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Why I Chose to Refuse Widescreen

During the development of my current project I faced an interesting problem: widescreen restricted my design. Here I explain the problem in full and try to justify my solution to it.

Hi, my name is Elias Frost and I'm currently developing my first commercial game called Razzia, it's a cinematic platformer inspired by games like Prince of Persia, Blackthorne and Flashback. This is a genre not given a lot of attention these days so I'm going to pre-face this blog post with some of the important key features of the genre before I continue. If you already know the difference you can skip right to the discussion of the problem.

The cinematic platformer is a subgenre to the traditional platformer and it have all the common features you'd expect from a platformer like walking, jumping, running, in some cases shooting. The genre also heavily utilizes vertical space, which means the player character is typically allowed to grab and climb ledges.

The one key difference between a cinematic platformer and a traditional platformer is that cinematic platformers aim to be more realistic than traditional platformer as well as other unique quirks, here’s a quick list of things you’d typically see in cinematic platformers:

  • Smooth animations that don’t “pop”
  • Slow, methodical tilebased movement
  • Vulnerable characters, high falls are lethal
  • well composed, beautiful backgrounds
  • screen-by-screen gameplay

That last point is very important, because during the early 90’s when the genre was as popular as it ever got computer monitors and TV screens didn’t have widescreen displays so the games were made in an aspect ratio of 4:3 or similar. Today the typical aspect ratio is 16:9 and this poses an interesting problem when designing levels for screen-to-screen based cinematic platformers.

When developing cinematic platformers you build the world in tiles, and your character moves in natural walking/running speed across the level, back in the 90’s when the screens were narrower the player character could only move so much before reaching the next screen and the levels were carefully designed to be well paced, you never felt as though you walked too much or too little in one screen.

When translating to widescreen however, the area that you can move across becomes longer, more stretched and as a level designer who have very specific designs I want to realize this became an unexpected problem for me: the widescreen imposed unnecessary downtime that I didn’t design. You see, the widescreen resolution (compared to 4:3) have 4 more tiles horizontally, that’s 20 instead of 16 tiles.

Four extra tiles doesn’t seem like much but when you play the game you felt that you walked/ran more than you really needed to and the extra tiles didn’t give me more room to add cool stuff, because it wasn’t enough extra space to expand on ideas I had but it was enough extra space to artifically pad areas that didn’t need it, this was reinforced by the slow pacing of the movement.

The resolution for the game as it right now is 256x180 which is rather unorthodox but it gets the job done and the game plays better for it (Though it should be noted that the game scale up to any resolution, the gameplay area itself is 4:3). There’s one other problem with a wide resolution when working with screen-by-screen games and that is the composition of the gameplay area is hard to get right when you need to pad out the enviroment and stretch a design.

Because you want to guide the player along the game with subtle design tricks, it’s easy to forget that when working with a side-scrolling game, you can tighten areas as much as you want but when you work with a screen-by-screen game like a cinematic platformer you need to work a lot more with composition because you are always restricted to one screen and you need to put every important detail and gameplay scenario within the screen.

Consider the above image. The scenario is that you need to acrobat your way to the other side of the area, when you fall down you need to engage in combat before you can return to the start and try again. Now, I could..

  • ..just add a few tiles to the sides of the area and pad the area out a little but you dont utilize the space in any meaningful way
  • ..lengthen the middle platform but that will mess up the puzzle situation with the mine (you jump in very particular ways, you will land in a way that will just barely let you jump to the other side without building speed)

Both of those solutions will mess with the overall design but it will not make the situation better, it will arguably make the puzzle situation worse. That’s what I get for building a game that is very particular about movement and platform placement.

I guess what I learned from this whole ordeal is that weird problems crop up when you least expect them and the problem is not always obvious, it took me a long time to pin-point exactly why the levels felt drawn out and stretched before I changed the aspect ratio and it took me a lot of testing to get a resolution that felt right for this game.

All that said I don’t know how the reception will be when the game is finally released but I’m confident that I made the right decision. I’m not convinced that widescreen is always the better choice, even though it might look strange on the surface it made Razzia play smoother and I hope people will see through the strictly technical limitation and enjoy a better game.

Thank you for reading!

Elias Frost - Solo Developer, Razzia

Contact and social:

[email protected]

@secluded_game

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