Thoughts on the Little Details

We all like the big things that draw us to the games in our collection—the explosions in first-person shooters, the brilliant combos in one-on-one fighters, the vastness of the world in a sandbox game, and more. The big things are the draw, what catches our attention. Yet, it’s the small things, the things we hardly notice—those are what can help make a game truly grand.

Immersion in games is an important quality—perhaps the most important. We don’t need to believe we are really slaying mythological beasties with overgrown kitchen cutlery, or blasting away The Enemy with a big freaking gun. We don’t need to believe that—we just need to feel that the world makes some sort of internal sense. It could be the oddest of worlds, the simplest of worlds, whatever else—it doesn’t matter what the game world is as much as that it makes sense. The elements therein need to fit the world, so we can stop focusing on hitting the button and more on smacking the enemy.

Immersion is done in myriad ways, but few with as much impact as the little details. Take a game where the world is similar to our own, such as Grand Theft Auto, or Fable., or whatever else. If the non-player characters—particularly the random ones that have next to no impact on the story—don’t react to your lifting up a taxi and bench-pressing it to work on your pecs with anything close to boredom, we notice it. When you’re driving through the streets like a lunatic and the drivers of other cars don’t really react at all, we notice it. We think about it in terms of a game mechanic, and if we think about it like that, we’re not really immersed in it.

One instance of fitting non-player character reaction I mention in my review of The Godfather: The Game. When you’re driving around like a loony and mashing the horn, people actually get out of the way. If you’re driving on the sidewalk, people scream and dive out of the way. Granted, those aren’t the tiniest of details, but they’re things we don’t often immediately think of, since we’re so used to N.P.C.s being simpletons. If you try to name other games that feature driving as some important element where the horn actually serves a use, that list will be rather short.

On the other side of the coin, I’m reminded of Need for Speed: Most Wanted and the successors that I’ve played. One of the many ways you can visually alter your car is through changing the hubcaps, such as by using spinners. One day, I noticed that the spinning part spins at exactly the same rate, regardless of whether the vehicle was in motion or not, unaffected by any wind-related physics, and whatever else. The rate being constant didn’t make “sense” to the game world, so it takes one out of the game itself—it chips away at immersion.

Some things are more noticeable, though—take pretty much any sandbox game. One way to make the world larger and more complex is to limit the differences in random N.P.C.s. Do this too much, and you end up with everyone looking like clones of each other—which every gamer will notice. Some games are worse at it than others, but most games will have the player, sooner or later, go, “…hey, didn’t I just pile-drive you into that post box? Yeah, right after I shoved your face through that brick wall.” Then they notice just how many instances of the same person there really are. That’s one of those things that, once noticed, can’t go unnoticed.

That’s not to say every “little detail” is a great thing, though. One example I can think of is Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. There have been a lot of games, before and since, that put raindrops on the screen when the player maneuvered through rain, over sea, or what-have-you. What made Vice City irritating in that regard is that it made it hard to see. Granted, driving through hard rain in real life isn’t exactly a picnic, but—this is a video game. A little break from reality can be more than acceptable when it helps the player actually play. A small detail, water on the screen, but it can bring with it frustration—which is something the developer hopefully doesn’t want to achieve.

The little details don’t necessarily make or break a game; I enjoyed Vice City quite a bit, and think it might well have been the best in the series, even if I grew irritated at a few aspects. I loved Spider-Man 2 even though the over-use of N.P.C. character models was obscene. I didn’t much like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas even though the N.P.C. interaction was superb.

The little details don’t necessarily make or break a game—but they go a long way to how immersed we are in the game. They can mean the difference between “Let’s see, the combo is A-B-Back-Down-Forward-A…” and “Man, I better use my Awesome Flame Punch of Dooming…”. It’s the difference between objectively thinking about the game’s physics and controls, and subjectively thinking about how the game world feels.

It’s that all-important sense of immersion that can make the difference between a great game play experience the gamer wants to return to again and again, and a passable experience that the gamer thinks about with a bit of fondness, but doesn’t need to return to. It helps make the game more enjoyable—which, at the heart of it all, is one of the most important aspects of any video game.


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