Proper Definition

Every era seems to have its own hyperbolical prefixes, such as “super” in the 90s, which are then being used ad nauseam by marketing professionals to sell people stuff they didn’t realized needing. Super this and super that, and when everything is super, nothing is. Eventually, the buzzword becomes obsolete and replaced with some other soon-to-be meaningless word.

In the past half of a decade or so, one of such words has been “HD” which is, of course, an acronym for High Definition. It used to indicate a specific level of sharpness in video imagery, but today, the term is slapped pretty loosely on everything imaginable, including mascara containers and contact lenses.

However, where the HD situation is really peculiar is the iOS App Store where the developers have been mostly running wild with HD labeling since the release of the iPad. It seemed for a while that no iPad app was safe from the magic touch of HD attached to its title (as if there would be Standard Definition iPad apps), but luckily this trend is starting to fade out. In fact, the titles like Flight Control HD, Fruit Ninja HD, Real Racing 2 HD, and Cut the Rope HD to name but a few are very much reminisce of Super Nintendo games of which many were labeled as Super Something, or Nintendo 64 era with Something 64 titling, which did nothing but diminished the impact of the prefix / suffix at high rate.

HD labeling was and is obviously a way to differentiate iPad apps from iPhone ones, and an attempt to justify the higher pricing, as there are supposedly more pixels to work on, which is an absurd position to begin with. But what made the iPad’s HDness even more silly and arbitrary was the Retina Display introduced by the iPhone 4, which carries only 28 % less pixels than the displays found in both iPad one and two.

Of course, HD isn’t completely an empty marketing ploy, but does refer to an actual phenomenon of increased pixel number and density on displays at large. In the realm of technology, the more is usually the better, and in that regard resolution isn’t considered to be an exception. And in most cases, it isn’t.

So, I would argue that resolution isn’t indeed necessarily an absolute value, but should be treated as an integral component of the visual landscape as a whole. In other words, sometimes resolution can be too high in relation to the actual content of the imagery.

The most obvious case of the above that comes to mind is emulation of old hardware where, in my opinion, the original resolution should always be kept intact even if higher resolutions were available. This has got to do more than anything with the sanctity of piece of art, which is fundamental. On a side note, I generally despise the idea of “HD remakes”, too.

The second case is something I realized just recently when playing Shadowgun by Madfinger Games on my iPod touch with a Retina Display. As I wrote earlier, Retina represents something of an end of evolutionary advancement of pixel density on consumer displays, since it’s hard to imagine any human need for much sharper image. And it isn’t about that 640kt RAM this time. Sure, one can differentiate singular pixels in some cases even on a Retina Display, but with proper anti-aliasing applied, pixels become virtually unnoticeable to a bare eye.

So, Shadowgun, being a somewhat tour de force in iOS visuals otherwise, illustrated the disconnection between a super-sharp resolution and a relatively low polycount. What most iOS games still lack in terms of visual fidelity is indeed the number of polygons, thus it’s rather peculiar to see fairly crude imagery geometry-wise through such a clear lens, i.e. resolution. It goes without saying it’s better to mask the deficiencies somehow than bring them forward, and the Retina Display does exactly the latter.

Consequently, it’s weird to say but, in my mind, some of the more ambitious polygon-based games on iOS, such as Shadowgun or, say, Dead Space, don’t in a way “deserve” the Retina resolution. Yet. A visual landscape of a real-time product, or any visual product for that matter, should be first and foremost about authenticity (in regard to emulation), balance and coherence. At the moment – and I do believe the situation is mere temporary – the resolution of the Retina Display is a bit too high in relation to other visual structures, at least in the aforementioned instances and the like.