Necessary Evil

Every creative person can affirm with ease the fact that a work of art is only rarely an exact manifestation of the author’s initial vision, but oftentimes very much about dreadful trade-offs and compromises. Which is especially true with pieces pushing new boundaries in terms of technology. It is what it is, and to accept that reality as early as possible helps to deal with the frustration later on if and when the finalized product falls short of the expectations.

From the perspective of the end user, there are basically two kinds of compromises, or at least in the realm of real-time imagery which is by nature very much about trade-offs. Ones that are reasonable obvious to the spectator possessing general knowledge of the medium, and ones that become evident only when additional, specific information of the product is provided by the developer.

Let’s first examine the former variety of compromises that are indeed fairly noticeable from the surface. An apt example of such can be found, for example, in a polygon-based racing game called Stunts (1990) that featured a rather compromised bitmap backdrop.

Indeed, due to the peculiar algorithm that handles the rotation of the bitmap milieu, the solution begins to fall apart the more the view is being tilted. The way the backdrop is dealt with is a rather odd one as the algorithm doesn’t actually rotate the bitmap at all, but rather skews it quite crudely. The backdrop is clearly divided vertically into 10 pixels wide strips which are then moved individually along the y-axis in order to create an appearance of rotation. And when the screen tips over a certain point, the backdrop vanishes altogether.

One can only speculate the reason for such a bizarre algorithm. Perhaps it was genuinely best what the developer could come up with given the hardware limitations at the time. Or they just didn’t know how to code a proper algorithm for bitmap rotation within the time frame they had. In any case, the developer had to make a call to either include the inconsistent and unstable solution into the game, or simply leave the whole feature out.

Since the backdrop performs most of the time reasonable well, I believe the pros ultimately outweighed the cons. However, it’s quite obvious that the developer wasn’t particularly proud of the solution, as the horizon indeed disappears, I would argue, by design, when it really starts to disintegrate.

Another more recent instance of a compromise that comes across quite noticeably is the Gran Turismo 5’s (2010) particle system that, for some reason, gets exceedingly blocky when viewed from certain angles. Frankly, I’m not completely sure what’s going on there since other games with similar particle effects chiefly don’t do that. However, I’m positive there’s some valid trade-off involved considering the super-ambitious developer, Polyphony Digital. Perhaps the particle system was put in place to future-proof the graphics engine for the next generation of hardware, since the smoke and dust perform beautifully in the Photo Mode.

As said, the above two cases are instances of compromises evident to the spectator simply by experiencing the product as is. To recognize, then, the second form of compromise requires indeed specific information of the production process itself and the original vision, dreams and hopes of the developer.

One example of such is the production of Alan Wake (2010) that initially was very much hyped for its supposed open-world structure. The end result, however, was a purely linear experience which made the game seem like a compromise, even if true, to those who had followed the production from the outset. But people without such knowledge saw Alan Wake merely as a kick-ass action thriller, which it was.

In the end, compromises are what actually get things done. In fact, one could argue that the whole concept of design is at its core about dealing with compromises and trade-offs. More than anything, though, the art of compromise is to be able to step back and evaluate the big picture, to see the forest for the trees, and then doing the right thing for the product as a whole and everyone involved.