Slaves to the Screen

Modern gaming doesn’t know how to use the screen. Whatever game you pick up from the store shelf, you know you’ll get a game that fills your screen of choice. The size of the picture doesn’t change, it’s homogenous in whatever game you choose. Resolution between 720p or 1080i might be different, yet the aspect ratio is always the same. Be Call of Duty or latest Digimon game, wherever you look, almost all games outside indie titles or specific vertical titles simply opt to fill the while screen in its wide-screen format. This has gone to the point where the aspect ratio of older games, which are not in wide-screen format and were designed for various full-screen ratios, get mangled and stretched to fit format they were not intended to be in. This isn’t a topic about the screen aspect ratio, however, but how poorly the current developers are utilising the screen and its aspect ratios overall. Compared to other media, television, film, photography, and painting, video games simply don’t use the screen, the canvas to which games live in. If games were art, you’d think there’d be more ways to use the canvas instead of slapping the exact same size view every single time

Vertical shooting games like Truxton had to section off the screen for the play area and for the statistics area in order to emulate the vertical nature of the arcade original’s screen, something modern vertical shooting games opt to fulfil with junk nobody looks at while playing the game. The wider nature of our screen forces games like DonDonPachi SaiDaiOujou use the empty space for the aforementioned, though in home ports you see that space for character portraits for story sequences as well as for numerous other statistics, though due to the way the player’s attention and eye movement has to concentrate on the smaller play area means it’s waste of effort. At least it looks nice for those who are watching the play. RPGs used to have to section graphics into their own windows too for a multitude of reasons, be it performance or simply because it was a game design decision. Games like Psychic War section the screen in what we’d nowadays consider a mess.

This unconventional way to use the screen wasn’t exactly uncommon. Here we have a screen dedicated to the characters and their battles at the bottom. The bottom-left corner functions both as the dungeon exploration screen and as the enemy screen. Player characters are then on the middle and right. Top left, the one with the logo, shows item information and maps. It also serves to showcase special graphics, like when the player is playing slots. The black region between the monster and the logo houses a scrolling text screen. To its right, in the middle, is an item screen. You can see a keycard there against the mechanical background. More to the right you can see an energy counter, currently standing at 340 units. The rest of the top right and middle are dedicated to explaining the controls, which also serves as a selection screen for items and such and that pin-up shot. Fun fact; the DOS version of Psychic Soldier censored that image. This might seem a convoluted way to represent the game and its play, but everything is laid out for the player to see and interact without extra menus or such. The use of dynamic screens like this is effectively dead nowadays. There aren’t even attempts to make a game that would split its play into smaller sections of the screen. You could make an argument that the main play, the dungeon crawling, has been relegated to the small screen at the bottom left and the rest is information that could be laid out better around the rest of the screen.

Ultima Underworld and its sequel, from which the above shot is from, follow the more conventional dungeon-crawling aesthetics. The main play area is larger and the important stats are relegated to the side with the text scroller being at the bottom. The bottom right shows icons that rotates the stats window to show items and such. The two examples play very differently from each other as well as use their screen estate in a completely different manner.  I really mostly wanted to talk about the two as a tangent and to show that games have used wildly different ways to achieve the same effects, to different degrees of success. However, out of the two games here, only Psychic War can be said to “waste” space with the pin-up. Of course, this is by intention and design, as the game’s designed play doesn’t need the whole screen. The effect and how things are laid out are all intentional to drive in a certain kind of effect and method of play, multiple screens changing to something else to keep things on the same visual field all the time makes the Cosmic Soldier series of games unique with no real points of comparisons. To the modern audience, it is far more alien-looking interface than Ultima Underworld‘s.

The one thing in common with both of the examples is that they still opt to use all of the screen. They’re at the maximum screen resolution and size their respective systems can put out, despite the methods of sectioning it into chunks. However, the aspect ratio is still the same across the board on the games on these systems. Whatever the standard is, that is being used. If the standard screen resolution is 1280×720, all the games’ screens will be at that size no matter what. No deviation. It’d be like if all the movies and TV-shows used the same size aspect ratio. You could play with the screen’s size for effects, just like many games attempt this by limiting how much certain region the player can see on the screen via in-game assets, sometimes making special rooms that are vertical only.

The screen in games is treated something that can’t be touched, apparently. There’s a fear of empty screen space to the extent every corner has to be filled with something. This has extended to the younger generations breaking the aforementioned full-screen aspect ratios by forcing them into widescreen. However, this is about the developers not taking the full possibilities of the medium like how film directors can choose to. After all, films have multitudes of aspect ratios the director can choose from depending on the effect and intention he has behind. A well-known example is Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, which uses a somewhat odd aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This means the picture has more height than by standard, leaving some empty area on your screen. The height of the screen allows emphasising the size of the dinosaurs and how utterly small the humans in the movie are in comparison to the rampaging nature. There is less need for vertical movement when you already see that utter majestic destruction a T-Rex can do.

Jurassic Park makes many of its moments work because of the height of the picture. It makes a permanent effect throughout the whole movie. Ever since Jurassic World movies rolled around, they abandoned this ratio and favour of something more generic, which also meant the movies lost the same kind of touch. This is the same kind of thing painters think when they choose what size of the canvas to use. Sometimes it’s ultrawide and the viewer is meant to walk across the painting to see it in its whole glory. Sometimes it’s a whole ceiling intended to showcase a full scene. There is an infinite amount of possibilities on how to utilise the canvas to its fullest extent as intended by the creator.

With video games, you see no creativity at all. All screens you see are the same, there is no deviation outside specific cases, like one or two screens intentionally made different from the rest of the game, or if the game is intended to be vertical. Gaming may portray itself as a field of art, yet it lacks the first touch of artistic mind to consider possibilities what aspect ratio and screen size to use. In all effect, there is no good reason not to experiment with different aspect ratios under whatever standardised resolution. Majority of the modern game design takes the standard picture aspect ratio and design everything around that rather than considering what that does to the game. For example, perhaps a fighting game could emphasise on the close-combat nature of the game and make the screen higher than its width, forcing the two contestants to have a much closer fight. In turn, this might make projectile moves less necessary due to lack of space to escape to. Racing games have been good with this in the past, where split-screen multiplayer between two players could be done by splitting the screen horizontally, allowing both players to have a much larger vertical view over horizontal, something most racing games don’t need.

2D games suffer perhaps the most from sticking with standard aspect ratios. For example, Rayman Legends is a game that could be described to have dead screen space at all times. Rayman itself is an extremely small character on the screen, while all the User Interface elements are at the top corners, necessitating the player’s eyes to move large distances. UI elements are often relegated to the corners of the screen, sometimes bringing something in the middle. There is surprisingly little consideration given how much the player has to keep an eye on various elements, and in games with high-speed play, the necessity to keep track on various bits and bobs forces the player to take their eyes away from the play. Hence you have sound effects for low health and such to help players in being aware of their status. The amount of dead space on the screen, meaning everything that doesn’t have to do with the particular moment of the play, or even with the upcoming challenge. Imagine watching a hockey match or F1 racing on television, or football, and the only thing you were shown all the time was the whole field and track. That’s the same effect, you don’t get the focus on the action itself. The horizontal space is poorly utilised, sometimes filled with the background or the ground texture and nothing else. It might make the game look larger and grander than what it really is, yet playing the game is like watching someone playing soccer five hundred meters from you. If the game had used a higher aspect ratio, closer to the traditional full-screen, the game would’ve looked and played better, especially considering how many of its puzzle challenges are vertical in nature rather than horizontal.

Classic Mega Man games had a level design that was around ‘a per-screen challenge’. Even when you moved onwards, all challenges you was were the size of a screen. Often a more challenging version of that screen would follow up, but that’s the method in which the game taught its player how to handle a specific kind of challenge, be it vanishing blocks or enemies shooting from the walls. The full-screen aspect ratio made the picture work extremely well as it allowed challenges to come from every direction and kept the game’s challenge and play fair and consistent. When a modern game tries this in wide-screen format, the camera has to pan out unnaturally, making the player character smaller than intended compared to the rest of the picture and thus showing more of the area and ultimately needing a whole new kind of stage design paradigm, something we haven’t seen yet. In the case this isn’t done, the balance in game design goes whack and the designers have to work with a far wider screen. If they can’t make use of this wider screen, like in Mega Man Zero games, you’ll end up with a vertical movement that makes cheap deaths and jerky camera movement. This is worsened if the player character is designed to sit in the middle of the screen, which results in camera movement that doesn’t concentrate on showing the play area, stage design and intended challenges, but rather whatever movement the player is doing. In effect, this sort of hyperactive camera that doesn’t concentrate on the field causes more misses than what a static camera could avoid, but this is more an issue of the camera rather than the picture.

In short, both the consumers and the game industry needs to consider how their games are depicted and what sort of design is behind it. There are many genres that would benefit from having different aspect ratios than whatever resolutions are about or even use the old-school method of sectioning off information to their own specific parts of the screen, effectively changing the play window’s size. However, the current paradigm across the board is to tow the line and not even think about taking cues after film and painting how to frame and present the picture. Rather than choosing the canvas game designers and producers might find their games working better, they’re blindly choosing the first option without any second thoughts.

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