Three Approaches to Readable Materials in First Person Games

Posted February 7th, 2021 in game-development

In Estranged: Act I (2014) and Estranged: The Departure (2020) a lot of the storytelling was via newspapers and interactive screens, using different approaches in each game. In this post I will document those approaches and discuss the benefits and drawbacks of each.

  1. Full-Screen Take Over
  2. First Person Camera
  3. Cut-Scene Camera
  4. Conclusion

Full-Screen Take Over

This approach is the brute force one; the player interacts with an object in-game such as a newspaper lying on the floor or a computer screen, and the game shows the interactive content full-screen.

Benefits & Drawbacks

  • ✓ Lots of information can be shown since the content has the entire screen
  • ✓ The input can be plausibly changed to a special mode
  • ✓ Legibility doesn't depend on the renderer fidelity, lighting and camera position
  • ✓ Works for screens, computers, newspapers, books etc
  • ✓ Easy to support other kinds of media - audio logs and videos for example
  • ✗ Removes the player from the world while they're reading
  • ✗ The full screen content will look different to the in-world content

This is the approach used in Estranged: Act I, mostly for technical reasons, since the readable texts were built with HTML. This is my least favourite approach because it removes the player from the world, however from my experience is still the most widely used approach in AAA titles.

First Person Camera

This approach is akin to the real world; the player walks up to a document or screen in the world, and is able to read and interact with it using the first person camera and controls.

Benefits & Drawbacks

  • ✓ Does not pull the player out of the world
  • ✓ The content you see from 50m away is the same as 5cm away
  • ✗ Only works for computer screens, hard with newspapers, books etc
  • ✗ Input handling must use or override the first person controls
  • ✗ Legibility depends on the renderer fidelity, lighting and camera position
  • ✗ Player's weapon may obstruct the content

This approach is used in Estranged: The Departure, and I decided on this because it was the absolute opposite to the techniques used in Estranged: Act I. My goal was to be more immersive, which I think this achieved, but not without its problems.

One of the biggest problems with this approach is legibility, with that feature being heavily dependent on:

  • The camera position
  • The user's chosen field of view
  • The anti-aliasing method used
  • The screen resolution
  • The screen percentage (if upscaled)

All of the above things affect legibility, which in the wild is a real problem. The following example screenshot was taken under the following (typical) conditions:

  • A field of view of 120°
  • Camera too far away from the screen
  • Resolution of 960×540 upscaled to 1280× 720
  • Temporal anti-aliasing (TXAA)

A screenshot of the game Estranged: The Departure, showing barely legible text on a computer screen

This is a real problem for devices with a small screen and GPU that requires the use of upscaling (because of performance constraints).

Cut-Scene Camera

This approach is less akin to the real world, since the game takes control of the player camera to move it into an optimal viewing position. This allows the field of view, the camera position and other rendering features to be controlled, whilst still providing the content in the game world.

Benefits & Drawbacks

  • ✓ Does not pull the player out of the world
  • ✓ The content you see from 50m away is the same as 5cm away
  • ✓ The input can be plausibly changed to a special mode
  • ✓ The camera and renderer features can be controlled for legibility
  • ✓ Works for screens, computers, newspapers, books etc
  • ✗ Requires adequate lighting
  • ✗ Does still remove control from the player while reading

I will try the above approach in newer projects, because I believe it is a good split between pulling the player out of the game, and keeping the content legible at lower resolutions and screen sizes.

Conclusion

Getting this technique right is a learning process, but all of the above methods can yield a good result; like most things in game design it's a decision for the type and scope of the game.

From the recent AAA games I've played, the vast majority have preferred the Full-Screen Take Over approach, I suspect because it's much easier to scale across development teams, easier to QA, supports localisation in a predictable way and can be integrated into a journal system in the game menu.

There are a few exceptions to this though, such as Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018), and Tell Me Why (2020) which both use the Cut-Scene Camera approach (however are both third person games).

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