≡ Menu

A bit about caricature

I suppose all games, to a degree, are caricatures of the experiences they’re meant to represent. They’re exaggerated forms of storytelling, where travel time is truncated, entire locations are out of reach to keep the player from wandering too far off the intended route, and dialogue is distilled to just the phrases you need to acknowledge to keep moving forward.

Walking into a large city in an RPG, say one with a giant castle, a handful of shops and inns, and maybe even a casino, you might find no more than 30 people wandering around—and this includes those you’ll meet when you casually walk through every unlocked door and explore every basement without fear of punishment.

Of course there would be no reason to build such a city for only 30 people, so short of some kind of rapture having recently occurred in every city you visit in every game that’s out there, we’re forced to conclude that the cities must be filled with people we’re just not being shown. Realistically, there would be thousands of people in a city, each one with their own things to say, and the vast majority unaware and uninterested in your current quest, no matter how important. On top of that, the costs of realistically populating a city, financially and computationally, would be ridiculous. So we accept that we’re only getting the most important characters in town.

Also this one.

Also this one.

So video games often use caricatures of locations, as well as conversations. How likely is it that you could walk into a guy’s house uninvited to simply be told his name and nothing else? I imagine Link and Error probably had a nice conversation about why they ended up with the names they’re stuck with, as well as a discussion about the merits of knocking. But that would be more writing for the game’s designers, and more reading for its players, to add little more to the game’s overall experience.

Keyhole’s characters are, by design, one-dimensional representations of people at one point in their lives. Actually, I could go a step further: Keyhole’s characters are singular situations given a human appearance and a bit of dialogue to carry the intertwining stories forward.

In Keyhole, the players gets a glimpse of about 20% of the planet, a large continent where all the events in the game takes place. There would be no way, zoomed out far enough to see that much of the globe, to notice something as small as a log cabin or even a small city. So we’re forced to take liberties with geography as well. When I was a kid, I really liked those maps that exaggerated certain landmarks and cities, which I now call caricature maps:

My version of the United States would just be Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, then a bunch of corn fields.

My version of the United States would just be Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, then a bunch of corn fields.

I really like the idea of scaling exaggerations in Keyhole: in the first age, the characters build a series of small huts and little else, while later in the game, large cities, castles, freeways and skyscrapers cover the planet. As the world grows more and more populated, these structures will have to get smaller and smaller to fit everything on the map, and personally, I really like this approach. It’s another way to convey the growth of civilization as you progress through the game.


At this size, you couldn’t squeeze more than a dozen of these cabins into this area. But later on, there’ll be a giant utopian megacity on this very spot. So things are gonna scale down a bit.

The third caricaturized aspect in Keyhole is time travel. When you hand the first character, the Historian, you’re soon able to give him a pile of scrap wood. On the very next day, he’s built that log cabin with his own hands. No power tools, no mention of superhuman strength, no complaining of sore muscles or splinters the next morning. Dude’s just taken a bunch of wood and whipped up a place to live.

So time, despite being measured in days, is also an abridged representation of itself in the game. Something like in the first part of the bible. This mechanic, along with making navigation much easier on the player, provides another layer of surrealism to Keyhole’s setting.

It all comes down to this thought, which I’m really writing here as a reminder to include in my GDC talk after Keyhole comes out and wins all the awards:

Keyhole’s landscape is a caricature of geography. Its inhabitants are caricatures of fictitious people. And its time-travel mechanic is a caricature of real time.

I suppose it isn’t very different with most other games out there. But it felt good to get it out there.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post: