The question of resolutions has aesthetic and technical dimensions.
We must consider both how detailed the graphics should be, and how large the player should be relative to the screen.
Let’s look at other titles for guidance.
There is, of course, Mario. The original featured an eye popping 256×256 screen resolution and a character who is 16 pixels tall. The ratio here is 1/16.
I want to include the sequel to point out a different approach. Mario 2 had a larger screen resolution: 400×300. The interesting thing is that instead of maintaining the ratio of 1/16, which would have made Mario just shy of 20 pixels tall, instead they made the player twice that size! The new ratio was around 1/8.
The more detailed player avatar fit with the game because this one is more character driven. Think back to before Mario was a household name with a whole fictional universe — he was just a little guy running through levels fighting anonymous baddies for his stereotypical damsel. There was no emotional connection there.
When Mario 2 came out, Mario had gained in popularity. People liked the characters, and so they became emotionally invested. This was a game in which the player could choose which character to play, adding more investment.
So I’d like to propose the theory that the level of emotional depth in a game is related to the size and detail of the character relative to the screen.
Sonic was Sega’s answer to Mario. Sonic is a real character moreso than Mario was ever intended to be. He has a history, friends, a sensible goal that we’re meant to care about. His distinctive character design draws us in. According to my theory, he should take up more of the screen, and he does. With a resolution similar to Mario 2, he stands 60 pixels tall, instead of Mario’s 40, putting this game’s screen to character ratio at 1/5, the largest ratio so far!
Moving to a more serious game, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night offers a depth in the storyline previously untouched. Here was a game really driven by story, and it successfully sucked in a whole generation of gamers. With a vertical resolution of 242 pixels and a character standing 55 pixels tall, its ratio is 1/4.4, beating out even the distinctive sonic.
Abe’s Oddysee is one of my all-time favorite games. The mechincs are intensely satisfying, and the visuals are superb, but what makes this piece really stand out is its personality. Completly unique premise with strong classical drama undertones, combined with really clever delivery, pitch-perfect dark humor, and a lot of soul combine to make this game a masterpiece. This is a case of a game that really tries to draw you in emotionally for your little pal Abe. It makes you really want to hate those darn sligs and slogs, and fear the deadly Scrabs. And guess what? With a vertical resolution of 480 pixels and a maincharacter standing 100 pixels high, the ratio is 1/4.8, neck and neck with the moody Castlevania. It’s worth noting that Abe, the main character, is actually one of the smaller creatures in the game. The docile Elum, terrifying Scrab, and evil Glukkon, are all substantially taller. This is a game that embraces detail.
Because the concept for my game is to be story and character driven, I am going to follow the example I’ve been given and aim for a 1/4 to 1/5 ratio of character size to screen size. Just as the technology of each of the preceding games affected its actual resolution (ranging from 256×256 in the 80s, to 640×480 in 1997), so will technical limitations affect my choice of resolution. I’m guessing it’ll sit somewhere between 1024×768 to 1280×1024.
Here’s a little mockup I did showing what characters of various sizes look like on screens of different resolutions. According to the research above, if I choose 1280×1024 (as I would like to), then I should have 256px sprites. If I choose 1024×768, I should have 192px sprites. For some reason if I use 800×600, I could choose 128px and be between 1/4 and 1/5 still.
It’s still too early to tell what resolutions the engine will be able to push once all the elements are interacting with each other.
Another consideration is that not everyone will have screens of a given resolution, and I want to maintain crispness. One option is to expose different amounts of screen depending on the player’s resolution, but as we’ve seen, the size of the character on screen will affect the player’s ability to bond. I want to maintain the ratio. Another option is to enforce a minimum resolution and have any displays with a larger resolution just display the game area in the center of the screen, surrounded by black (sort of how wide screen movies used to do it on standard sized TV screens). The overall picture would be smaller, but the ratio would be maintained.
I haven’t decided yet, but it’s all good food for thought.