Polygons are fascinating things. Even though they are de facto building blocks for modern 3D imagery, they are in fact inherently 2D entities, bearing no structural thickness or depth whatsoever. Consequently, the logic of how polygon-based objects behave resembles more of an origami than actual, analog solid matter – even today. Only thing that has evolved in the end is the number of folds the hollow papercraft-like objects are being made of, the core nature remaining basically the same over the years.
Of course, polygons are only one side of the prevailing graphics paradigm, texture-mapping being the other one. Texture-mapping has basically had two main functions: One is to add color and, well, texture to surfaces, and second, to provide detail that is unreasonable to carry out with polygons.
Regarding the latter function, texture-mapping was indeed used for a period of time to depict relatively large details like door handles, air intakes, body seams, and headlights, instead of polygons. And since bitmaps can’t provide genuine depth or structure, such details often looked particularly flat and artificial, even if necessary, at the time. In fact, they often reminded me of those stickers on some of my childhood toys that tried to depict extra detail, like buttons or other gadgetry, but which appeared as a cheap strategy to save effort and plastic.
The evolution of polygon-based graphics naturally discarded decal-like approaches when hardware became capable enough to handle more than a handful of polygons on the screen at once. Finally at some point, it indeed became feasible to model most of the details with polygons, even though bump/normal-mapping is obviously still used to handle the most tiniest shape variations.
So, where I’m going with all this is to set up the somewhat anachronistic moment I had with imagery from Gran Turismo 5, which resonated with something I wrote earlier. See, NASCAR cars have these stickers on them that emulate headlights, grills, and other details found in civil cars, giving them more familiar, identifiably look. However, when that concept is translated into a video game context, such as GT 5 (or any other game including NASCAR cars for that matter), it comes across as a nod to the said dawn of texture-mapped imagery, when complex details were indeed pulled off without heavy use of polygons, like they are now.
All things considered, I can only imagine the oddness the artist must have felt creating such an “unrealistic”, “fakey” texture in the late 2000s at the Polyphony Digital offices. I wonder if there was similar out-of-placeness also present when someone modeled Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk for, say, Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. back in 2009. Just take a brief look at it, and you must grasp what I mean.