An Ode to Objects 6

Games are all about systems. Games are all about stories. I’d say both of these statements are true a lot of the time. The interaction between these two central forces is a lot of what makes games such an appealing art form. Also, as I tend to harp on from time to time, we should not forget the fundamental role of spaces and characters in this. In many memorable games, it’s the places and people that stay with me long after I finish playing. But today I want to talk objects (or items, things). The loot, the weapons, the inventory-fillers. Objects like these are found in abundance, particularly in RPGs and adventure games, genres in which item manipulation plays a central role in advancing the game by solving puzzles, the problems of other characters, and defeating enemies.


The sword Lilarcor — the Baldur’s Gate series had lots of lovely pencil sketches for its items, many of them unique.

First, I should say that in many games, items do not play a modest role. In first person shooters, for example, you generally do not have an extremely large set of weapons at your disposal, and each one may grow to be like a close companion rather than a mere tool. While they are not my main point of interest here, some items can ascend to the rank of character. One of the more creative inventions to come out of — or rather, popularised by1Dungeons and Dragons are magic objects that can actually speak. The sword Lilarcor from Baldur’s Gate II is a prime example2. Although he was there particularly for comic relief, he’s also a very decent two-handed sword +3 — although Lilarcor himself claims that he used to be a moonblade and that his brother is a +12 ‘hackmaster.’ Essentially, such talking items are (minor) NPCs, although relatively interesting ones because of their unusual form, and they often have a backstory to explain how they became sentient: a trapped soul, a spell gone awry, or just a mystery.

An item need not be talkative to lend character to a game, though. They can hold stories without needing to be able to give voice to them literally. The journals in Planescape: Torment — especially the dodecahedral journal and the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon — are beautiful examples of items with great significance to the plot, and which afford a deeper level of interaction through the game’s dialogue system.

But what I really want to talk about is something more humble: not necessarily the items in the starring roles, but the little ones that are (mostly) there for flavour. For all its faults, which I won’t elaborate upon today, this year’s Thief reboot did a few things right. One of these is the game’s collectible treasures. There are over eighty special loot items scattered throughout the game, grouped in thematic sets: flower brooches, memorial rings, female cameos, etc. Each set has a particular design, and the individual jewels are modelled in 3D and can be admired as part of Garrett’s personal collection after finding them.



Best of all are the twelve paintings, ‘The Court of Montonessi’, each featuring a theriomorphic portrait and a theme of vice and decadence. Montonessi was apparently a famous but mentally unstable artist in the City of Thief, and his works can be found in various places, including the asylum where Montenessi was a patient. You can tell the designer(s) responsible for these items relished the opportunity to implement a series of conceptual sets like these. If only the jewellery had had a tad more variation in the designs. At least it’s a lot more aesthetically satisfying than seeing your gold counter leap up a large amount.


Honestly, even just adding a bunch of different gems to a game is enough to make me smile. Sure, you can express everything directly in gold pieces in your game, but there is something about different colours and sparkles that gives an extra bit of atmosphere, even if all those gems are offloaded into your inventory’s gem bag, waiting to be fenced.

Weapon design in RPGs is also a pet peeve of mine. These games tend to flood players with myriads of weapon varieties and subtypes to enable us to fine tune our characters’ combat abilities. This is all well and good, but perhaps it’s an idea to consider some particulars. Read my lips: No more longswords +1, ever. None. Please give every single item some real flavour, some colour, some history. This can be a special in-game effect (special damage, limited use of a certain spell, and the like), or just something non-functional that makes it stand out (a backstory, a particular visual design). Yes, that takes work, but your players will feel rewarded, because they’ve actually found something worth finding.

We can even extend the idea to objects that are literally part of a game’s background. I’m far from the only one who likes to look at the way the little things are implemented in game worlds. How about plants, flowers, and trees? Or food? The one about toilets is sadly defunct. What I’m trying to get at is that an eye for item design, whether it is through text and pixel art or detailed 3D modelling, can enhance the aesthetic appeal of your game world to a great degree. As we’ve seen, this can be applied to all kinds of items, whether functional in-game objects such as weapons, clothing, documents, etc. to mere background and filler material.

Of course, I realise that games have tight art budgets, and that most effort should go into making sure the main characters and set pieces look as good as possible. All the same, if it were up to me, I’d reserve some of that effort to brush up the fine details, and achieve something of an aesthetic balance. For is it truly a virtue if a game can render the protagonist’s individual nose hairs, yet you keep seeing the same three or four paintings and tapestries in every level the game throws at you?

So, if I have one hope for upcoming games, particularly RPGs — I’m looking at you, Pillars of Eternity, Torment: Tides of Numenera, and Dragon Age: Inquisition — it is that their undoubtedly talented artists will get some free rein to spend their time and creativity on objects, those (mostly) silent inhabitants of our game worlds. And gems. Give me them.

The thief collectible images were taken from this Thief guide by Steam user dimmu1313:

I would love to hear about your favourite (minor) item designs in games. Let me know in the comments, or tweet me @qwallath.

  1. The talking sword in popular culture is at least as old as Tolkien’s First Age mythology (as told in The Silmarillion and The Children of Húrin), where the sword Gurthang says it will gladly drink the blood of its master, Túrin Turambar. Tolkien himself was inspired by the Finnish myths of the Kalevala in this instance. []
  2. []

Oscar Strik

About Oscar Strik

Oscar Strik is editor-in-chief of The Ontological Geek. He is also a linguist from the Netherlands. He occasionally writes in other places, such as his own blog Sub Specie. You can read his innermost secrets on Twitter @oscarstrik.

  • Eron Rauch

    I was actually thinking about this from the opposite direction, which is my fixation on the weird vendors of common weapons that populate modern MMOs. I’ll be mucking around at level 75 in Guild Wars 2, just having held off a mythical necromancer and an undead giant with 50 other people, all girded in glowing, flowing, winged, prismatic magical gear fetched from the depths of dungeons unknown, yet invariably there will be a vendor in the camp that will be selling a gold ol’ longsword and a sturdy wooden shield. It got me thinking about how, in the post-Diablo, post-WoW world, we’ve become spoiled for choice of magical weapons (and magic). I mean, my friends and just toss whole armories of magical gear that isn’t even worth the time to d/e when we’re on long runs – it’s even often called “vendor trash.” In Tolkien’s world, or even in classic AD&D, magical weapons of any kind were immense treasures, and well crafted standard weapons were indispensable – and named weapons were reserved for kings, the immortal elves, wizards and the like! I’m not saying we need to go back to Dragon Quest 7 where you have to grind slimes with a stick for like 7 hours before you can buy a sword, but I’d love to see more attention to details in items as well, but I wish that the detail and care was put in to everyday objects – the objects that define the organic, handmade, hard-worn, dented aspect of these worlds – so that the magical aspects could be even more explosively otherworldly and awe-inspiring by contrast!

    • Oscar Strik / Evening of Light

      Hey Eron, thanks very much for stopping by.

      I’m feeling what you’re saying. The uniqueness of actually magical items has diminished severely in fantasy fiction; we’ve had a major inflation, which leads to the “oh, another longsword +1” feeling I expressed in the article. I think the approach you sketch is extremely valid as well: go back to making magic something rare, to give it back its specialness. Though I guess we’re just skipping along the border of low and high fantasy as subgenres here.

      But yes: details can be in the mundane, even in the imperfect. The pittedness of a blade, the stains in a robe, the wear on a carpet.

      • Eron Rauch

        More than high or low magic, I think my interest comes from the fact that I’m a photographer and I spend so much of my taking and scrutinizing pictures of everyday objects and places and one of the most amazing things is how often the quirks, customizations, hacks, and age-wear stand out after an object exists for even a tony amount of time. They provide the object’s connection to the overall chronological flow of the world. In video games, that [lack of a] field of idiosyncratic details it’s one of the things that I instantly fixate on – often games feel like a fancy resale store filled with random bits polished things taken out of context. To some extent, I know that it’s part of the way that 3D modeling works, but if you look at GW2 or Torchlight, even when the weapons have interesting models or the towns have interesting buildings, even the best designed objects don’t aggregate to become part of the larger web of the world in any way but aesthetically. In a weird way, just picking high or low magic would at least tell you something about the world! Where as the current model feels like what it is: a series of infinitely replaceable carrots. I actually think that it’s one of the things the Reverse Design article on FF6 points out quite well – in that game, the last half of the game you are given your gear in a non-linear order so those objects become something that you can hang a bit of narrative thread through. Even though they aren’t “detailed,” in a more realist sense with high polygons and long backstories, they are detailed because they become grafted in to your very real use of time as trusted companion as you traverse the remaining game. Instead in GW2, I sell my sword for 25 copper pieces every third of a level and at the highest tier, the weapons are all the same but they just look different…

  • thestage

    You should check out the Souls series if you haven’t already. Practically the entire plots of those games, to say nothing of the backstory of their worlds and so forth, is told in item description text.

    • Oscar Strik

      I did play Dark Souls since writing this and I agree. The item design is stellar.

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