The Fourth Wall

Before home computer systems that were capable of displaying sophisticated bitmap graphics such as Commodore 64 and the likes, there was, at least, one gaming console that employed graphical overlays made of translucent plastic that were put on front of the TV screen. The console in question was Magnavox Odyssey which had extremely rudimentary image producing capabilities. Consequently, the main functions of these overlays were to provide detail and, more importantly, context for otherwise abstract visuals. There were a variety of overlays that represented tennis courts, race tracks, or haunted mansions, to name but a few.

How ridiculous the overlays may now seem, they were, one could argue, an innovative placeholder technology that introduced “color graphics” to the black and white world far ahead of its time. Unfortunately, Magnavox Odyssey happened before my time so I have no first-hand experience how the overlays actually worked regarding the overall experience, but I can’t see why not?

The plastic overlays were, of course, a dead-end technology that became obsolete once the color graphics evolved sophisticated enough to display more accurate representations. The main problem with the overlays, besides being awkward and clumsy, was their static nature, and in the realm of real-time imagery, dynamic entities do always override static ones. Or at least that’s the ideal to look up to.

What’s, then, my interest in the said overlays is the fact that they are, in a sense, an archetypical example of using a technically inferior visual paradigm in order to enhance and/or provide additional information on top of a more advanced one. A plastic overlay is indeed less sophisticated a medium than the visuals Magnavox Odyssey was able to produce, even if on the surface the overlays may appeared more pleasing to the eye with all the colors and details.

So, there’s an interesting parallel here in play which occurred to me when flying around in Star Wars: TIE Fighter (LucasArts, 1994) and reflecting the connection between the cockpit of the ship and the “outside world.” The visuals of TIE Fighter are basically a combination of two very different visual paradigms which are gouraud shaded polygons used to depict the external objects and plain bitmap graphics for the cockpit. One could say that the former represents 3D and the latter 2D, but as I wrote earlier, that dichotomy as such can be quite confusing and moot.

TIE Fighter, among its contemporaries, is indeed exactly a case in which an inferior technology (bitmap) enhances a more sophisticated one (gouraud shaded polygons) in that the bitmap cockpit provides much more detailed representation than if it had been realized with 1994’s polygons. The hardware simply wasn’t there yet to depict everything with polygons like nowadays, so the decision to combine the two paradigms was understandable. Of course, the price of the solution, just like with the plastic overlays, came in the form of static nature of the cockpit, as the bitmap couldn’t simulate any spatial movement or change in lighting whatsoever. In fact, I vividly remember fantasizing back then about a genuine polygon cockpit so I could “rotate” my head around freely and which would illuminate depending on the light source, but that did not come true until 1999 when Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance came along.

Since TIE Fighter, spatially static bitmap elements on top of polygon-based imagery have almost vanished by and large, or at least ones of that magnitude. What is there left are different kinds of so-called HUD elements that generally have no representational responsibilities, but rather informational as indicating selected weapon or velocity of a car, for example. Need for Speed: Shift is an interesting case in that regard as it integrates the HUD elements into the game space itself, making the HUD react to acceleration, braking, bumps on the road, and so on.

The ultimate point of all this is that, to my mind, the HUDs in modern games seem to be the last manifestation of those clumsy plastic overlays with which the visuals were enhanced to provide more visual detail and information using a less sophisticated medium or paradigm. Therefore, I think the HUD is something of a relic and usually the element that is the most eager to break the illusion of another reality by shouting “look, here’s your health bar and here’s the ammo! It’s indeed only a game!” It must not come as a surprise that I very much prefer the no-HUD solutions like the one in Dead Space whenever it’s possible or reasonable.

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