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Thinkybit 001. All the Small Things: Maps, Cameras and Probably Not Penises


Hi, shut up! I'm doing a new thing now. It's called Thinkybit and it offers you a heaping gob of my mind morsels for your cerebral snacking pleasure! And what I've been thinking about lately is all the little details that go into games that are easy to ignore but actually do a tremendous amount to enforce a game's central theme. Oh god, I'm losing you, aren't I? Um, uh, okay, I got it! Look! Look at whatever this is!

This makes me feel everything and nothing.
I don't know how I feel about this but I do know I would definitely pay $40 for one and any price for the optional pregnancy belly.

A while ago I got into a stupid internet argument with an idiot over Breath of the Wild. I'll save you the suspense and tell you up front that it ended almost immediately with him completely ignoring everything I was saying and instead simply hurling insults my way because his brain had a dumb, but the way it started actually had me thinking. He compared it to an Ubisoft game, which is not entirely unfair as there are of course similarities. However, it's one thing to simply look at the similarities and call it a day (especially since that wouldn't be a day, that would be a comparison, you festering feculence conglomeration!) but it's always worth it to explore the differences, too. This episode of Sesame Street has been brought to you by the letter Z! Have you X'd Y's today?

So I sat down to think about Breath of the Wild and Ubisoft: The Series. Keep in mind I haven't played a whole lot of Ubisoft games but I feel that I've played enough of them (both good and bad) to get the general idea of what someone means when they disparagingly compare something to an Ubisoft game. There may be newer games in the ongoing Ubisaga that do things differently now, but I have a feeling that even in something like Watched Dougs 2 there is one element that hasn't had any significant changes from what I saw in the Assassin's Creep series. That element is the map.

Bahwitdibahdibangdibangboogiesayupjumpdabuckbumble!I owned and played Buck Bumble back in the day! Ubeesoft for life!

Much pomp and circumstance and pompumstance has been made of Breath of the Wild's map since its release, and with good reason. The map in both the latest Zelda adventure and in the majority of Ubiromps both exemplify the key driving factor of the entire game's design. Both have the map start out empty, being filled in piece by piece by climbing to the top of various towers, but it's right here that the two games go in almost completely opposite directions. Assawson's Creek 4: African American Flag, for example, fills in all the topography along with a Chevy-sized bevy of icons pointing out the location of every major mission, event, sidequest, collectible, delectable, and erectable.

A good sailor uses large guns to kill everyone he meets.
Ass-to-Mouth Creed 4 was the best one in the series because it had boats shooting at boats. You know what didn't have boats shooting at boats? Batman V Superman. Should've been Boatman V Slooperman.

Breath of the Wild gives you the topography and nothing else. There's easily just as much stuff to find in any given area of either game, but everything in Zelda is so lazer-focused on exploration and discovery that the game doesn't even plop down icons for major towns until you've physically discovered them yourself. In fact, that is the only time Zelda gives you map icons apart from the ones you place yourself. You only see on the map what you've already discovered, so the fewer icons in a given area draws you in to poke around and see if you can fill up that space. The new DLC seems to be hammering that point home even further with an option to show where you have been, while other games would usually simply use a kind of fog-of-war on the map showing where you haven't been.

Ubidubidoo on the other hand is less concerned with facilitating that feeling of discovery that comes from exploration and instead wants to push the traversal through its environments. Their games are usually about parkour of some kind, with the occasional vehicle-centric gameplay mixed in there like the ship sailing in Assassin's Crack 4. The map icons reinforce that goal. Upon opening up a new area on your map, you are given a ton of miniature goals that you can zip back and forth between as you climb and jump your way across different bits of the landscape. The icons disappear as you discover things, giving you a direct visual representation of places you have yet to run and jump to. 

You must be new here! Have a map!
It's like a map of where every piece of litter in the city is located and you can't rest until you've picked up every single one.

These seemingly insignificant UI design decisions can have a major impact on a game, not just in the kind of audience it will attract (I tend to prefer Zelda's exploration-heavy approach to open world games to the squash-buckling action-focused Sean Astin's Cream 4 largely as a result of the map) but possibly even in its ability to pull in an audience. What I'm saying is Super Mario Galaxy may owe a large portion of its success to its camera system. 

I actually originally came to this realization while on the Psychonauts start menu screen. Psychonauts' start menu has our main character able to run and jump all around a small brain, very much like a miniature Mario Galaxy. But apart from there being no actual gameplay, there is an even bigger difference in the way these two games approach the functionality of moving around a small planetoid-like object.

Would you like to keep what's in the box or would you like to see what's behind one of these doors?The Psychonauts start menu. These doors lead to different parts of the brain. The door on the right shuts the brain down into sleep mode, the door in the middle leads to where calculations for physical activity are done, and the door on the left is used to house the data for the exact force necessary to crack an egg with one tap without shattering it and getting little egg shell pieces in your breakfast again you clumsy idiot.

See Raz standing on the top of the brain? As he runs around the brain, he remains fixed completely upright at the top of the screen and the brain simply rotates underneath him. If this were gameplay with enemies and platforms to jump on this camera angle would keep your sense of up and down in tact at all times, with Raz's head always pointing straight up to the top of the screen. However, running forward (away from the camera) would mean running face first into potentially dangerous obstacles that are completely hidden from view until it's practically too late to react.

Unfortunately the game doesn't really have any great examples of this style of gameplay with this kind of camera, as the few times this trick is employed in-game it tends to be during moments that skew more towards puzzle solving and away from action-platformer gameplay. The one time it's used during an action-heavy sequence, it's on a giant cube so the platforming is done on six flat surfaces and winds up playing pretty traditionally.

Fuck, Lakitu's drunk on the job again.
I think Mario is in the midst of doing the over-the-shoulder butt pose. Just twist your plumber ba-bum a bit more and you've got it!

While Psychonauts' camera stays fixed on the character at all times, Mario's camera tends to ignore Mario in favor of the planetoid Mario is standing on. It doesn't care if Mario is standing on the top or the bottom and sometimes it even lets Mario go around back out of direct view, because the most important information isn't Mario's location. It's his location relative to danger. On larger planetoids, the camera tends to favor hovering over Mario in order to give the player a clear view of what's over the horizon in any given direction. Mario Galaxy's camera system is fine tuned to eliminate as many potential unfair surprises as possible.

Not only does this keep the classic platformer gameplay from completely crumbling, but it simultaneously makes the basic act of running and jumping more difficult in a way it had never really been before. In the shot above, Mario's head is pointing to the bottom right corner of the screen. This really fucks with your mind at first when you're trying to jump on an enemy and bounce over a deadly pit. I always find myself tilting my head whenever I play this game because my sense of up and down is all Wonky Kong. That's one of my favorite things about it, though, and one of the reasons why I think it struck a chord with people as something more than simply Mario 64 with ball-shaped levels.

If you're not convinced, just look at Mario Kart 8, which does literally the same thing as Mario Galaxy with its anti-gravity mechanic. Since the camera (wisely) stays directly behind your racer and keeps the racer's head pointed at the top of the screen, you don't really get the same sense that you're defying conventional gravity and it completely lacks that mindfucking that Mario Galaxy's camera dishes out.

This is how you get smart like me!I hope your brain is satiated and satisfied and not at all scarred for life.

There are examples of these innocuous little decisions having grand effects on games all over the place, arguably in every game you've ever played! Ultimately the most important thing is how you feel about a game, but it can lead to some pretty cool discoveries about why you feel the way you feel when you dive down into the tiny aspects of a game and try to figure out why a menu might look the way it does or how a sound effect reinforces an idea. I don't know about anyone else, but this shit fascinates me. So much so, in fact, that I'm going to go get started on the next edition of Thinkybit. Later, Thinkybitches!

- I shit my pants on Christmas once.

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About MechaSlinkyone of us since 12:59 AM on 02.24.2013

Sometimes I write shit, sometimes I play games, sometimes I make games, sometimes I write shit about playing and making games, and sometimes I play games I make and then write them off as shit.