Monday, June 16, 2014

Jurassic Park: Trespasser

(This is not something that annoys me, but this is my main blog, so... Since I keep doing this, I think I'll have to rename this blog some day.)

I find the computer game Jurassic Park: Trespasser a very interesting case because of its history.

The development of this game started approximately in 1995. This game was intended (and in a few ways resulted to be) way ahead of its time, with innovations and game mechanics that people only could have dreamed of previously.

At that time 3D games were in their infancy. Doom-like games were the trend (Quake hadn't yet been published), and perhaps the most advanced 3D game of the time was Descent, which was extremely innovative (and in itself ahead of its time), as it was one of the first games that allowed complete freedom of movement and orientation (and had other quite advanced features considering the era it was published, such as surprisingly good enemy AI). However, Descent limited the gameplay into extremely narrow corridors inside relatively small levels.

The creators of Jurassic Park: Trespasser, however, had a really ambitious (and in hindsight very unrealistic) goal: What if they made a game that was hyper-realistic? Enormous open levels that could be traversed (almost) freely, depicting natural terrain (an entire island), with everything simulated with a realistic physics simulator, which would allow for the player to do almost anything that the player wanted, with little to no limitation?

Want to go explore that hill over there? Go right ahead. Want to take a rock and throw it at some boxes, knocking them over? Want to take an object, any object, like a stick or a chair, and hit something with it, knocking it over? Heck, want to take a stick and hit yourself with it? Want to take a gun and shoot whatever you want, such as cans, boxes, windows, dinosaurs, or even yourself? Be my guest. The game would allow you to do virtually anything you wanted. It would be like a real-life simulator, located on an isolated island full of dinosaurs.

If you go into water, ripples would be created realistically depending on what you do. Wading in water, throwing objects into the water, hitting the water with an object... all would create realistic ripples accordingly. Sounds would be extremely realistic; for instance, hitting a wooden box with a metal bar would produce a different sound than hitting it with a wooden stick, or hitting a metal box with either object. All sounds would be dynamically mixed depending on the materials of the colliding objects.

The dinosaur AI was also planned to be unprecedented, with the dinosaurs behaving differently depending on the situation, with them having "moods" and so on. (For example a predator dinosaur could have just eaten and thus not care at all about the player, but if the player annoyed it, it could get angry. They could get distracted by other events, such as other dinosaurs, etc.)

Moreover, dinosaurs would move realistically according to the situation and the terrain. They would not simply follow some scripted walking and running animations, but instead they would use full inverse kinematics, thus their body movements dynamically adapting to every possible situation.

There would be no HUD, no crosshair, no life bar, no info at all on screen, just the raw view of what's in front of the player and that's it. As said, like a "real-life simulator".

Nowadays we take wide-open-sandbox games with full-fledged physics engines for granted (and doing a game like described above would be completely possible today, and most modern open-sandbox games in fact are pretty much like that, except usually for the shooting-yourself part), but in the mid-90's this was completely unprecedented and almost unthinkable.

And that was one of the biggest problem that the project faced: The project was indeed pretty unthinkable and unrealistic. The hardware of the mid-90's was not even nearly efficient enough to implement all that was planned (there wasn't even hardware-accelerated 3D graphics yet when the project started), and nobody had ever made a game engine for this kind of game. Nowadays you can get ready-made game engines for almost any type of game, as well as "middle-ware" libraries for almost any type of task required by a game (such as physics simulation), but that was not the case back then. There was no software for what they wanted to do.

They had to implement everything from scratch, and to their credit they created a pretty decent piece of software given the limited time and resources, and poor management, that they had. The game was, in fact, one of the first open-sandbox games in existence, with absolutely enormous levels, way way bigger and more detailed than anything else that had been created back then. (Nowadays it doesn't look very impressive at all because we have been spoiled with open sandbox games that are a million times better, thanks to our supercomputer PC's, but you have to remember that this was the mid-90's, when a non-hardware-accelerated Quake was approximately the best game that existed so far.) Also their physics engine, while full of imperfections, was still way ahead of its time and pretty decently implemented, and something that nobody else had ever tried to cram into a 3D computer game before (at least not anything that advanced.)

I think it's a real pity that their goal was so unrealistic, and because of that the project failed to achieve most of its planned goals, and even what it did achieve was severely lacking. Neither the hardware nor the software was ready for a project of this magnitude. Today this very project, with all of it's original goals, would be perfectly well doable, but this was basically impossible in the mid-90's.

The game was extremely resource-demanding, and even the top-of-the-line gaming PC's of the time had difficult time achieving decent framerates. This is understandable for a game that tried to draw entire landscapes with huge draw distances, but unfortunately if it makes the game lag so much that it becomes almost unplayable, the pretty pictures aren't of much help.

But that was only a minor problem compared to everything else that was wrong with the game. Because of the lack of time and resources they had to cut a lot of features and nerf others. Many features that were kind-of supported by the game engine had to be "locked in" into a fixed setting because it wasn't working otherwise (for example most carried object had to be made weightless because there were still problems with them, and bugs in the dinosaur AI forced them to just fix their "mood" to being fully "angry" all the time, basically cutting that part of the AI completely from the game.)

The dinosaur animations and movements looked stiff and awkward. The planned fully dynamic inverse-kinematics-based body movements didn't realize itself as planned (probably again due to lack of development and fine-tuning time), and the end result looks a lot worse than if they had just gone with the fixed body animations.

While the physics engine was very decent for the time, it still had a lot of problems, and it was left unpolished, and they had to build many kludges around it (such as not allowing dinosaurs to enter buildings, because of bugs in the physics engine.) Sometimes objects move in unrealistic ways, and they often clip through the ground. (Also the physics engine is quite limited in the sense that it can handle only box-shaped objects. This means that all physics objects have a box-shaped hitbox around them.)

The original plan was for the player to be able to manipulate objects with both hands, but this had to be cut to one hand, again because of lack of time and resources. And unfortunately the one-hand handling of objects had to in itself be left unpolished, making it look quite awkward and ridiculous.

As said, I really think it's a pity that they couldn't realize their dream project, and the result of this was a game that felt extremely sub-par, if not even outright bad. But I must give kudos to them for achieving a lot that was thought impossible for the time. (Also, not everything in the game is bad. The story and the voice acting are pretty decent.)

Nowadays, with modern hardware and software, the project is perfectly well doable, and I really wish they would make a remake of the game. If well done, I think it would be fantastic. (There is a fan project that's trying to do exactly this, but it's a one-man project, which in itself sounds to me like a rather unrealistic goal given the size of it. Perhaps in some ironic way fittingly...)

No comments:

Post a Comment