With current generation PC’s and consoles able to render glorious scenes on-the-fly in almost photo-realistic detail… well, at least until the next step forward when we’ll all look back and wonder how we ever coped with the current blocky mess of low-resolution graphics… the idea of pre-rendering backgrounds feels like a quaint footnote in the annals of gaming’s heritage. It occupied the fabled spot of cutting edge practice for a few short years around the mid to late 90’s and is most closely associated with Capcom survival horror games (the early Resident Evil games and
Dino Crisis) but was used in a few other notable games including Final Fantasy VII. Of course with my self acknowledged predisposition to Resident Evil 2 I do have a soft spot for this particular visual style and, having been reminded of it following my recent nostslgia trip into Devil May Cry, my brain has been idley mulling over the technique from a practical and stylistic point of view. The ‘What’ & ‘Why’ of pre-rendered backgrounds is worth picking over before getting to how I feel about them, especially as there may be (shockingly) more than a few people reading who’ve never experienced a game with fixed camera angles and pre-rendered backgrounds.
Pre-rendering was a technique used to create a visually detailed scene in a 3D world long before gamers had access to systems capable of dynamically rendering that level of background detail during play. I’m going to draw upon the almighty Resident Evil 2 to illustrate this, but it’s essentially the same for all games that fall under this umbrella (roll on snare) although some titles used other tricks such as panning the static background to further cement the illusion. In the case of RE2, the characters, enemies and all ‘moveable’ elements are rendered in 3D as standard with polygon based models, however none of the background elements are present; the constraining walls, floor, and ceiling of the room are all invisible to the player. Instead a simple flat image is dropped into the background for the 3D models to jiggle about in-front of. Assuming that the perspective, walls, floor, and doors all line up with those that the 3D entities are obeying then the illusion is maintained. To look back now, the idea of putting 3D models on a 2D background and assuming everyone would ‘fall’ for the trick seems at best naive and worst laughable, but at the time, coming from the 16-bit era, it was a completely logical step. In 8-bit and 16-bit games, the background is more often than not a completely separate layer in the game-screen that the player has no interaction with, the sun-drenched vistas of Sonic’s Green Hill zone little more than a pretty scrolling picture to brighten up the bits of the screen not being used, so why not do the same with these newfangled 3D games? Not only satisfied with fooling the player, Capcom go as far as revealing the trick in RE2; when the hapless Leon or unfortunate Claire bite the dust, the background image fades to black freeing up the camera to rotate around their body during the ‘You Died!’ screen. The game-over ‘background fade’ is portrayed as an artistic choice, but is also a necessity to allow the dramatic camera sweep not otherwise possible with a static background image.
Of course, during normal gameplay the camera must remain static for the effect to work; intimately tying pre-rendered backgrounds with the idea of fixed camera games. As the player moves through the environment the view flicks from one shot to the next, each with a different pre-rendered background; RE2 contains several hundred static background images to accommodate every camera angle in the game and multiple versions of a shot where some background detail changes due to ingame events… so why go to all this trouble? in short: to allow for a detailed ingame world. Yes, there were games of the same era that created fully 3D worlds, but the level of detail was dictated by whatever furniture you could make using only a few polygons and slapping some low-resolution texture on them. Metal Gear Solid represents one of the finest games on that system, but swinging in to first person view it becomes clear that the world is mostly made up of various cuboids carving out the broad details of the map and using a dry blocky military setting to mask those limitations. In RE2 Shinji Mikami wanted to construct a ruined Romero-esque city, gothic police station, and interiors brimming with detail which wasn’t possible using ingame 3D rendering.
It’s this detail that I love about the pre-rendered backgrounds; look at the S.T.A.R.S. office: Chris’ guitar and jacket, CD’s scattered on the desk, Rebecca’s first aid bag hanging up, crooked pictures, and discarded cups. It’s a world ripped from a movie and even playing it now I still seem to notice new things each time I wander through those corridors. I’m also impressed that rather than just ‘putting up’ with the fixed camera views, the designers even go as far to use them creatively; there are times when the player enters a room to be faced with a viewpoint looking back at themselves and the doorway that they’ve just come through, only able to hear the moist squelching of the zombie threat in the room, forcing them to move forward into the unknown to reveal more about their location. By taking control of the camera away from the player each shot of the game feels framed to be aesthetically pleasing rather than just functional and particular features can be pulled into focus such as an early moment where a low viewing angle shows a group of zombies chowing down on a fresh victim in the foreground whilst the player runs past in the background. These are the moments when I think the fixed views, pre-rendered backgrounds and charm of Raccoon City shine the brightest.
Of course I’d be fooling myself to think that it’s all good; gamers who didn’t experience this style at the time tend to find it a jarring way to play. The fixed view in some ways spawned tank-controls through which player movement always with respect to the character rather than the camera angle. Artistically framed viewpoints often make for tricky or awkward gameplay, and even with the healthy leniency that RE2 provides in aiming there are moments where an unhelpful camera change or enemy just out of sight can cost health or ammo… or often, both. In a game that contains puzzles, like Resident Evil 2, it’s also very obvious which elements in the environment are moveable as their 3D models stick out compared to their surroundings removing any subtlety to the interactive elements. Conversely where items are found by just “clicking” next to a drawer there is little to indicate something interactive rather than just a piece of scenery leading to the inevitable laps around each room just to be sure nothing has been missed.
As systems became more powerful games began to move away from this technique, relying on pre-rendering less and less, although it could be argued that the skyboxes of modern open world titles evolved from the idea that there needs to be ‘something’ in the background behind the glorious textures and intricate environmental design. Even texture mapping itself could be considered a form of pre-rendering as it removes the need to model fine detail. I think it’s pretty obvious that I’m viewing the whole thing through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, but I like to think that even without my skewed perspective it was an important and creative step in the move towards modern day ingame environments.
Do you have any favorite games that use this technique? Feel free to jump into the comments!