While we’re beating our friends in Mario Kart and making them rage quit, we tend not to remember that video games are products made of love, labor, and millions of dollars. Behind every character model, pixel, and T-pose glitch was a human hand who made it. And sometimes, game developers can get pretty wild with their creations.

Designers Put Their Lives On The Line To Photograph Video Game Rocks

Mostly uninteresting assets that nobody pays attention to, video game rocks actually take quite a bit of patience and labor to get right, often sending developers out into the desert to photograph actual rocks themselves. 

Instead of creating everything from scratch, many video games use pre-made assets from such places like the Unreal Engine Marketplace and Unity Asset Store. That's where Epic Games photographers come in. They go to canyons in Utah to take as much footage and photography of rock formations as they can, from virtually every angle you could possibly think of. All of this is in service of making the many realistic rock assets game devs can buy, saving a tremendous amount of time trying to draw them.

This whole process is known as video game photogrammetry, a really big word that means taking an assload of photos and stitching them together to make three-dimensional objects. This is especially helpful for capturing tiny details that might otherwise be difficult or next to impossible to fully realize from scratch. Photographers need to go trekking in rugged, sometimes dangerous terrain under a blazing hot sun, spending hours of their time taking photos of rocks, solely so that one lone boulder in a Call of Duty game doesn’t look like a PlayStation 1 asset. 

A lot of big companies like Ubisoft and EA use these assets to create their digital worlds, and it’s not just exclusive to games either. Museums are starting to use the same photogrammetric processes to scan their collections and upload them online for people to see. That's coming in handy during the era of masking up, staying home, and trying not to die a horrible death. Photogammetry is here to stay, so the next time you look at a video game rock, maybe appreciate it a bit. 

The Hades Dialogue System Is Ridiculous

Developed by the studio Supergiant, responsible for such hits like Basiton and Transistory, 2018’s Hades is a Greek mythology roguelike where you have to battle your way through dungeons in the underworld. The game got critical praise for its innovative combat, art direction, and writing, all of which don’t hold a candle to one overlooked feature in general: the dialogue system. 

Hades features a dialogue system that isn't present in any other game. In most video games, characters have 2-3 lines of dialogue that they will repeat endlessly after talking with them over and over, but Hades takes this to another level entirely. It uses an impossibly long list of potential triggers that are assigned whenever certain conditions are met. Featuring over 20,000 lines of dialogue, Hades maintains the illusion of seemingly endless character interactions that take a very long time to exhaust.

The script itself has over 300,000 words, and roughly two-thirds of this script is voice-acted. Compare that to George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones novel, which only has 298,000 words—eat shit, George. Characters have a list of possible lines they can say, depending on what flags the player has triggered. If you upgraded a few skills, NPCs will notice that; if you died in a particular way, they also will comment on that too. Their lines can also change depending on the type of equipment you have. You develop relations with NPCs and befriend them, which too will affect how they and other characters treat you. The game keeps track of your progress (for example, if you beat a boss) and calculates what to prioritize.

These checks and conditions are spread out all across the game, resulting in hundreds of unique scenarios for the player to fully explore. So the next time you find yourself stomping evil minions in the Underworld, stop and marvel a bit at the fact that mere mortals created this colossal book-disguised-as-a-video-game. 

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Programming Doors Is A Nightmare

Doors are such a nightmare to design, some devs refer to it as "The Door Problem." The game has to consider which entities can open doors, which doors are functional, how players open doors, what animations go with opening a door, collision detection, whether a player can open a door slowly or fast, what signals to a player that this door can be opened, what happens to the player after they open the door, how big the door should be in relation to everything else in the game, and more.

This checklist of functionality and bug hunting has to be applied to every single door in a game, which can take quite a bit of time to properly nail down. Developers of famous games like The Last of Us Part II have all expressed their grievances with this step of the development process. Door interaction depends on key things like how fast a player’s character is running towards the door, like Red Dead Redemption 2, which sports several different animations depending on the speed of the player, changing if you are crouched and sneaking, just going through it normally, or (the objectively correct way to go through doors) slamming it open like a drunken maniac. 

This problem is so widespread, some devs just don’t even bother.  Look carefully, and you'll notice that a lot of games skip doors in favor of open doorways, unrealistic sliding doors that avoid all these problems, or just teleporting characters through a door that never opens. 

Half-Life Alyx Dev Spent Months Looking At Nothing But Beverage Bottles To Program The Liquid Shader

Getting tired of the endless Half-Life 3 memes thrown at Gabe Newell, Valve decided to finally follow up and sort of give gamers what they wanted: a new Half-Life game called Half-Life Alyx. Problem was … this wasn’t exactly Half-Life 3, nor was it a traditional release, being VR only, which ruffled a few feathers, but was mostly met with staggering universal acclaim for its smartly crafted storytelling and incredibly innovative VR gameplay. 

After a new update, many people noted just how good beverage bottles looked in the game, having realistic liquid, textures, and transparency. Thank a single man who obsessively chased his Quixotic dream of making a liquid shader that’d look better than real life. Matthew Wilde started work on the liquid shader early on in development but found himself short of time, so the game shipped without it. Luckily for him, the COVID pandemic gave him plenty of excuses to stay inside all day and work on it tirelessly. 

Video game shaders are basically fancy bits of code that tell objects how to look, and are important for giving them their look and feel. You might be familiar with say … Minecraft shaders, which are mods used to change the game from its original blocky feel to something realistic. To create a shader for Half-Life Alyx’s many bottles, Wilde spent lots of time staring at bottles, studying how the liquid moved, how light refracts through them, and the transparent layers between the liquid and glass, to properly translate that into the game. And the result is stunning, with the bottles sloshing and even foaming like real liquids behave. All we needed was a little bit of skill, a global pandemic, and an obsession with bottles to make the mundane beautiful.

World 1-1 In Super Mario Bros Was Designed To Teach You What Platformers Are

Super Mario Bros actually teaches you how to play the game as you play it. Medium writer Abhishek Iyer broke down how Mario's first level works in glorious pixelated detail, frame by frame, and it shows just how much genius thought and consideration went into designing these games that we all love. 

For starters, the first frame leaves very little space on the left side of the screen, naturally conveying to the player that they have to run right to progress through the level. "Of course I have to move right," you may be thinking, but this setup made that clear even when the concept of "constantly moving to the right in a video game" wasn't even a thing yet. 

Next up: how the games teach you to interact with objects. As Iyer notes, your eyes are naturally drawn towards the big blinking block, and since you’ve only got one action, jumping, you are compelled into jumping beneath it. 

Another is teaching players about how gravity works in the game. Goombas fall off platforms, teaching players about the rules of the game and how this universe operates. This is what some game design experts call conveyance, which just means the game is really good at signaling to you what to do and where to go. Now if only all games worked just as beautifully as Shigeru Miyamoto’s masterpiece

The Team Wrote 571 Pages (316,000 Words) Of Literature In Skyrim

So, we were talking just now about all the words Hades wrote for its dialogue system. But then there's Skyrim, which wrote even more words, that—depending on how you play—you might not even encounter at all. 

In the world of Skyrim, you can pick up and read in-game books scattered across the world. Some of these are very brief or serve only as tutorials, but others are substantial works of fiction, self-contained stories within the game’s lore and universe. The total count of literature in Skyrim clocks out at about 571 pages, or 316,000 words. Only a truly mad man would even attempt to read all of them. Brian David Gilbert of Polygon was one such man, and he read all 337 books that Skyrim had to offer.

He then judged which books were good and which weren'tconsidering whether each added to Skyrim lore, gave a new perspective on the game, and whether it was just, well, well written. He pored through endless texts, from the popular in-game erotica novel The Lusty Argonian Maid, to long and tiresome Skyrim history books, all culminating into what he found as his top 5 books, which are: Beggar, Thief, Warrior, King; Feyfolken 1-3; Argonian Account; Palla Vol 1 & 2; and Advances in Lockpicking.

Why anyone would ever want to read every Skyrim book? We can't say, but knowing that someone out there was brave enough to step up to the task, you’ll probably sleep better at night. Unlike Brian.  

Top image: Rockstar Games

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