Unnecessary Polygons

I have always had warm feelings towards polygons as pure forms, even (or especially) back when they were such a scarce resource that one could literarily count the number of onscreen polygons – a task which often low frame rate made quite feasible to undertake. There is some elegant, cold beauty to be found in old-school flat shaded polygons, and a game like Virtua Racing still looks in a way as absorbing as it did back in the day.

Obviously things have changed since, and today polycount isn’t considered as a major issue any more within the real-time medium. And the use of polygons aren’t limited only in flight simulators and such either, like in the early days, but are been employed across the genres. In fact, polygon-based imagery has become so mainstream and mundane that polygons go generally unnoticed in these days: they are simply the stuff what everything is made of.

That said, an interesting pheonemon happened when I fired up Reckless Racing on my iPod Touch one day. The geometry in that game really jumped out of the scenery, even though the game wasn’t supposed to be all that three-deey in the first place, but rather resembling an old-school top-down racer. For instance, the extra-tall churchtower appeared really impressive on the screen when driving past it, which got me thinking what actually made that seemingly generic geometry so special?

Let me tell you.

I believe the reason lies in the 2D gameplay itself, meaning the game could have been carried out in theory without using a single polygon, like they did in the ol’ days. The thing is, any game using, for instance, a first-person-view needs some sort of a 3D engine to work out even in theory, since the gameplay operates usually in all three axes (the z-axis is actually the key issue[1]). But games with strict x and y –axes (2D) gameplay, such as RR, don’t require a 3D engine to be fully functional, thus in a way polygons are there solely as luxury items without any genuine need or purpose in terms of the gameplay. And the church tower in question was obviously the pinnacle of that excess-ness and unnecessary-ness that for some reason fascinates me. Or what fascinates in luxury by and large, I might add.

Additionally, part of the aesthetic charm must stem from the disorientation the visual muscle-memory of hundreds of sprite-based 2D games with a similar perspective causes to one’s brain. Perhaps the mind projects now-obsolete limitations on top of the 3D imagery and acts surprised when the fantasy limits are suddenly “broken” by polygons sticking out of the ground.

Of course, there are number of similar cases which fascinate equally, like Street Fighter IV and Bionic Commando Rearmed to name but a few. The latter even includes completely unnecessary, but beautiful, ragdoll physics as a bonus.

[1] For instance, Wolfenstein 3D operates only in two axis: x and z, but needs a 3D engine because of the z -axis.