The return of the diorama has triggered a revolution that emphasises smallness
The return of the diorama in games has triggered a revolution that emphasises smallness
The panorama has long been one of the big sells of huge 3D open worlds. It typically manifests as an unbroken view over a huge landscape, which may or may not be traversable. It’s all about creating the impression of grand scale. When Todd
Howard presented Skyrim during E3 2011 he exemplified the effort: pointing to the fantasy land’s horizon, he said, “See that mountain? You can climb it.” Many others, including most notably No Man’s Sky, The Witcher III and The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, commit wholeheartedly to the same promise. But there exists a quiet rebellion among smaller videogame studios of late. Together, they reject the panorama, and have instead found cause to revive the diorama. It was practicality that birthed the videogame diorama. The 3D software of the late ’80s was hard pressed to produce anything more than small, enclosed scenes, surrounded by a void. That’s why the aircraft in David Braben’s 3D shooter
Zarch could only illuminate a small square of the vast map it flew around. Populous followed suit but pitched its fertile patch of land from a distant, isometric perspective, setting the parameters for the god-game genre. Likewise, the castle maze in the NES game Solstice was realised as 252 isometric puzzle rooms, all isolated among the black. The diorama provided a service: with a single piece of terrain, it conveyed something much larger.
The arrival of 32bit consoles in the mid-’90s popularised another use of the videogame diorama. Konami used the extra power to replace traditional 2D RPG encounters with 3D battlefields in Vandal Hearts. This meant terrain height and map movement factored into combat strategies. Square did the same a year later with Final Fantasy Tactics. Perhaps a callback to the genre’s roots in tabletop gaming, as well as a technical necessity, these tactical RPGs used dioramas to give visual clarity to the topography of the battlezone.
As the videogame diorama was established, the methods by which it would be made obsolete were becoming widespread. Mountain ranges, skyboxes and invisible walls were being carefully positioned to prevent players from reaching or even seeing the edge of 3D worlds. Players wanted verisimilitude, to believe fully that they were exploring another reality inside the screen. When the technology caught up with that desire it allowed the videogame panorama to take over, leaving the diorama in the dark.
One reason for the resurgence of the diorama isn’t anything new: the approach ensures that the production scale is manageable for a small team. “We don’t have to worry about doing infinite horizons, about randomly generating a ton of space that won’t even be used for gameplay, figuring out LOD rendering on lower-end GPUs,” says Adam Saltsman on using dioramas in his road-trip survival game Overland.
Saltsman also sees the diorama as beneficial to Overland’s marketing, explaining that its contained spaces communicate the idea that every decision you make matters a lot. But he also sees dioramas as a good visual marketing tool for other modern independent games. “You can see the whole level in one go most of the time, and I think with very few prompts you can start to sort of play the level in your head,” he says. “This is a very good thing in the competitive indie game market right now.” Saltsman also found that the diorama has great potential beyond production and marketing, and he’s far from the only one. The diorama is now taking hold as an important storytelling device in videogames and emerging as an aesthetic in its own right.
“WE DON’T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT DOING INFINITE HORIZONS, ABOUT GENERATING A TON OF SPACE THAT WON’T EVEN BE USED”
“THE GAME ENCOURAGES YOU TO THINK LIKE A CHILD AND L OOK BEHIND EVERY CORNER TO FIND A SMALL OBJECT THAT WILL HELP YOU”
Dioramas in their classical context have always told stories. Fierce animals frozen in time by taxidermy were displayed in tableau across museums of the 19th century. The viewer was invited to animate the stillness of the exhibits in their mind, to adventure into the illusion. It’s a form of storytelling transmitted through suspended theatrics and the laws of perspective.
Random Seed Games uses these techniques in its noir-style text adventure The Monster Inside. Dioramas of each location are used as a visual anchor, so the creators can focus on building character and writing dialogue. The characters themselves are absent, however, in the hope that it encourages you to think like a detective. “I wanted the player to visualise and imagine for themselves how [the characters] might look and move through the game world,” says Tyler Owen, the game’s programmer.
Adam Wells went the opposite way with his own narrative game, Grimsfield, animating everything he could in his monochromatic dioramas to encourage players to dwell on the details. “I really like the idea of treating a game space like a physical theatre set, filled with functional requirements such as props and actors, while giving a sense of theme,” he says.
Magic Flute takes the connection between videogame dioramas and theatre to its logical endpoint. It turns the multimedia stage design seen in Japanese theatre director Amon Miyamoto’s adaptation of the Mozart opera The Magic Flute into spatial puzzles. The game’s designer, Olaf
Morelewski, says he chose the diorama form as it’s able to “maintain the limitations of the physical stage” while also letting the story unfold in other locations without becoming unfaithful to the opera house’s scenography.
Humble Grove was also inspired by theatre to make use of dioramas in its narrative game, 29. Co-designer Tom Davison saw the rotating set for the production of Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House and illustrated a bedroom in the same style afterwards. He found that being able to rotate the room in 3D gave the everyday space a new sense of discovery. This style of illustration suited 29, it being a personal game about two graduates living in a small flat. The idea is to interpret the characters’ minds by examining their domestic clutter, but also through the touches of magical realism, when inner thoughts affect the outer world: ferns curl up in a rice cooker, swamps form in glass bottles. The diorama format helps sell these moments. “The black space around the rooms started as a temp thing, but we found it exaggerated a sense of claustrophobia and not being able to quite place yourself in the world. Kind of an otherworldliness,” Davison says.
Gabby DaRienzo is banking on her dioramas to have the same effect. She spoke to morticians, funeral directors, and pathologists while researching her game about running a funeral home, A Mortician’s Tale. What stuck with her is the “feeling of isolation or intense focus that comes with working with the deceased and dealing with their loved ones”. Using dioramas rather than creating a whole world is her way of capturing that visually.
The association between dioramas and death is repeated by David Prinsmel, the art director of Winter. “We used the isometric perspective to create a disconnected feeling, referring to a soul that’s floating up from its body and viewing it from above,” he says. Winter is about a young girl trapped in the second before her death. She has to explore small domestic dioramas to understand her situation and also help others caught in the same morbid moment.
Rotating the dioramas in Winter to explore their simple, non-textured objects feeds into another of the game’s themes: childhood. “Children have a fascination for the small things under the bed or behind the door. Places where grownups don’t look,” Prinsmel says. “The game encourages you to think like a child and look behind every corner to find a small key or other object that will help you advance.”
The association between dioramas and childhood comes easily. They’re able to instantly connect us to the toy models and dollhouses of youth, which allow children to learn cultural norms and experiment safely with the apparatus of life. We feel a power in looking at them from above, a delight in feeling big, like Gulliver presiding over the tiny town of Lilliput.
The intrinsic appeal of miniatures is what makes Square Enix’s Go series of games so irresistible. Each entry renders the architectural domains of its namesake as mini dioramas:
Hitman and the guarded headquarters, Lara Croft and the ancient tomb, Deus Ex and the urban dystopia. Seeing the characters move as if they are figures in a boardgame is conducive to childlike joy.
Card Hunter mastered this a year before Hitman Go by recreating the physical pieces of tabletop RPGs in a digital game. “Most of the team grew up playing early roleplaying games in the ’80s and we wanted to recreate the feeling of sitting around the table playing a paper-and-pencil game with friends,” designer Jon Chey says. For him, the physical components are imbued with a naivety that isn’t so common in the “more polished nature of the modern experience”.
For the ultimate in tactile miniatures in games you have to look to Lumino City. A ten-foot-high model metropolis was made from paper, card, miniature lights, and motors for the adventure game; then tiny characters were made to climb across it with the magic of stop-motion animation. “The fact it’s
“I GREW UP WITH LEGO AND MODEL TRAINS, BUT ONLY I N VR CAN YOU BUILD SOMETHING THEN SHRINK IT DOWN AND SEE IT FROM THE I NSIDE”
made from materials everyone understands and which feel real allows the player to dive into that world so much more quickly,” says Luke Whittaker, the game’s creative director. “Perhaps [it connects to] memories people have of toys and things they made from their childhood.”
That’s certainly the case for Honig Studios, which found inspiration in classic ship-in-a-bottle artworks for its puzzle game Impossible Bottles. Each level is displayed as a split universe inside a bottle: up top is our reality, while below is a scientist’s labs and the golems inside. The two universes interact, too. If players make a mistake while assisting the scientist it will cause chaos above ground, while correct moves can restore balance. What the Honig team delight in is peering into these secret worlds, which seem impossible, “showing objects that don’t really seem to fit through the mouth of the bottle”. Reece Millidge was similarly struck by his source of inspiration when designing the zany isometric golf course islands of Wonderputt. He looked to recreate the style of scientific illustrations in encyclopedias that “isolated and cross-sectioned a piece of land to reveal its hidden secrets”. From there, he added flowing sands and liquids that defy physical laws in ways that prove “tirelessly novel to our instincts”.
Monument Valley is testament to Millidge’s claim, as it has wowed millions with its absorbing, physics-bending illusions. Using the perception tricks of MC Escher, it sees unconnected walkways join as one without having moved, while staircases ascend to a lower height. Unravelling each impossible diorama parallels the experience of solving the delicate complexities of a puzzle box.
The recent rise of VR has brought with it a return to the practicality of the diorama. Those working with VR during its current infancy have been able to borrow some of the customs associated with interacting with dioramas to ease their audience into their virtual experiences. One of those is Daniel
Ernst and his project The Shoebox Diorama, a series of three short stories told through fantastical virtual spaces and the objects inside them. To enter these worlds, the viewer has to press their face against peepholes cut into shoeboxes. It’s a simple gesture, but one that reinforces the idea of entering an enclosed space, the confines of which Ernst says avoid overwhelming the viewer as they get used to the new reality.
Ernst also finds that their timeless quality “is why dioramas work so tremendously well in VR”. Visiting a single moment without the pressures of time encourages people to reflect and take in the details of the environment. “When you would play a traditional game you would run past a desk with stuff on it mostly unnoticed, but in VR dioramas these details matter,” Ernst says. Using that increased player curiosity, Ernst is able tell stories in VR that he hopes inspire a sense of wonder.
For Nick Rudzicz, it’s the scale of dioramas that’s providing room for experimentation in VR. “Kimberly Koronya’s Globes seems to be going the ‘train model’ route, putting a whole city at your feet,” Rudzicz says. “While Uber’s Wayward Sky changes your scale and perspective quite frequently throughout the game, with different theatrical, objectivising or subjectivising effects.”
For Rudzicz’s own VR project, GNOG, his inspirations have been playset design and children’s toys. Every level is a colourful head that has a whole world and different mechanisms to play with inside. GNOG will also be available without VR support, but Rudzicz says there’s a physicality and closeness to the heads that only VR provides. He adds that the trick with diorama games in VR is being able to ignore the biological constraints of the body and explore how we relate to both large and intimate spaces: “There’s a lot of emotional range you can find in these miniaturised, abstracted worlds, and how we engage with them.”
Sarah Northway agrees with that notion. She’s the co-designer of Fantastic Contraption, which provides a roomscale virtual space in which players construct machines in order to overcome challenges. Northway was first attracted to VR for its large-scale experiences that let you feel like you’re in another world. “But during early development we toyed with a smaller-scale version of Fantastic Contraption, and on a lark we scaled it down onto the floor, so I could sit cross-legged like a child playing with toys,” she says. Due to that experience, a recent update to Fantastic
Contraption lets players choose the scale of their playset. “We call the smallest size ‘Kaiju Scale’ because you feel like Godzilla looking down on the world from a great height,” Northway says. “I grew up playing with Lego and model trains and little Rube Goldberg machines, but only in VR can you build something then shrink it down and see it from the inside.” Northway enjoys Google’s VR painting app Tilt Brush for the same reason. “Now that Tilt Brush lets you scale and rotate your work, I’ll make something in room-scale then shrink it down to see it in miniature.”
Another VR game that lets players have fun with the scaling possibilities of VR in a diorama world is Giant Cop. In it, players stomp around Micro City, foiling bank heists and solving murders across its various districts with their sheer size. But what it doesn’t let you do is destroy the city. Perhaps this is what’s next for the diorama, as it pushes further into VR. After all, half the appeal of a sandcastle is knocking it down.