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From Bad North to Captain Toad, from Townscaper to Tunic – why do video games make the best dioramas?

It might surprise our American readers, but we don’t really make dioramas at school in the UK. We know of them, sure – American media has made certain of that, with everyone from Lisa Simpson to Eleven from Stranger Things making their little shoe box scenes – but they’re just not something that happens in our schools, generally speaking.

(While we’re at it, Americans, we also don’t have swim teams, letterman jackets, cheerleaders, pep rallies, or any discernible school spirit of any kind. We do have school houses with ridiculous names, though. That stuff is real.)

That doesn’t mean we can’t be fond of a good diorama, mind. The nerds of this nation are no stranger to model making, gathering around their altars of felt grass and sponge trees, of model railways or tabletop campaigns. And for a glorious few months in 1993, children’s TV institution Blue Peter instructed the nation in making a papier-mâché diorama of Tracy Island from Gerry and Sylvia Andersen’s Thunderbirds. It was a strangely unifying moment for an island that doesn’t tend to get along, making another, smaller island out of ordinary household waste like tissue boxes and toilet roll tubes. 

There’s universal power in a good diorama, then, in the ability to rotate, and lean in, and snoop, and nudge, and look under, and peer behind. It’s not something you’d think would translate well to video games, their environs sandwiched as a thin layer, compressed between light source and glass. But in many cases, video games make the best dioramas of all.

Don’t believe me? Consider Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. For all the grandeur of Breath of the Wild and the scope of Super Mario Odyssey and the remarkable longevity of Mario Kart 8 and the sheer ridiculousness of Smash Bros. Ultimate, some of the best Nintendo games are actually found in the “B” tier, with Kirby, Yoshi, Luigi’s Mansion, and Paper Mario. And Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker – a “B” tier 2014 release for the maligned Wii U, given new life on the Nintendo Switch and 3DS in 2018 – is one of the best.

What makes Treasure Tracker such a joy is the fact its levels are restricted to diorama format. Perhaps it was a limitation of the development of the game, or maybe it was a deliberate design decision, but Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker wouldn’t work in anything like a coherent fashion if it took place in large levels, or worse, an open-world environment. Restriction often breeds creativity, and Captain Toad has that in spades, elevating what could be an enormous, frustrating needle in a haystack to a taught, finely-honed game of hide and seek. 

From its very first level, functioning as a tutorial, showing you the ropes, it teaches you that you need to fumble around, run your fingers over its edges, to shift your perspective to find the game’s secrets. From the tactile yoink of pulling up turnips to the following of complex paths to the discovery of a plethora of hidden areas, every little motion, every angle feels deliberate, and every element of the level feels purposeful and precisely crafted.

Nintendo has form in this area, over and above Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. You could reasonably argue that Animal Crossing is the “truest” diorama experience, because it places the player in control of building the world, like a schoolchild with an empty shoe box and a drawer full of crafting materials. The Legend of Zelda might have gone hard on more expansive, open worlds in recent years, but back in the day – in Link’s Awakening and A Link to the Past, in particular – its maps were constructed of interconnected single screen dioramas, that often needed “completing” before you could progress.

Nintendo even acknowledged this debt to the shoe box tableau in its remake of Link’s Awakening, with the transition to 3D presenting the island’s beautiful diorama in all its glory. Nintendo then doubled down with the game’s marketing, including a diorama as part of its set dressing at E3 2019. We all knew the link, of course, but it was nice to have Nintendo confirm its reliance on the format, with an added bonus: when do you ever get a chance to walk around an exhibition of large, professionally made dioramas, never mind ones so familiar and formative as Koholint Island?

links awakening
links awakening diorama e3 2019

It’s no surprise that this thread has carried forward into Zelda’s imitators, to the riffs and pastiches and spiritual successors to Nintendo’s elfin hero. And nowhere is it more obvious than in Tunic, this year’s breakaway hit from developer Andrew Shouldice and publisher Finji.

Tunic begins in familiar fashion, wearing its Link’s Awakening influences on its, well, tunic. Our hero wakes up on the beach of a strange island, in a scene that begs you to venture up some stairs to the clifftop, to explore the island, to find a sword, a shield… you know how it goes. Unlike Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker’s self-contained levels, though, the dioramas are recursive in Tunic. While the sections of the island (and its associated spurs and dungeons) combine to make a sizeable map, each individual screen – from the smallest room to the largest mountaintop to the overview of the island itself – is carefully crafted to present a beautifully staged snippet, with chunky props and playful light and shadow dotted around an isometric, virtual shoe box. 

And Tunic, like every good Zelda game, is chock-full of secrets to uncover. But Tunic has less in common with classic Zelda’s see-crack / throw-bomb / open-secret-door mechanics than it does strict puzzle games like The Witness, Return of the Obra Dinn, The Gardens Between, I Am Dead, and, yes, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. What all those games have in common is the need to shift your perspective and toy with your environment to uncover what’s hidden. In Tunic you’ll find the slight shift in camera angle from the game’s targeting lock-on (even when you’re not facing enemies) uncovers ladders, treasure chests, and hidden paths not visible in the regular, isometric view. Once again, we’re looming over the shoe box scene to get a better look, to spot the hidden details carefully obfuscated by its creator. All the best dioramas have hidden things, secrets, Easter eggs all waiting to be uncovered if you only take the time to peer inside. And in Tunic, Andrew Shouldice has hidden hundreds, in layers upon layers, combining unlocks and new abilities with that subtle shift in perspective to unpack everything squirrelled away in its nooks and crannies.

Often the most interesting dioramas are found in indie games, where the expectation of impressive environments falls away, replaced instead by a desire for interesting ones, both visually and mechanically. The aforementioned I Am Dead, for instance, allows you to use your non-corporeal form (you’re dead, as the title suggests) to slice and peer inside the diorama and the objects inside to uncover their secrets. It’s like walking around with a clipping cheat enabled, but that extra layer of being able to peer and unpack elevates the experience. Likewise, The Gardens Between uses a timeline scrubbing mechanic to allow players to wind the scene back and forth, changing the diorama and unveiling the solution to its puzzles as the scene unfolds. Or refolds, as the case may be.

Two of the best dioramas in video games, indie or otherwise, come from the same developer, but they couldn’t be more different. Pocket-sized Viking strategy game Bad North combines Cannon Fodder’s extremely stressful soldier-recruiting permadeath mechanic with procedurally-generated islands to defend against overwhelming hordes. Townscaper, meanwhile… doesn’t really have a purpose, as such, or any win or lose conditions to speak of? It’s just a neat little toy for building towns.

To look at Bad North’s dioramas, tiny outcrops of rocks in a frigid ocean, stained with blood and piled high with the bodies of Viking hordes, it’s not immediately apparent that it shares any DNA at all with the Tobermory-esque Townscaper, with its adorable buildings and plazas popping out of the ocean with the tactile boing of a foam tree. But to understand Oskar Stålberg’s mechanical underpinnings, of how his irregular grids birth beautiful dioramas – whether automatically in Bad North or by the player’s hand in Townscaper, and slightly different each time – betrays the link between these disparate worlds.

bad north diorama
townscaper diorama

In some sense, then, you could argue that Stålberg’s games aren’t really dioramas at all. That any intrigue you find in their tiny tableaux is down purely to chance, not deliberately placed by a conscientious creator. Some might argue that they do technically qualify as dioramas, but the spirit isn’t there. But when you understand how Bad North is designed and combine that knowledge with the plethora of options in Townscaper, the genius of Stålberg’s grid system is laid bare. He may not be placing the trees and the buildings by hand, but he has created a procedural generation algorithm that does it in such a convincing way, with just enough variance in Bad North and just enough control in Townscaper, that you can believe every single one is handcrafted.

In any case, it’s a mechanism for virtually unlimited dioramas, and with Townscaper’s more recent ability to export your creations? That’s where the value lies, over and above the game’s meditative qualities. Just as video games afford us the opportunity to prod and poke and play amongst dioramas that we can normally only loom over, Townscaper allows us to create an unlimited number of video game dioramas and then do as we please with them. You could, for instance, import the model into Unity or Unreal Engine and make your own game in it. Or you could 3D print them and use them in your tabletop RPG campaign. The creative ways people are using Townscaper, a game that isn’t really a game at all, is testament to how much fun and intrigue can be found in a simple diorama.

You could even design your next diorama on screen, in Townscaper, as a virtual prototype. Then you could build it in the real world, inside a shoe box, out of cardboard and construction paper and PVA glue, and peer around it to discover its secrets. There’s so much intrigue in the blurred lines around the translation between mediums, of the physical diorama made virtual, made real again. That’s why video games make the best dioramas.