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: http://​steam​com​mu​nity​.com/​s​h​a​r​e​d​f​i​l​e​s​/​f​i​l​e​d​e​t​a​i​l​s​/​?​i​d​=​233717834

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. https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​n​q​-​u​_​J​59​OyA []

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.

  • 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!

    • 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.

      • 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… http://​thegamedesign​fo​rum​.com/​f​e​a​t​u​r​e​s​/​r​e​v​e​r​s​e​_​d​e​s​i​g​n​_​f​f​6​_​3​.​h​tml

  • 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.

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

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