Ice Levels, the Arctic Oppressor

Ice Levels, the Arctic Oppressor

Down with the brrrgeoisie!

LizardRock by LizardRock on Apr 07, 2018 @ 06:43 PM (Staff Bios)
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Like with any media, video games have their own collection of tropes and recurring themes. Since video games can be infinitely creative, this usually means players will see a wide variety of environments to explore and experience. While the idea of exploring outer space, volcanoes, and literally giant chocolate wafers covered in cute ice cream monsters. Unfortunately, this diversity includes the wretched disease known as ice levels.

It makes sense. When you want your levels to stand out from each other, you need to explore the extremes on every end of the spectrum. Natural vs industrial, fire vs water, hot vs cold. For a game to feature an ice level is, frankly, to be expected. Little to developers realize that by building these levels, they have invited a cold and bitter vampire into their digital home, to drain the will to live out of their players about 2/3rds the way into your game.

For the unenlightened, this may sound like the hateful ramblings of a frostbitten man. But I assure you that behind all the disdain lies truth and logic. Biologists could easily argue the importance and value of the mosquito population. But after the 15th bug bite, and the never-ending itch that coincides with it, It becomes ever easier to tell the biologists to bugger off with their propaganda.

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The first problem with ice levels is how they look. Snow a complicated "element" in the natural world. Trillions of fluffy shapes coating the ground to create a blanket of whiteness is the result of some mind-boggling science. It's so complex that we haven't figured out how to accurately emulate it in video games. How each game approaches it is different, some had dynamically morphing shapes, others have incorporeal blobs. Most games simply resign to white textures, hoping the player doesn't notice how inaccurate it is. While technology has improved over the last decade, we still have a while to go before snow looks like anything more than a white cushy moss on the ground.

Even worse is the actual ice itself. The refraction of light through imperfect liquids is a rather processing heavy calculation. Pair that with the also CPU intensive process of reflection that ice is known for, and you've got something that modern PCs are simply not ready for. Instead, we are given wavy shapes more akin to transparent gelatin. When you're rendering an entire world full of snow and ice, you're forced to settle for oversimplified ideas of what snow and ice are supposed to be.

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I've grown up with pixel art and retro polys, so I can accept the impostors known as video game snow and ice. Less acceptable is the color schemes for this theme. When designing a winter wonderland of your own, you get your choice of three colors: White, gray, light blue. Do you know what colors look very similar to someone with less-than-perfect vision? I'll give you a hint, it's white, gray, and light blue. Those with all three variants of colorblindness have to deal with these colors enough, and anyone with monochromacy is only going to see a blur of various grays. Throw in some white blur from the fast-falling snow (for aesthetics, of course) and you've built yourself a lovely mixing pot of indistinguishable visuals. The only appealing colors available for ice levels are ones that no one should have to see an abundance of.

Artistic vision is subjective. You could argue that you enjoy the graphical style of ice levels. I won't contest that. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, even if they're wrong. It's much harder to argue with good game design. Ice levels being the disrespectful punk teenager of video games, it takes common rules of player control and throws them out the window.

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Much like in real life, video game ice is slippery. Your character slides around like a rocket ship with a broken thruster. Sharp and responsive controls are vital to the enjoyment of any game. So when the player character doesn't respond the moment the player presses a button, the fluidity of gameplay is broken.

Even when you're not slipping around like a baby deer in hover boots, you run the risk of the most common ailment in ice levels: Frozen. To keep in alignment with the cold theming of the terrible tundra you've been subjected to, many games will punish the player with a frozen status should they be struck by certain cold elements. This is a big, cold, brick wall to player progress. It is a slap in the face, if the hand that slapped you also immobilized you in order to slap you once again, just to shame you. This is what being frozen in video games is like. Generally speaking, you don't want to hinder the flow of gameplay. It can be rather jarring to a player to be spontaneously stopped like this. When this happens a good 20 or so times throughout a level, it checks another box on the metaphorical "sick of this garbage" bingo card.

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The proof is in the pudding, the bitter, zero-degree pudding. Ice levels are a poison that continues to flow through the veins of the video game industry, and we continue to let it happen. As much as I would love to suggest that you write to your local senator, saying that you don't want ice levels in your video games, it's too late for us. The subzero Stockholm syndrome is too deeply ingrained into our minds to be able to break free from its frozen grasp. But it's not too late for our future. Sit down with your children and talk to them. Help them understand that ice levels are bad, and you should never do them. It's not "cool" to play ice levels, even if all your friends are doing it.

Practice safe video games, don't do ice levels.

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