Simulation by Proxy

If there’s one concept regarding video games to which everything written here at my blog comes ultimately down, it have got to be the concept of simulation. What’s so intriguing and unique, then, about simulation in relation to other forms of representation is that simulation doesn’t replicate only how a certain entity look, but how it functions beneath the appearance. Simulation is always a dynamic system of input and output, which is the beauty of it.

As I noted in my thesis, simulation as a notion has basically two sides: An educational/scientific, i.e. more “serious” side and a playful side, of which the latter video games are more closely representative. The main difference between the two is that simulations in the video game space are mostly aesthetic-driven and less accurate regarding the physical reality than the educational/scientific simulations. So simulations for merely entertainment purposes need merely to look good and be truthful enough to provide a credible impression, which makes such simulations that more interesting to a visually oriented person, like myself.

Bearing that in mind, video game simulations, such as of lighting or physics, are more than anything about compromises and trade-offs, and thus generally far from perfection, but decreasingly so as the technology moves forward. Consequently, it’s pretty given that practically every simulation technology that comes along is mere temporary, waiting to be replaced with more advanced one. Of current technologies, for instance Ambient Occlusion in all its forms is such a lighting solution of which obsolescence is only a matter of time once genuine indirect illumination schemes become more feasible.

What, then, comes to simulation of space, there was this endeavor in the 90s to use voxel ray casting technique to depict 3D landscapes in a relatively detailed, but highly constrained manner. The first commercial video game using such a method was NovaLogic’s Comanche: Maximun Overkill released in 1992, which blew visually the competition out of the water. There wasn’t anything near as impressive as Comanche on the market at the time, and everyone with a decent PC must have thought that the future belonged to some kind of a voxel system, not filled polygons.

We all know what happened to the mainstream use of voxels later on, but there was that brief moment in the early 90s when voxels did arguably better job in conveying the appearance of a bumpy 3D landscape. Of course, the visual glory of voxels came with the typical limitations associated with ray casting. Still, polygons in 1992 were too few and far between to be able to depict even remotely the complexity provided by voxels, and as such, far behind purely aesthetically speaking. Eventually games like Flight Unlimited released in 1995 started to establish the idea that texture mapped polygons was really the way to go even for detailed scenery in which voxels excelled so well, and today we really have no credible alternative paradigm what comes to geometry.

To yet further illustrate my case, Comanche 4 released in 2001 was the first one in the series to abandon voxels for hardware-accelerated polygons, the technology that was the final nail in the coffin of software rendered voxels.

The demise of voxels proves if anything that in the realm of simulation technologies, some solutions are hot at one point, and obsolete in the next. And who knows if the contemporary polygon-paradigm which we so certainly believe in, will be somewhere down the line substituted with some uncanny technology that our current minds can’t even grasp.

After all, technology by nature is not built to last, but to be replaced.