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.



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


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.

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