The Art of Explosions

Since man first began to yearn, he yearned to blow things up. Once man began to create video games, he yearned to replicate blowing things up digitally.

When it comes to action/shooter games, great gameplay is generally what differentiates the fun and memorable from the mediocre and forgettable. To me, though, one crucial element to a great shooting game is the feedback you get while destroying your foes. This feedback mainly comes in the form of explosions.

In my mind, there are three key parts to a masterful explosion: the sound, the animation, and the particle effects. Of course, there are other things to bear in mind when it comes to the pure atavistic joy of blowing things up, but when I consider all the many explosions I’ve encountered within the confines of video games, the best ones excel in each of these areas. I’ll break these down in the following article.

1. The Boom

Without a good BOOM or BLAM or KABOOM (or insert whatever explode-y sound you like here), the destruction of a baddie feels weak and unfulfilling. The more earth-shattering and booming with bass the sound effect is, the more satisfying the explosion. When I shoot an enemy fighter ship down with my fully-powered plasma cannon, I don’t want to hear a *dink* or a *thunk* or a *thwip* or any of those tinny sounds that one might hear if he were to kick a stuffed animal. I want to hear a visceral, thunderous sound that will make all the world’s denizens quake in fear of my unbridled might.

2. The Animation

When talking about 2D sprite-based games, a good explosion animation will generally involve flames or some sort of flame-like construction. I’m guessing this is because we’re all familiar with fire and its destructive capacity, and thus most reality-based explosions include an element of flames. You can do explosions without flames (see Geometry Wars), but in all likelihood, an enjoyable explosion will involve the orange, lapping fingers of the goddess of destruction.

Tatsujin 2

A nice mushroom cloud. (from Tatsujin 2)

A slick game explosion should mimic the actions of a real one. It starts with a small spark in the middle of the enemy (or at the point where the projectile strikes the baddie), then mushrooms out to its fullest extent, before the flames dissolve into the empty space where the now-deceased enemy used to be. Some like to put arms of fire that blast outward from the explosion’s center and possibly rotate slightly as they evaporate, an effect that I personally endorse, but so long as the central mass of the explosion is filled with a brief, blinding flash and a thick veil of fire, it has the makings of an agreeable decimation sequence. It’s also worth considering including ancillary explosions, either within the central mass or along the periphery. These extra blasts serve to emphasize the main devastation while not overpowering it.

Raiden DX

Yes, please… (from Raiden DX)

Another thing to bear in mind with explosions is size. A good explosion should be at least as large as the object you’re decimating, but preferably somewhere between 1.5x and 3x its size. The reasons for this should be apparent, of course. Firstly, an explosion must, by definition, be as large as or larger than the exploding target, or else it would be an implosion. Also, it just doesn’t feel right, to speak non-technically, when an object you’ve been blasting away at just pops and fizzles inward like a deflating balloon (unless, of course, the enemy is a balloon). When it comes to size in this arena, bigger is almost always better. (This may not be 100% true, though, especially in shoot-em-ups with lots of enemies on-screen. It might be best to limit the hugest explosions to the bigger, more important enemies, like bosses, to keep the screen from becoming too cluttered.)

3. The Particles

I’m not going to lie: I really like particle effects. So perhaps others might not see particles as being as important to explosion-y goodness as I do. I believe that particle effects really help to flesh out explosions and make them more exciting and fluid, while also adding an element of randomness that makes everything look more organic. Particle effects are like the sprinkles on a piece of cake. Sure, the cake can be just as delicious without them, but having sprinkles gives it that extra bit of sweetness and crunch that can push it over the line from “Yeah, this cake is good” to “Ooh, this is some great cake!”

Geometry Wars

Avast! There be particles! (from Geometry Wars)

Particle effects are also fairly straightforward to implement in most cases, and particle-handling and display code can generally move between projects relatively easily with minimal change. Even if you’re just using primitive shapes, like single-colored rectangles and circles, the randomness these particles exhibit makes them visually appealing and adds greatly to the experience of destroying things. These particles don’t necessarily need to be primitives, of course. They can be animated sprites of their own, like rotating debris or mini explosions, or even just lighting effects that disperse outwards. Whatever the case, the more particles there are, the more heightened the sense of frantic action and intensity, which creates a more enjoyable gaming experience.

Conclusion

The destruction of bad guys is as crucial to the life of a shoot-em-up as blood flowing through a human’s veins. If it’s done well, it can result in some awesome experiences that are hard to replicate in other entertainment mediums, like television and movies. A good visual and aural response to obliterating an on-screen foe really amps up the connection between the player and the action that’s happening on the screen, which makes the destruction that much more visceral and pleasing.