Top-Down Design

When you’re creating a story – or a game, or any other narrative work – the perspective you use is important. One of the reasons I liked concepting first-person shooter concepts is because as a conceit of that game style, the protaganist is hidden from the player most of the time, and thanks to the distribution of engines for the form, it’s not unreasonable to imagine such games being actually made. Equally, because you can’t be sure what a game can and will do when you’re trying to write for them – most of the time as a writer you’re being called in after they have mechanics sorted out and a lot of art assets underway – it’s easier to concept framing devices that you can use later. I have at least one that I’m hoping I’ll be able to use when someone throws me at a ‘Generic First Person Shooter’ job when I graduate Uni.

I’ve been thinking nonetheless about the format of the top-down shooter after watching this trailer, which in turn reminded me of Hotline Miami. The perspectives we employ as storytellers are important because they let us both reveal and hide from the audience. In the Ages of Sand stories, if I had had to draw Holland and give the reader a visual tell, Holland might be easier to write;a manga-style execution of the character, for example. On the other hand, rendering things like the transition from the real world to Grey London that Angus experienced might be much harder.

Top-down ranged games are something on my mind though, because as it occurs to me, numerous games use the top-down method but most of them tend towards being slower and more grindy games; there’s games like Final Fantasy, where the top-down distance interface was very utilitarian. In Hotline Miami, though, the top-down interface serves a similar purpose to the third-person perspective in platformers. Mario has this truly astounding spatial perception – and indeed, the ability to know what’s going on behind him without looking is basically a superpower.

I wonder if it would be interesting to make a platform game with ‘fog of war’ – where your character had a cone of vision and if things were outside it, you weren’t certain where they were? Mark of the Ninja does something similar, mind you, and it’s a Stealth game, not a full-blown runny-jumpy-funny platformer.

The real motivator behind this thought though is what do you gain and what do you lose under the auspices of a top-down third-person shooter? You gain a sense of awareness of your surroundings, which allows for tactical decisions and priorities that players couldn’t make in a first-person sense. You see things coming, but you also have distance from your immediate surroundings. I think Hotline Miami works – both in its insane level of difficulty and its brutal violence – because the game can put that distance between the player and the action. The game tells you you’re seeing something really horrible, it suggests it, but it doesn’t demonstrate it.

It is interesting. I wonder what I could do with a top-down shooter.