Gameplay Screenshots: Stories Within Details

I was always fascinated by the amount of details and thoughts video game developers put into their products. There are always stories to be discovered beyond the narratives presented through descriptive texts and cinematic cutscenes. They were often presented as a reward for more adventurous or observant players exploring virtually everything the game has to offer. Some video games such as Journey (2012, PS3) and even rely solely on players discovering such details as primary means of narrative drive.

Such system could be implemented in form of bonus content for accomplishing tasks under extraordinary circumstances, such as completing a game under harder difficulties or other challenging modifiers. Video game series Halo would reward such players with an extra cutscene upon completing the campaign under Legendary difficulty, the hardest gameplay setting available.

Another implementation relies on players committed to fully exploring the game environment, in which they may discover areas that they otherwise would not have found through conventional gameplay. Grand Theft Auto, The Elder Scrolls, and many other games with open-world elements would often include hidden messages in an area difficult to reach or considered by developers to be impossible to access, often referred to as Easter eggs.

There are many more ways tell a story without uttering a single word, but trying to describe them all would be a task beyond a simple blog post. What I am interested in is not how players interact with the game environment, but how non-player characters (NPCs) respond to events within the game. One interesting aspect of flight simulator environment is that aircrafts are always on the move as long as they remain in the air. What do they fly? Where do they fly? How do they fly? I decided to replay Ace Combat Infinity‘s campaign mode to follow and observe NPC aircrafts up close and capture screenshots that I would otherwise miss during normal courses of gameplay.

An NPC squad of F-16C Fighting Falcons frequently fly in extremely close formation, engaging in precise team maneuvers even in heat of battle. Following them proved to be difficult and required many trial and errors since I had to manually chase them in my own controlled aircraft with Heads-Up Display (HUD) disabled in order to properly capture the screenshots.

One of the Ka-50 Hokums engaging naval ships. Following helicopters turned out to be far easier task given that they travel slowly and predictably.

A pair of F/A-18F Super Hornets fall prey to an opposing Su-33 Sea Flanker during the start of an aerial engagement. One interesting detail I discovered while replaying the mission over and over in order to get a good angle is that the two Hornets will always explode on their own even if I intervene and shoot down all closest enemies.

Some of the more unusual planes introduced during Ace Combat Infinity‘s update cycles were the eponymous Sky Kid biplanes originating from 1985 2D horizontal arcade shooter Sky Kid. While lacking in speed compared to conventional jet fighters, these prop-drive planes were instead given vastly improved machine guns that could shred even the toughest of targets in seconds.

Somewhere along the way I thought about using aircraft customization feature to dress up my aircraft in similar livery as the target aircraft I wanted to capture screenshots of, and fly up alongside them to give an impression of a coordinated flight. Trying to match my angle with my “companion” turned out to be rather difficult and time-consuming task, since many enemy planes often zig-zagged around the environment in order to engage their targets (And sometimes the said target being me). However, the result turned out to be much better than simply trying to take solo images.

Same method applied in a different setting, this time capturing enemy MiG-29A Fulcrums flying through canyons and tunnels. Due to their high speed and narrow room for maneuvers it took me many tries until I was understand their flight patterns, position myself ahead of the target, and then take the screenshot once the plane caught up. Of course, I also had to evade their fire while doing so.

An allied F-16C Fighting Falcon, moments before being shot down by hostile Surface-to-Air Missile. This was one of the more incidental screenshots I happened to capture while observing the battlefieldone of the many details that can easily be missed while players are busy engaging in their own combat. Like with the Hornets, these planes also appear to be scripted to be always shot down upon reaching a certain point of the mission.

Unfortunately, Ace Combat Infinity‘s developers never released replay system that was always a feature in previous titles, which allowed users to see a full reenactment of their actions in multiple viewing angles. Having access to such feature would have greatly enhanced player’s ability to produce fan content, and I believe that granting users proper cinematic tools will become even more important, if not vital, as video games continue to make improvements in rendering technology and environment visuals.

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