At the beginning (for me) monsters were tiny jumbles of pixels, that vaguely looked like the wizard or dragon they represented. The C-64, Apple 2, TI-99 4a, TRS 80, and other home computers of the dawning era were graphical. Not VERY graphical, but graphical enough.
And I didn’t need much. As I played Telengard, Temple of Apshai, and Ultima, I could see the fiery dragons and the gleaming swords in my mind. When I go back and look at those old games today, I wonder where all the beautiful graphics went, proof that what I was seeing on the screen was not what I was SEEING in my mind.
I was seeing symbols, something…humans do exceptionally well.
Later I was introduced to Moria and Nethack, and all the decendants of Rogue. These games were even more symbolic! The text-only terminals that Rogue sprang from, rows of cold green glow populating engineering basements in colleges everywhere, wouldn’t even allow for a pictographic symbology. Snakes were small s, giant snakes were capital S, and the fiercest dragons were capital D.
You were an @.
Yet these games inspired and captivated, and they still do, despite modern console games, like Lost Odyssey, which depict monsters in beauty and detail enough to make you cry. Why? Symbology.
We, as a species, are just fine with symbols. We use them all the time. The characters you’re reading right now are a complex symbology of words and ideas, one of many humans have created and communicated with.
It’s clear from game history that, whenever possible, game symbology was pictographic. Even a 16×16 lump of pixels was SUPPOSED to look a bit like a dragon, with identifiable wings and legs. Even today’s graphics are, to a degree, symbolic. You still can’t smell the fetid reek of the dragon, or feel the heat from its scaly hide. And it’s still pictographic. A flying monster must still be depicted with wings.
But even though the alternate symbology of Rogue was born out of simple hardware limitations, it offers interesting insights. First, there’s no doubt that an alternate symbology represents a learning curve, and many players don’t want to climb it. Second, when people finish climbing the hill, the symbols become nearly invisible, translated into the "real thing". Remember the line in the Matrix movie: "I don’t even see the code anymore, all I see is a brunette, red head.."
The above paragraph reveals the problem with designing and using a new symbology of monsters, and also the amazing potential. But why? Why go through the trouble of inventing and implementing a new symbology? That’s the real point of this post.
One would use a new symbology to solve intractable problems with the existing symbologies, and there are several. 3rd person cameras always suck. Beautiful artwork is always expensive. Polygon people are always sticking their feet through the floors and bushes. Animations can be jumpy and discontinuous. Games are slaves to the clock (on many levels). Avatars are often forced to run from place to place. Games are stuck in a rut.
And there are many limitations forced upon game developers by being "realistic". Plants must always be green. Blood must always be red (or gray for Germany). Computer screens can still only show 256 shades of red, green, and blue (though HDR is a neat trick to "expand" that). the scale of the rectangular screen must be uniform all the way across. Players cannot triple-wield, or leave their hand behind to hold a button down.
In the end, I’ll have to put my money where my mouth is on this, and actually come up with such a game. I’m not sure I can, but I’m sure I’ll try.