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  • Art Tricks For Indies: Abstraction

    - Nicholas Lives
  • (The following article is a full transcription of this video.)

    Indie game developers are known for, if nothing else, working within tight budgetary constraints. With some exceptions, most of us have to balance making our games look acceptable to the general public while working within sensible limits of time or money. In my 3 short years as a full-time game developer, I have noticed some common tricks and methods indies utilize to make their games look better, for cheaper. So let's talk about them!


    Abstraction, as I refer to it here, is the extent which you move away from directly visualizing actions in a game world, and opt instead to represent those actions through non-literal means. Take for example, the simple act of opening a door in your game. A game with very little abstraction may choose to make this action very literal, by playing an animation of a character grabbing a door handle, turning it, and swinging it open.

    One extra layer of abstraction may have the door animating open, but without any literal animation from the player character showing this happen. Add another layer of abstraction, and now the door isn't animating open, but simply plays a sound effect and switches to a binary open state. In each case, the act of opening the door remains the same, but as you move towards abstraction, you ask your audience to fill in more of the blanks with their imagination. As one might imagine, the more abstract one gets the harder it is for audiences to fill in the blanks, and this is where presentation comes into play.

    I think it pays to look outside our own medium to see how others tackle these very problems. One of the best examples to look to for demonstrating mastery of palatable abstraction is the world of theater. A show like Hamilton manages to cover an entire revolutionary war with no more than a single brick-and-wood backdrop, some period-suggestive costuming, and colored lights. Yet when you watch it, you do buy into the world it creates. Theater helps their audience understand the abstracted nature of their storytelling through this very sparseness.

    You know you aren't meant to take costumes and sets in Hamilton literally, because they are presented in a deliberately non-literal fashion. Where are we? Wherever they tell us we are. What are all those dancers wearing? Whatever the scene would call for. We know, intuitively, that people don't dance and sing to communicate in real life, but this lends itself well to abstracting movement, emotions, and dialog. This even allows theater to do things that other mediums can't! We can hear the inner-most thoughts of several characters at once in a theatrical production, and actually take in and understand it, because of the taught abstraction in their very presentation. It creates a consistent presentational language through which the audience can interpret the story.


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