I can go on record by saying that texture mapping is the best thing ever happened to real-time graphics, as far as pure technology goes. Therefore, unless something utterly otherworldly happens, we will never have another technological breakthrough of that magnitude in the realm of real-time imagery, which is kind of depressing.
Indeed, to witness hardware-accelerated texture mapping in Sega Model 2 games, such as Daytona USA and Virtua Fighter 2, for the first time at the local arcade was something of a life-altering event for the 15 year-old me. In addition, such sophisticated texture mapping got me thinking that it made real-time graphics finally rich enough visually to be turned into a means to make, for instance, feature movies, which they eventually did.
In this day and age most people probably take texture mapping for granted, but I don’t. I have indeed lived through the transition from plain filled polygons to texture mapped ones, and vividly recall the time when texture mapping was a rare commodity, and partly thus have this peculiar appreciation towards the said technology.
So, the way art assets, like textures and geometry, are primary employed in a video game is to reuse them as much as possible in order to conserve precious memory and ease the workload of the artists. This modus operandi dates back to the very dawn of the medium, thus the perception of today’s gamer is conditioned over the years to encounter the same assets again and again during the game, and, to a degree, accepts that reality. It is what it is.
Then there are delightful exceptions to that rule, like Street Fighter IV type of games (about which I wrote earlier) that provide highly limited spatial freedom, and are thus capable to provide almost completely unique art assets throughout the game. More freedom means more virtual space to fill. Of course, the above can be considered as the age-old quality vs. quantity dichotomy in which “quality” means in this case the overall diversity of visual content. And it’s rather safe to say that quality vs. quantity is an inescapable condition of any creative process, not just that of real-time imagery.
That said, to me it’s exceedingly captivating to come across unique art assets in a game with a relatively high-level of spatial freedom, which happened recently with Portal 2. Like said, Portal 2 is rather pleasant to look at in the first place, but it was the cool graffiti at the beginning of the game that really caught my eye and imagination. At this point, I have to bring up once again Walter Benjamin’s concept of the Aura of an art piece, and how the Aura diminishes when the piece is reproduced. Since real-time imagery seems to be inherently the most repetitive medium what comes to the visual building blocks, the rare and unique art assets really have a profound effect to the trained, or better, conditioned perception, like mine.
Scarcity creates value, and I would do like to see more unique assets, especially textures like the aforementioned graffiti, implemented throughout the games at large. It takes some extra work to do so, but I believe it’s easily worth it and people will appreciate the effort, if not directly, then at least at the unconscious level.