Bamboo Cyberdream

a panda wanders the electronic landscape

Impressionist Gameplay

Edit: I had a major wire-cross in my brain and originally had this referring to expressionism where I instead meant impressionism. Hilarious. I assure you I am familiar with artistic movements.

You enter the capital city of a province, which is inhabited by less than a hundred people. You walk up to somebody and immediately know their name, as they begin telling you bits of trivia about the city. You’re able to walk from one side to the other in about two minutes, and from its highest point, you can see clear to the other side of the province. It would take about about an hour to walk there at a brisk pace.

You take a hefty-looking book from the shelf and find it contains only about five hundred words spanning a dozen pages.

In the course of a month or so, it’s possible for you to become a world-class expert in various forms of combat, lockpicking, archery, persuasion, and calling forth flames from your hands. In the same timeframe, you can be the simultaneous leader of many separate organizations of highly trained specialists, after joining them in the lowest ranks.

Certain elements of Skyrim strain credulity.

Yet I’ve been thinking lately about how the whole thing manages to hang together with a verisimilitude that almost rises to actual truth.

We’re pretty familiar with the idea of visual impressionism.

"Impression Sunrise" by Claude Monet

And there are games (though precious few) that use it as a visual style. Skyrim isn’t one of them – it renders the world of Tamriel as realistically as possible given technological constraints.

But the realism exists in this kind of ever-shifting bubble around the player1. The area you see looks and feels as real as we can make it, but the relationships between things dilate and compress to accommodate a good gameplay experience. That mountain in the distance would likely be 10-20 miles away based on the amount of atmospheric color shifting going on, but in the game you could be there in a matter of minutes without even hitting the sprint button.

It all kind of hangs together because our brains aren’t great at processing long-term experiences at that same immediate level – realizing that it didn’t take you nearly long enough to reach the peak requires active reflection, and the game doesn’t really give you any reason to reflect on that particular experience (note how rarely characters make reference to how much time has passed since they met you or since you performed some action; that’s partially a side-effect of the fact that the player can do any activity in the game at their own pace, but it helps avoid drawing attention to the various distortions).

I’ve come to think of these kinds of experiential oddities as “impressionist gameplay.” The human brain is a fantastically aggressive pattern-recognition engine, and will quickly assume that what it’s seeing is similar to what it’s seen before. “Mountain in the distance. Looks about 15 miles away. Now I’m on top of it. Must have crossed that much distance. Works for me.” And we’re able to use this tendency to our advantage in building a world that feels bigger than the actual space it occupies.

Can this go further than just spatial representation, though? I think so. The Whiterun depicted in the game has about 70 residents, but is the capital city of a major hold in the province. When the outlying villages have populations of about eight, that number does make relative sense, but they totally go against our notion of how many people should live in places we call “cities.” But unless you take the time to do your own census and consciously consider your expectations and the game’s presentation, it kind of feels all right.

Impressionism only works as a reflection of some reality, though – in this case, we have to posit the notion of some “real” Whiterun, with a population of thousands, that exists in the “actual” Tamriel. The game is only showing a representation of that city, as best it can. It’s brush strokes of experience that create a loose shape for your brain to fill in. The fact that, of course, there is no actual Whiterun either makes this thought exercise that much more pure or that much more wasteful. Your choice. (There’s probably some existing philosophical term to deal with the idea of multiple levels of representational remove from a reality that is fictional to begin with, but I don’t know it.2)

What’s most fascinating to me from a media/theory perspective, though, is that impressionism arose in part because the rise of photography had removed the burden of realism from visual artists. Since a camera could depict pure reality better than the most skilled painter, painters were free to begin experimenting in other kinds of depiction. Conversely, gameplay impressionism is at least partially caused by production and technological realities; the number of people living in a city is as constrained by our ability to create stories and dialogue for them as it is how many AIs an Xbox 360 can healthily handle at once.3

(I don’t have numbers to support it, but my anecdotal experience seems to be that non-photorealistic games tend to increase as game consoles age, because PCs (and eventually shinier consoles) are able to push realism more. Maybe. I’m kind of talking out of my ass here.)

What other kinds of impressionist gameplay exist? Is it mechanical laziness or is there an aesthetic to the broad design brush-strokes?

  1. This image actually somewhat mirrors how the Creation Engine (and practically any other game engine of note) works, in terms of memory persistence, AI behavior, etc. shifting as the player moves through the world.

  2. Though some of the deeper and more cosmological lore regarding the universe of the Elder Scrolls dabbles in some similar philosophical positions.

  3. Obviously there are design tradeoffs that could be made which would ease that development burden – having characters without names/stories that simply fill in the city and make it feel more populous. But giving up that level of detail can draw attention to the fidelity drop, and your brain becomes more focused on your character and the environment than the people. This is the route taken by the Assassin’s Creed games, and that is precisely where they want you to be focusing.