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Cut With the Grain

Can we learn new things by limiting ourselves to using old technology or using game creation software designed for non-programmers?

When we create games, we often look for tools that take advantage of new technology and offer freedom to create whatever we want. Or we may code as much as possible from scratch because doing so allows us to execute our vision exactly.

Can we learn new things by limiting ourselves to using old technology? Can we challenge ourselves by using game creation software with limited feature set designed for non-programmers?

Compared to consoles of today, the PlayStation 2 had draw distance limits and how much it could show on screen at once. Some games used fog or bloom effects to mask the lack of detail in far off objects. An interesting result: it created a powerful ambience. When these games were remastered to take advantage of newer technology they arguably lost some of their original stylistic magic. The original games embraced the limitations of the PS2 for artistic effect.   

In other mediums, we see power in creative and technical limitations. Film noir embraced the power and starkness of black and white film. Artist Phil Hansen embraced the nerve damage and shake of his hands to produce stunning art. Twitter users embrace the power of limiting their words to 255 characters. 

What is one way to embrace the limitations of game creation tools for non-programmers like GB Studio? This software is designed for non-programmers to create Gameboy games and allows only a limited palette with low-resolution graphics. As of now it does not allow much text to fit in a dialog box. (Less than a tweet) A brute-force solution may be to slice up the text and spread it across several boxes. When working on my 'walking sim' game The Year After, I can’t count how many times I said to myself: “This sentence doesn’t fit. I’ll spread it across two boxes and join with an ellipses.” But a more interesting question to ask is: “how can I make this sentence shorter and simpler so it fits? How can I make each dialog box contain only one thought?” Or “how can I say this without words?” By thinking this way, elegant solutions arose naturally. The dialog became terse but it fit the storytelling style and visual format. The skills I learned could even be used in projects that do not have these limitations.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t want more features in a game design engine. The idea is that we should take stock of what we already have and ask: how can I cut with the grain? Conversely if we have freedom to implement whatever we want, see if we can’t self-impose some restrictions, be they technical, artistic or storytelling restrictions. Then ask: where do these restrictions naturally lead me? We may end up in interesting places.

 

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