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Virtual Dioramas: Look, But Don't Touch

Ryse: Son of Rome is not a great game. You could probably argue that it’s not even a good game. But it sure is pretty. That’s not surprising coming from the studio that created Crysis, the game that brought the most bleeding-edge PCs to their knees and inspired the new standard of “but can it run Crysis?” Unlike Crysis, though, Ryse lacks a foundation of compelling gameplay to support its impressive visuals. The hacking and slashing is competent, nothing more.

And yet, despite its bland action, I came away from Ryse content. The eye candy did its job, driving me forward to see the next stunning set piece. And ‘set piece’ is the right term; the environments feel just like a movie set, beautiful on the outside and empty on the inside. Invisible walls abound, and the extent of your interaction is smashing up a handful of breakable urns.


Ryse belongs in a category of games I call Virtual Dioramas: all style and little substance, with a look-but-don’t-touch philosophy to their digital worlds. The constant push for better graphics has only led to more examples of late, with titles like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture championing the pensive beauty of the so-called Walking Simulator.

The Order: 1886

Virtual Dioramas don’t usually grab me. I’m a function-over-form guy, which is why the gobsmacking detail of Star Wars: Battlefront wasn’t enough to pull me in, and why L.A. Noire’s hollow city left me disappointed. Crysis 2 and 3, despite preserving the series’ visual splendour, streamlined the action to the point where it could no longer keep me interested. And for all the critical acclaim heaped upon Journey, my experience with it echoed an art museum: aesthetically arresting, but entirely ephemeral.

On the other hand, I’m one of the few people who loved The Order: 1886. The lavish environments and the intriguing story breathed life into steampunk London, masking its total linearity. I also have a fondness for the space-station mission in Call of Duty: Ghosts and how it felt like a place that existed apart from the player, more than any location in the rest of the series. I spent a good long while just floating between the struts of LOKI Space Station, drifting amongst space debris and gazing at the Earth below.


There is value to be found in beauty for its own sake, even if it’s kept at arm’s reach. With the rise of Virtual Reality, virtual tourism could become an industry unto itself. If so, we’ll likely see more and more games leverage the simple joy of inhabiting another place and admiring the scenery. What locations would you like to explore, even if you could only look but not touch?

Matt Sayer is 50% gamer, 50% writer, 50% programmer, and 100% terrible at maths. You can read more of his articles over at Unwinnable as well as right here, friend him on Steam, or tweet him cat photos at @sezonguitar

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