Through the Doorway

October 6, 2017

For the past two or three weeks my development efforts have been focused entirely on the upcoming Sleuthhounds: The Yuletide Tail. This game’s been progressing nicely and I’m close enough to the finish line on it that I really want to give it the attention needed to polish it up. To that end, part of this past week has been about dealing with all those fiddly bits that players should just take for granted. Doors should open, gas lamps should flicker, and game characters should not be able to pick up items from all the way across the room.

[Opening doors aren't the most glamorous animations, but worth it for the reality.]
Opening doors aren't the most glamorous animations, but worth it for the reality.

In 2011, the game Gray Matter, designed by Jane Jensen of Gabriel Knight fame, released and followed the adventures of a street magician and a neurobiologist. It was a game I really enjoyed but it did have its share of rough edges. One such edge dealt with doors. Whenever a character needed to pass through a door, instead of animating the character reaching out, turning the knob, and having the door open, the game would fade to black in one scene and then fade back in in the adjoining scene. This “shortcut” becomes most apparent in a sequence relatively late on in the game where the main character enters a scene (of course fading in from blackness) and then a secondary character enters the scene (causing the scene to briefly fade to black and back), talks for a bit, and leaves (again fading to black and back).

Having three such fade to blacks in the same scene and in such quick succession was really jarring and pulled me out of the moment and out of my suspension of disbelief for the story. I did get back into the game eventually, but that moment of the game reminding me that it was “just” a game stuck with me. When I started working on the Sleuthhounds games I knew that if a character was ever going to walk through a door that I would be sure to animate that happening. That thought has caused a bit of work this week as The Yuletide Tail has quite a number of doors that the characters can open and walk through.

[Flickering lamps are one background animation that help make the Sleuthhounds world feel alive.]
Flickering lamps are one background animation that help make the Sleuthhounds world feel alive.

Point-n-click graphic adventure games, as we know them today, started way, way back when computers were not nearly so powerful. Having any sort of background animations in games tended to push what computers could do and having full screen animations was almost unheard of. In fact, as far as background animations went, the old Sierra games provided in their game options the ability to reduce and even turn off the number of such animations. I remember particularly that this affected things like flickering lights and glowing computer displays in games such as Space Quest 1 (note: the detail options are only in the VGA version of SQ1, which GOG does not have).

Nowadays, of course, having background animations isn’t a big deal hardware-wise. The presence or absence of such animations is now based on whether a given developer feels they’re worth the effort. For myself, I do feel they are worth the effort. Even small animation effects, like flickering gas lamps or dust particles floating past a bright window, help to add life to a scene. That in turn makes the scene feel more believable, even in a cartoon adventure like Sleuthhounds.

[Hands touching items to pick up is easy to overlook in an adventure game.]
Hands touching items to pick up is easy to overlook in an adventure game.

Another limit on old games was the number of character animations the games could have. Before digital downloads, before CDs even, these games had to be crammed onto a handful of small storage floppy disks. Having custom animations for such things as picking up each item in a game was size prohibitive, and would have been a lot of animations to draw to boot, as those early adventure games tended to have a large number of inventory items that could be accumulated.

In some cases adventure games would just have a character move to the general vicinity of an item, which would then disappear from the scene and appear in the inventory without any sort of animation. Or, if an animation did play, the animation wouldn’t be lined up with the item, with the effect that a character would reach into empty space and be able to magically pick up an item from a fair distance across the room. It was with some surprise that I saw examples of both of these in the much more recent 2013 Broken Sword 5, which is otherwise a fairly heavily animated game.

In the Sleuthhounds games I generally just have a couple of “generic” item pick up animations because it is a lot of work drawing individual animations to pick up each item encountered. However, with those generic animations I do make sure that when a character reaches out to take an item that their hand actually comes into contact with that item. The pick up animations go by quickly enough that I hope it’s not distracting to players that the items themselves are not actually drawn in those animations.

The goal of any piece of fiction, be it book, movie, or computer game, is to get the audience to suspend their disbelief. Fictional works should try as much as possible to make the fiction seem real. This applies even in a cartoon world like the one the Sleuthhounds inhabit. One of the keys to suspending that disbelief is to pay attention to the little details and make things like doors, lamps, and items that can be picked up work the way they would in the real world. Hopefully I’ve succeeded in doing that in the Sleuthhounds games.