Smoother, Sharper, Duller

I think it’s fair to say that Wolfenstein 3D, released almost exactly 20 years ago, was the de facto ground zero for the modern first-person shooter, even more so than Doom which came 18 months later. Wolf 3D was a killer combination of remarkably fluid gameplay and groundbreaking visuals that pushed the envelope what consumer hardware could do back then. I, for one, saw real-time texture mapping in action at the first time in Wolf 3D, and remember initially believing it was just another tile-based first-person game like Dungeon Master when my friend tried to describe it to me. When I finally had the chance to see Wolf 3D for myself, the whole first-person paradigm I had in my head hitherto changed in that very instant.

Those moments of realization that there’s no going back are the ones that keeps me following the medium, and in the Wolf 3D case it was the texture mapping that did it to me. Suddenly, the line between polygon-based and bitmap-based graphics got increasingly blurred forever.

Of course, at that time there were drastic technical restrictions to the textures in terms of resolution and color palette. Indeed, as if the blocky look of them wasn’t enough, the lack of colors had to be compensated by generating additional shades through dithering, which was and is a common practice whenever operating on a limited palette. Dithering is obviously now obsolete of a technique, as the number of colors available on modern systems is virtually infinite.

What happens, then, when visuals using dithering, such as the textures in Wolf 3D, are brought into an environment that is free from restrictions described above, and on top of that, features a drastically higher screen resolution and texture filtering, like the iPhone?

To me, it comes across as wrong and out of place, especially since it’s clear that the dithering isn’t a product of artistic choice, but something stemmed originally from technical limitations.

I’m a firm believer in the notion that an art piece should be experienced first and foremost in the exact condition it first left the creators’ hands with all the flaws and deficiencies included. “Enhancing” an old piece, especially a historically remarkable one, with modern technology simply doesn’t add as much to the piece as it takes away from it, which is something George Lucas notoriously failed to grasp. The fact is, a considerable portion of an art piece consists of its historical and technological context, which is then eroded away with anachronistic technologies, such as the higher screen resolution and texture filtering in this case.

Seeing the dithering effect on a filtered texture through the iPhone’s high-resolution screen is a strange, Frankenstein-esque visual experience. To me, the game appears now merely as a cheap and rather uninteresting piece of real-time imagery, not one that pushed the medium forward.