Virtual Dioramas

As a kid, I loved miniature playsets. If I had a choice between a full-size action figure and something the size of my thumbnail, I’d take the mini guy every time, which is why I have a soft spot for games that feel like miniature playsets. XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Anomaly 2, Deadlight, and Civilization V are a few that immediately come to mind. What strikes me about all these games is that even though they belong to multiple genres, they’re all largely designed around how we look at things rather than how we interact with things, and that’s an important distinction for this diorama aesthetic. We’re meant to look, but not touch.

In Civilization V, I can create complex kingdoms but I can’t explore them. In Deadlight, I can admire the background, but I can’t move off my 2D plane. Similarly, the off-road environments of Anomaly 2 are visually stunning, but I can’t leave the road. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I can customize my troops, upgrade them, order them around, but I never take direct control of them. Each of these games evokes the sensation of playing with a diorama or mini playset, and each of these games is specifically designed to keep the player at a distance.

Compare Deadlight with the similarly styled Shadow Complex. They’re both 2.5D side scrollers, meaning you play on a 2D plane, and the environment around you is 3D. However, the former looks like a shoebox diorama presentation of the zombie apocalypse, while the latter just looks like a stylized video game. Why does one look “miniature” and the other does not?

It has to do with presentation, and the design philosophy that governs our interactions with the world. Deadlight presents itself as a diorama in which only the foreground matters to gameplay. There are several impressive vistas of destruction in the game, but we see them through the lens of a camera that is locked to the main character and never turns. It’s as if we’re watching the world through a window. The environments are nicely detailed — abandoned houses are filled with dressers, couches, and remnants of former residents. Its vistas show us cityscapes, highway systems, and crumbling stadiums. It’s this detailed set dressing and narrow field of view that create the diorama aesthetic. We’re meant to admire this world but only from afar. Since we’re locked to the 2D plane, we can’t interact with most of what we see. The world of Deadlight is designed to be seen, but not touched.

Meanwhile, the very beginning of Shadow Complex has you fighting a helicopter that hovers in the background, and throughout the rest of the game, your bullets will automatically sway from background to foreground depending on where the enemies are located. The world is never out of our reach, and because of this interaction, the world doesn’t feel as small as it looks.

That kind of interaction is also the core that guides our every move and thought in Shadow Complex. After all, this is an action game about a man blasting his way through an underground facility on a mission to save his girlfriend. We’re meant to interact with this world. We’re the wrench in the gears of a powerful conspiracy, and the story and gameplay of Shadow Complex revolve around our destructive impact on this world.

By contrast, the world is already long past saving in Deadlight, so there is no point in trying to interact with it. Randal Wayne may also be on a mission to saved his loved ones, but he does so by avoiding conflict, not by causing conflict like Jason Flemming in Shadow Complex. The gameplay reinforces this philosophy. As a puzzle platformer, the world exists as something to be seen and ruminated over, rather than touched and changed. This is why Deadlight maintains its sense of miniature scale even as zombies shamble from the background to the foreground to attack you. Sure, they’re moving across the planes, but you’re not. For you, the background remains inaccessible, seen but not touched.

It’s an interesting aesthetic choice because it seems to fly in the face of common sense. To pull off this aesthetic, you can’t immerse the player in the world. You want them to remain somewhat distanced from the action. This parallels real-world miniatures that exist to be built and then admired for their combination of detail and scale, not their interactivity. After all, the smaller the figure, the fewer movable joints they have — until all you’re left with is a very small statue. The smaller the scale the more abstract our interaction becomes, and this holds true for games as well.

That’s why playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown feels like playing with action figures even though you can zoom in close to the action. You still never have direct control of your soldiers. You can highlight them, but you always give them orders through a menu. The character itself remains something distant and distinct from you. The same goes for the cities of Civilization 5 and Sim City. In gaming, we can zoom in on our miniature playsets as far as a developer will allow, so the actual size of the models isn’t a factor in determining how big they feel. It’s the level of interactivity we have with an object that better reflects our sense of scale. The less we can interact with something, the smaller it feels.