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Thoughts on Clutter and Junk

Posted on 5th Jun 2011 at 11:50 by Joe Martin with 31 comments

Joe Martin
I’ve been playing Star Wars: Jedi Academy lately. I didn’t play it when it first came out, but good word of mouth and a budget Steam price proved hard to resist. Overall, it’s a pretty good game too, although I’ll never be as effusive about it as my pals. One thing I can’t get over, though, is how incredibly dated the game looks.

It’s been hard for me to pin down exactly why Jedi Academy feels so dated, as the graphics actually hold up very well for a seven year old game using the twelve year old id Tech 3 engine. Lately, I’ve come to think that it’s the sparseness of the levels that makes it feel archaic. There are too many empty desks in the cantinas, too many barren walls; there’s not enough clutter in the world.


Thoughts on Clutter and Junk
You! In the background! Where are your chairs?!

The effect that level clutter has on the feel of a game can be significant. One of the other games I’ve been dipping in and out of lately has been the original SiN, which manages to feel a lot more contemporary than even Jedi Outcast, despite having been released years earlier and using the previous id Tech engine. Why? Because the world seems more populated and involving; there are mugs on tables, books on shelves and posters on walls. It doesn’t change the action at all, but it fundamentally alters your impression of the world.

The importance of clutter isn’t new. I still remember when my young friends and I got our hands on the original Quake shareware. We loved it and played it to death once we overcame our fear of its murky, gothic castles. The only game that bested it was Duke Nukem 3D which, despite being uglier on a pure technical level, was set in a place far more engaging to lazy young minds.

Carmack and Co. may be able to make gorgeous 3D castles, but only 3D Realms would think to stand suits of armour and hang tapestries in the hallways. That was how I used to think of it, as a kid.

Thoughts on Clutter and Junk
It's a bit spartan in here, innit?

Nowadays, nearly all games seed their levels with an appropriate level of junk. It’s one of the forgotten benefits of the more powerful technology in modern computers. We’re used to smashing bits of furniture with stray bullets in Modern Warfare or scouring through medicine cabinets for painkillers in Left 4 Dead. Even relatively modern games can get this wrong, however.

The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion is one of the worst games I can recall in this regard. It was a good game and I have many fond memories of it, but when I look back I don’t immediately recall high points such as the Brush With Death quest. Instead, the first memory that comes to mind is that I must have spent hours of my life just picking up and selling ladles, clay plates and cloth-covered pots. None of these items were good for anything at all and Oblivion wouldn’t have lost anything by not featuring them, yet Bethesda seemed ready to drown players in this junk.

A lack of clutter may make a game feel outdated, but too much of it can get in the way so much that it ends up defining your game. Surely there’s got to be a happy medium?

31 Comments

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Bonzo45 5th June 2011, 13:20 Quote
Bioshock does this very well, each room is filled with plenty of things that makes the world seem so much more realistic, as if it's actually lived in!
Centy-face 5th June 2011, 14:14 Quote
I think the best game I have seen to get the happy medium is the original FEAR. Because there was something special about seeing all the crap on tables etc explode into pieces during a slow motion gun fight.
bawjaws 5th June 2011, 15:14 Quote
Quote:
"Instead, the first memory that comes to mind is that I must have spent hours of my life just picking up and selling ladles, clay plates and cloth-covered pots. None of these items were good for anything at all and Oblivion wouldn’t have lost anything by not featuring them..."

Hmm. This to me seems to be a rather unfounded criticism. I don't recall Oblivion ever forcing players to collect and sell trivial junk. Instead, it was just there to aid immersion, which you favour. You chose to waste your own time collecting and selling this junk, rather than just thinking "Ooh, look, this house is full of household junk". So why complain about it?
runadumb 5th June 2011, 15:30 Quote
Would you consider people and vehicles clutter and junk? I'm asking because I always feel thats what's missing most from open world games. As machines get more powerful a simple slider which adds people, vehicles and general crap onto the screen and at a longer draw distant could add a lot I feel.

It's one of the reasons I get so annoyed the likes of Red dead and LA noir aren't out on the PC. They don't have to go mad upping the detail, just give us lots more of what's already there. Towns and cities that feel alive and busy.
CardJoe 5th June 2011, 16:30 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by bawjaws
Quote:
"Instead, the first memory that comes to mind is that I must have spent hours of my life just picking up and selling ladles, clay plates and cloth-covered pots. None of these items were good for anything at all and Oblivion wouldn’t have lost anything by not featuring them..."

Hmm. This to me seems to be a rather unfounded criticism. I don't recall Oblivion ever forcing players to collect and sell trivial junk. Instead, it was just there to aid immersion, which you favour. You chose to waste your own time collecting and selling this junk, rather than just thinking "Ooh, look, this house is full of household junk". So why complain about it?

My point about Oblivion was that there was SO much of it and, rather than being where you could just see and appreciate it, it was forced into the interactions of the game too. In great abundance.
sub routine 5th June 2011, 17:03 Quote
i can always remember that crap being picked up too and i sure never went looking for it. but there was always a stupid plate or two to get rid of. Don`t think it caused the problem though it was more the fact you just kept collecting it and didnt really need too.

A more realistic level of tat adds to the immersion and ambience though.
vdbswong 5th June 2011, 17:10 Quote
Jedi Academy had great/fun multiplayer (to an extent), but that was about it IMO.

Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast was where the SP experience was to be had and the story was infinitely better.

I thought you'd played it before Joe (JKA that is) since you mentioned having played Jedi Knight for a few years in one of your columns... or was that the older Dark Forces series?
CardJoe 5th June 2011, 17:31 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by vdbswong
Jedi Academy had great/fun multiplayer (to an extent), but that was about it IMO.

Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast was where the SP experience was to be had and the story was infinitely better.

I thought you'd played it before Joe (JKA that is) since you mentioned having played Jedi Knight for a few years in one of your columns... or was that the older Dark Forces series?

That was the original Jedi Knight. The series went:

Dark Forces
Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight
Jedi Knight: Jedi Outcast
Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy
Lazy_Amp 5th June 2011, 18:01 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by CardJoe
Quote:
Originally Posted by bawjaws
Quote:
"Instead, the first memory that comes to mind is that I must have spent hours of my life just picking up and selling ladles, clay plates and cloth-covered pots. None of these items were good for anything at all and Oblivion wouldn’t have lost anything by not featuring them..."

Hmm. This to me seems to be a rather unfounded criticism. I don't recall Oblivion ever forcing players to collect and sell trivial junk. Instead, it was just there to aid immersion, which you favour. You chose to waste your own time collecting and selling this junk, rather than just thinking "Ooh, look, this house is full of household junk". So why complain about it?

My point about Oblivion was that there was SO much of it and, rather than being where you could just see and appreciate it, it was forced into the interactions of the game too. In great abundance.

True. Those items could have been on tables and in kitchens around the world, but they didn't need to have to be obtainable or have physics interaction. There's a reason it's named clutter: your inventory certainly doesn't need it. And you can say just don't pick it up, but eventually you're going to find some in a chest where your mouse immediately gravitates to the 'take all' button.

Yes, the lack of clutter inhibits visual immersion, but too much interaction only distracts the player from what's important to accomplish. You can pick up trash in Half Life 2, but Gordon is never going to put a can in his inventory.
Valinor 5th June 2011, 18:48 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Lazy_Amp
You can pick up trash in Half Life 2, but Gordon is never going to put a can in his inventory.

He might do if he's going to need a drink later.
Yslen 5th June 2011, 19:08 Quote
I love the amount of random clutter in Oblivion, please don't complain about it in case they decide to remove it in future TES titles!

In Morrowind of course, the clutter was actually worth something, so you could break into someone's house and steal stuff amounting to a decent value then flog it to anyone you like, so long as it's not the original owner. Oblivion ruined playing as a thief by making clutter worthless and only allowing you to sell to fences, meaning you HAD to do the thieves' guild quests if you wanted to be a thief.

Anyway, clutter in general is a good thing, definitely. I see Bioshock has already been mentioned - that game got it right too.
MiNiMaL_FuSS 5th June 2011, 23:43 Quote
the witcher2 has a tat overdose.

I search creates and always hit the spacebar to 'collect all' as selecting idividual items is fiddely. As a result I have to spend alot of time going through my inventory and getting rid of collected tat.

It's nice that it's nice that it's there, and it's nice that we can interact with it, it adds a level fo immesion - but why does it need to be a collectable item really?
Glix 6th June 2011, 01:18 Quote
Step 1. Add tat and junk to your game
Step 2. Make it possible to add to your inventory
Step 3. ?????
Step 4. PROFIT!

It's a good formula, don't take it out! ME has that problem, all of your gear is usable, but becomes junk once you get good kit, although you can't tell unless you compare.
Instagib 6th June 2011, 01:44 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by MiNiMaL_FuSS
the witcher2 has a tat overdose.

I search creates and always hit the spacebar to 'collect all' as selecting idividual items is fiddely. As a result I have to spend alot of time going through my inventory and getting rid of collected tat.

It's nice that it's nice that it's there, and it's nice that we can interact with it, it adds a level fo immesion - but why does it need to be a collectable item really?

Just about everything you collect in the witcher2 can be used in crafting. Things like rusty weapons amount to junk though; You're given better weapons from the off, why include rusty crappy ones?
TeenGeek 6th June 2011, 03:40 Quote
on the point of oblivion, i think that it would have worked much better if you could actually use a cup, or had to have bottles on you for potions, or something to that effect, where you could actually use things like that...
supermonkey 6th June 2011, 04:08 Quote
A very good post, Joe. I've always wondered why some older games just feel old, other than the obvious advances in game mechanics. I've thought about how some games just appear overly simplistic, but I never gave much thought to the little pieces of junk that are all over the place in modern games (e.g. mugs, clipboards, body parts).

Funny enough there is an entire art to scene decoration in motion pictures and live theater. One of the best ways to get your audience to believe that a character lives in a room is to populate the room with little details. Most viewers don't think about it much when the toothbrush is sitting on the counter, but you'd be surprised how many people get that nagging feeling when the counter is empty.

Going back to clutter in games, my wife relates it to the number of times she's made us all wait around in the safe rooms in Left 4 Dead because she's reading the graffiti.
Xir 6th June 2011, 10:20 Quote
Do weapons count as clutter?
I remember picking up way more than ever needed in STALKER, and then not knowing what to do with the money :D

How is Star Wars: Jedi Academy compared to KOTOR?
CardJoe 6th June 2011, 10:51 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Xir
Do weapons count as clutter?
I remember picking up way more than ever needed in STALKER, and then not knowing what to do with the money :D

How is Star Wars: Jedi Academy compared to KOTOR?

I'd define clutter as items without anything other than aesthetic (or possibly in-game economical) use to the player. If you can do something with it other than sell it or look at it, it's not clutter. But, yes, STALKER often loaded me up with too many guns too!

Academy and KOTOR are completely different types of games, not really comparable at all. Both have pluses (fluid lightsaber control in JA, depth of characters in KOTOR) and both have minuses (the lack of real character development or control in JA, the gruelling and pointless length of KOTOR). Both are worth a look for the price.

As for clutter, it's been far too long since I last played KOTOR.
tozsam 6th June 2011, 11:01 Quote
One game that sprang to mind with this article is metro 2033. The propping (junk) and level of detail make this one of the most immersive games I have played.
yakyb 6th June 2011, 11:35 Quote
this is quite an interesting topic i have been making a game over the last month which is ticking along nicely.

the main issue i have tho is whilst the core mechanics are working fine nothing really happens when you perform an action.

i have been aiming to try and make the screen as busy as possible to make the user interested in what they are acheiving.
Glix 6th June 2011, 13:53 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by tozsam
One game that sprang to mind with this article is metro 2033. The propping (junk) and level of detail make this one of the most immersive games I have played.

I would say it's down to good SDK's for level design now days. Being able to generate good lod prefabs seems to be effective even if its only a slight variation of 3 or 4 models.

Half Life 2 was rather good for amount of rubbish you could pick up.

*fires off paint can at zombie*
Bauul 6th June 2011, 14:11 Quote
It's not necessarilly junk, but just simply detail, that's important in games I think.

The JK games always did suffer from being grey and angular any time a level was based in a building. Just variation and bright colours were often enough for a game not to feel sparse - I don't recall playing Doom 2 for instance and feeling it felt empty.
pimlicosound 6th June 2011, 15:23 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by CardJoe
the gruelling and pointless length of KOTOR

Joe, what parts of KOTOR did you find gruelling and adding pointlessly to its length? Just curious because its one of my favourite games ever and I didn't find it gruelling. Having said that, I've not played it in years so I might see it differently now.
Razorii 6th June 2011, 18:36 Quote
My biggest complaint about all the worthless junk in Oblivion wasn't that it was there... After all, life is full of useless clutter... But that it was spread around so randomly. Somehow opening a container and finding a shirt, a shovel, 2 apples, 4 arrows and a healing potion never made any sense. Not even my most disorganized friends live like that!
Xir 7th June 2011, 14:30 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by CardJoe
Academy and KOTOR are completely different types of games, not really comparable at all. Both have pluses (fluid lightsaber control in JA, depth of characters in KOTOR) and both have minuses (the lack of real character development or control in JA, the gruelling and pointless length of KOTOR). Both are worth a look for the price.
You've sold me I'll try Star Wars: Jedi Academy :D
Glix 7th June 2011, 14:33 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Xir
You've sold me I'll try Star Wars: Jedi Academy :D

Play Jedi Outcast first, it's the better of the two for story wise. Combat is for me better in JK:JO but that is more down to personal preference.
Yslen 7th June 2011, 19:07 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by CardJoe
the gruelling and pointless length of KOTOR). Both are worth a look for the price

Woaaahhh... what? It's a Bioware RPG, they're meant to be long.
OCJunkie 7th June 2011, 20:04 Quote
Clutter effect depends on the possible interaction... if you can't do anything with it it's just atmospheric decoration. A step further, in Oblivion you could stick anything in your inventory but it was useless. But then in HL2 and Fallout 3 mugs and rocks actually became projectiles--now that's what clutter's all about!
Xir 9th June 2011, 13:22 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by OCJunkie
But then in HL2 and Fallout 3 mugs and rocks actually became projectiles--now that's what clutter's all about!
Hmmm, yes, and it was pretty effective too, never collected so much junk before Fallout 3 :D
ryall 19th June 2011, 12:06 Quote
SPOILER: Jedi academy features in my top 10 gaming moments. I still remember the immense satisfaction of killing that annoying ***** of a classmate :) (yeah I realise I made things harder for myself, but damnit it was worth it)
Sensei 23rd June 2011, 14:50 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Centy-face
I think the best game I have seen to get the happy medium is the original FEAR. Because there was something special about seeing all the crap on tables etc explode into pieces during a slow motion gun fight.

Absolutely agree with this. Fear was one of those games that utilised its environments to give the game that extra little wow factor when you played it. The phone falling from an overturned table in slow mo just added that little something extra to it.
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