Tufte applied to games
I played a small bit of the old Infocom game “Wishbringer” the other day. And somehting struck me. This game is small. It has something like 50 locations, with miniscule text at each location. Of course this is because of the limitations of the hardware from the day the game was released, but it also made me think. There is so much game crammed into those 50 locations. Clever location reuse makes the game seem larger than it is. In fact, the majority of locations change considerably over the course of the game.
Now contrast this with newer sandbox games of enormous size: Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3, all by Bethesda. These games are absolutely huge, but in contrast, the world is a mostly static one with very few changes over the course of the game. Tufte, who just got appointed by the US government to visualize government spending, had this notion of “ink carrying meaning” and “ink”. The ratio between these gives you a number of how much ink is wasted and how tightly information is packed on a piece of paper.
Applying Tuftes observation to game worlds is interesting and fun. Games like Morrowind and Oblivion has a very low ratio of value, whereas an old game like Wishbringer has a very high value. Surprisingly, the game Arx Fatalis from 2002 will have a rather high ratio. In Arx Fatalis, the game world is pretty small. But the game uses several tricks to circumvent this. The game world is reusing locations for more than one thing. Also, the game world is opened up to you gradually along with the game unfolding. The same idea is applied in the game “The Witcher” where the majority of the game is going on inside a city. New major areas of the city opens up in later acts, but the old areas are kept and changes.
Today, building huge worlds is not hard. You procedurally generate most of the content in the game through different technologies like SpeedTree for instance. Oblivion has hand-crafted dungeons it would seem, but usually they are just there for being there and not for moving the story ahead. Contrast that with random dungeon in Diablo 2. Usually, there is a chest at the end of those with good levelled loot. Being a loot-game, Diablo 2 encourages you to walk the dungeon.
I sincerely hope that in the future, more games will be like “Wishbringer”. Mass Effect 1 (Have not played the 2nd game) shows some of the way, but it also adds a lot of randomly generated open spaces driven by a car. These are boring. Kill.