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.
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.
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?