Hello, and welcome to our new series which picks out interesting things that we’d love someone to make a game about.
This isn’t a chance for us to pretend we’re game designers, more an opportunity to celebrate the range of subjects games can tackle and the sorts of things that seem filled with glorious gamey promise.
The makers of the Dark Crystal Netflix series faced a dilemma when making the new show: CGI or puppets? They had no choice 37 years ago when the Dark Crystal film was made, but they did now. Thing is, they could do so much more with CGI. They could make characters’ faces more expressive, they could choreograph acrobatic fight scenes. So they tried it, they put together a CGI test sequence, and it looked flashy. The Gelfling’s facial movements were a hundred times more nuanced and the fight scenes had somersaults and fancy slides. But they didn’t like it. It had no soul. It was just another CGI fantasy scene. So they made a gigantic puppet show instead.
It’s one of the best puppet shows I’ve ever seen. The craftsmanship is incredible. There are a few scenes where the baddies, the Skeksis (oh how I love them!), are feasting, and the amount of detail, the number props – actual objects people have made – is staggering. It is a wonder to behold, a work of art. And these monsters, they’re real – they’re actually there. They have substance in the world and you can feel it. They might not be able to somersault and express themselves in the way a CGI character could, but they have a presence CGI will never touch.
I want that in a game. I want to be able to feel the characters and the worlds they inhabit. I’ve had enough of weapons going through enemies, and ghost skin with no hard edges. I want something solid – something real. It doesn’t really even have to be puppets – it could be toys or models. I want to feel the clack of plastic toys whacking each other like they did on my bedroom floor 30 years ago. I want to slice chunks off clay enemies or thump dents into them. It’d be like an action RPG Wallace and Gromit. Why can’t we have something like that – why can’t we have games like that?
There’s a bit of hitch, unfortunately, and it’s fundamental to what games are. You can’t do what Dark Crystal did, and film a load of puppets, because games occur in real-time. They don’t use pre-recorded video, unless they’re an FMV (full-motion video game), or unless they’re half-way house point-and-click games with pre-recorded animation. Most games happen there and then, with you in direct control. So unless you ship each game with a troupe of puppeteers, and puppets, and they act out everything as you command it – and I’m not against that idea! – then I don’t think you can do it.
The closest you can probably get is scanning everything and motion-capturing movement and simulating the effect in the game, but then by its very nature it becomes virtual, and the sense of substance diminishes as a result.
This hitch is why we haven’t seen something like The Dark Crystal in games. But then, we have had some attempts. We had claymation games like Amikrog, and we had fabric-effect games like Unravel and Yoshi’s Woolly World. We even had games like Little Nightmares which used jittery animations and a plasticine-like sheen to achieve a disturbingly real effect. And while they aren’t quite the same as the real thing, they stand out.
Incidentally, there’s a new stop-motion game called Harold Halibut in development. It’s a point-and-click, it looks like, and it’s due at some point this year (it’s a bit unclear). The solution its creators came up with was to 3D-scan the models and environments they built. It looks fab.
Maybe this is as good as it gets for games. Maybe something like the grand puppet show of The Dark Crystal, much as I yearn for it, simply is – and never will be – possible in games. (In case it’s not clear, you should watch it – watch it for Simon Pegg’s Chamberlain and Jason Isaac’s Emperor if nothing else.) But my heart leaps every time I see a game try.