Friday, 29 January 2010

Dimension Jump

In order to explain the fourth dimension* in Cosmos, Carl Sagan asks the reader to imagine how one might describe three dimensions to a being from a two dimensional world. Though he does a good job, we (nor, I suspect he) are left no closer to truly understanding what it might be like to perceive the universe in more than three dimensions. That is not to say that pan-dimensional beings do not exist. Here is a rare picture of one in the wild:

Unlike us, doomed never to experience any more dimensions than we currently do, lucky old Rayman has been able to make the tricky transition from two to three dimensions with aplomb. In 1995, Rayman was the star of the above-average Rayman, a two-dimensional platforming game set in a variety of charming worlds. By the way, a two-dimensional platforming game is, as the name suggests, a game which features a variety of two-dimensional platforms across which a player must traverse from A to B. Levels generally resemble obstacle courses and require carefully timed jumps to navigate. They are generally aimed at children or younger players because they tend to feature treasure hunts and exploration as opposed to Nazis/zombies/uzis. In the original Rayman, the platforms were made out of musical instruments, cake and stationary and he hunted "tings", shiny objects which played musical notes when collected.

In 1999, Rayman experienced a wonder as yet beyond humankind and acquired another dimension. He has never looked back. The plot of "Rayman 2: The Great Escape" - featuring Rayman's escape from a prison ship - is probably an allegory for Rayman's escape from two dimensions. The game received considerable acclaim, and several other three-dimensional Rayman games have since been released, along with the spin-off series Raving Rabbids.

Rayman's success in his acquisition of another dimension was preceded by the revolutionary Super Mario 64. Even now, it's hard to forget what an impact this game had when it came out. Everyone knows what Mario looks like in two dimensions, and that's arguably how he will be remembered best. But Super Mario 64 was perhaps his biggest success. I will focus my discussion on the three-dimensional elements of the game because although the details of Super Mario 64's release on the Playstation competitor Nintendo 64 provide some economic interest, they are not philosophically profound.

Actually, not much about Super Mario 64 is philosophically profound, it features Mario undergoing a series of ridiculously complex, demanding and life-threatening tasks for cake. No, seriously, cake. Princess Peach promises to bake him a cake, so he has to put his life on the line in order to get into her stupid castle just for that. Admittedly, she is subsequently captured by Bowser (whatever he is) along the way and Mario has to rescue her, but I'm not sure he should have bothered. If I was him I would have taken the cake and run. But I grudgingly admit that Mario's motive isn't the point. The point is that Super Mario 64 was the first game which enabled players to control not only Mario but also the camera, effectively giving them dominion over their perspective of the environment as well as the hero's progression through it, a feat which would be pointless in a two-dimensional world.

Following the success of Super Mario 64 there were a rash of similar three-dimensional platform games. Like Mario 64 and Rayman, these were predominantly aimed at younger players. Games with cutesy names like Spyro the Dragon, Banjo-Kazooie and Croc: Legend of the Gobbos sold reliably well to mysteriously affluent children and solidified a "jump over some stuff/collect shiney objects" formula which has remained largely intact ever since. More recent offerings include Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy and Ratchet and Clank, both of which are so good that I suspect that the same children who initially bought Spyro probably bought Ratchet and Clank seven years later with the grubby twenty-pound notes they earned from weekend jobs in the Co-op selling whiskey to their shifty friends from sociology class.

Anyway, although Ratchet and Clank and Jak and Daxter were well-crafted and deep enough to ensure a substantial adult following, their bright colours, gentle stories and cartoon-like protagonists enabled them to monopolize a children's market (several years before the Nintendo Wii) otherwise beset by tiresome tie-ins with Pixar film tie-ins. Because three-dimensional platformers rather cornered the children's market, there were noticeably few big-budget two-dimensional platform releases between Super Mario 64 and the current generation (which we will get to in a while). Those that were released tended to be artier or edgier affairs, such as Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee, which is a distinctly weird (and fairly adult) game about a worker in a meat-packing plant who discovers that his species is next up for consumption. Characterized by strong art direction and fiendish puzzles, it wore its lack of third dimension as a badge of honour, rather than a failing.

This is like when short-sighted people such as myself put off getting contact lenses because glasses make them look clever. Probably. Either way, the fact that software had improved to the point where three-dimensional games became relatively easy to produce meant that for a long time, two dimensional games were largely sidelined. A few cult examples such as the Metal Slug and Street Fighter remained, but they were the exception rather than the rule.

In these exciting times, the number of dimensions a game world occupied became a large part of a game's identity. Worms, the team-based strategy game featuring worms with funny accents and grenades took place in a two-dimensional world over which the player had complete dominion. Its simple environment meant that players could design levels in an editor no more complicated than Microsoft Paint. I feel that in bending the worms' universe and giving them a new dimension to get to grips with, Team 17 ended up cack-handedly fixing what wasn't broke. The imaginatively-titled Worms 3D was underwhelming and lost much of the anarchic magic that made the original two dimensional masterpiece so special, as the more complex game world removed most of the creative power from the player.

Ah well. Let's look to the future.

The return of the two-dimensional form to the mainstream has taken place within the last five years, when the XBOX live arcade, Playstation network and Steam created a market for smaller, shorter games which by their very nature allowed their developers a wider creative freedom than they may have had working on big-budget titles. Trine and Shadow Complex, seen below, create beautiful three-dimensional environments even though the game play takes place in only two dimensions. They therefore have more in common with the original Super Mario and Rayman than with their successors. Trine (above) features three protagonists and a richly detailed gameworld. It is available for instant download to your PC for only $19.00.

Shadow Complex is proving wildly successful. I can't help but feel much of this is down to the simple beauty of the gameworld. Here is an early design concept for the entire game:

A form which does not translate into three dimensions at all is the two-stick shooter. As the name suggests, it requires only two control inputs or, erm, "sticks", which rotate 360 degrees. In general, the player's left thumb coll control their character's 360 degree movement whilst their right thumb will control their character's 360 projectile attack. Perhaps the most well-known of the recent generation of two-stick shooters is Geometry Wars. I am going to put a video here because all static pictures of this game are completely incomprehensible.

Similarly, here is Rocket Riot, a game with a similar control system, but a completely different premise. Here the player controls any one of over a hundred bean-shaped characters with a jet pack instead of legs, and undergoes a series of progressively harder challenges. Gravity exists in this world, and the player must learn to thrust rather than glide. As you might notice, Rocket Riot is, like Shadow Complex and Trine, rendered in three dimensions despite only taking place in two:


The two-stick shooter simply could not take place in a three-dimensional gameworld. The comparatively recent advent of low-cost, episodic, instantly available games means that smaller developers have more creative freedom than before to create unique (and really, really fun) games on a two-dimensional plane. This can only be a good thing. It's not that there's anything wrong with three dimensions (well, obviously), it's just that we shouldn't necessarily get swept up in the excitement of powerful new technology (or at least technology that was relatively new in the 1990s, but anyway) and neglect the unique charms of what we are leaving behind.

I can't help but feel that if we were to discover a fourth dimension, not all of us would be as adept as Mario and Rayman at adapting to our new environment. Perhaps many of us would, like the worms, struggle to make the most of or even understand our new plane of existance. We would do well to learn from Jason Flemming, rugged and manly hero of Shadow Complex, who knows his limitations and learns to live within his own environment rather than flailing about about and breaking things in an extra dimension he didn't know what to do with. Carl Sagan is right to inspire us with a thirst for discovery and exploration, but we must remember to respect what we find when we get there.

* Contrary to what H G Wells had me believe, time is not the fourth dimension. Thanks a bunch, Herbert, for embarassing me in the pub.

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