backgrounds with Bravely Default on the 3DS. The game, almost a reboot of the original Final Fantasy games of sorts, looks fantastic due to its presentation. Even though Final Fantasy XV looks absolutely out-of-this-world phenomenal, hopefully they still have room in their hearts for the static background look and might consider it for FFXVI.

I've not heard much on the immediate horizon about any new games with fixed camera perspectives or pre-rendered environments coming soon... but hopefully the Grim Fandango and Resident Evil (Gamecube version) remakes coming soon will remind developers and players how effective they can be.

There are however, some tinkerings going on within the indie circuit. There's a nice little project under development called 'The Black Tower' being worked on by three French developers. It is an homage to Final Fantasy VII in pretty much every way and the developers are quite open about that. There's a video on their website of a prototype demo they've created for it. It's being created using pre-rendered backgrounds and the Unity3D engine for the character models. It looks fantastic. I hope they can get it finished as it looks as though they've taken on quite a big task on their hands here. I'm not promoting it or anything but the vid can be viewed here.

So, aside from remakes and homages then, the style really has dissolved and is perhaps considered nothing more than a throwback these days. Would be nice to see it again though as I think there's some new mileage to get out of it in certain genres. Am I alone in this, or do other people miss this 90’s standard?

- Lee Morris

Monday, 19 January 2015

Casual Game Picks 7: Free Mobile Games

It's been a while since I've done one of these, possibly because I've been playing too many casual games (*cough* erm finishing my PhD thesis) to write them! These are all free and can be played on the phone and tablet.

If anyone remembers the great productivity crash of 2014 that was due to the popularity of 2048 and it's myriad clones (2048 itself is a sort of knock-off of Threes by the way, which I think is superior) then the latest 'one more go' survival puzzle game that I've come across is Just Get 10, which requires you to merge orthogonally contiguous groups (you'll know what I mean when you play it) of equally valued numbered cells to form one new cell with a '+1' value over the old cells. You want to try and keep doing this without running out of viable moves in order to get the highest value of an individual cell on your board as possible. Getting 10 might take you a few tries, but can you get 11? 12? Mildly addictive. Be warned.

See that number 1 tile on the bottom row? It's the bane of your life.

When is a match-3 game not a match-3 game? When it's a match-2 game! This minimalist looking number requires you to destroy a target number of dots of the target types in each level by connecting othogonally contiguous monochromatic monodirectional paths (just play it) in order to do so. Free to play follows the well known Candy Crush style pattern of failure and progression as well as offering many of the same sorts of in-app tension relievers that Candy Crush does in the form of extra moves and power-ups. A great alternative to all that candy themed sickliness and the music is infinitely more bearable too. 
Will you take a look at this? Charming.

You're most likely to have heard of this one. There's been ads for it all over the place and it's a fairly popular to boot. It's a massively multiplayer strategy game which is built to be accessible and competitive at the same time. At this point in the game's life cycle the team based multiplayer is there if you want it but you can also go it alone. It's got elements of town building/upgrade-y sim going for it too so even if you are getting raided all the time you'll still get to see your base grow and develop over time anyway. This one requires a little willingness to commit to it, but you won't spend too long on it during any given day either. Their pseudo-sequel Boom Beach is also out too if you fancy a less fantasy based theme.

You can also take part in the increasingly popular 'piss take' mode.
Another casual picks feature comes to a close. If you find yourself becoming addicted to a casual game on your phone, tablet of PC, please let us know! It'd be great to hear about it.