Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Simulated Ownership

July 1, 2012

I came across recently with a scene that I barely knew existed, which is the car replica scene. The goal of the scene is to replicate the appearance of an exotic car, such as Ferrari or Lamborghini, as accurately as possible by modifying a regular, far cheaper base-vehicle. Yes, it’s an old thing and on some level I was aware of it, but, as said, it didn’t occur me until recently how sophisticated replicas of today could be. The level of detail simply blew my mind.

It’s indeed quite remarkable how far the industry that’s virtually car piracy has come, and that some high-end replicas are even labeled as being of “showroom quality”, which casts a shadow of doubt over every exotic car I confront in the future.  And everything is, of course, being realized with a fraction of the cost of a genuine article.

What, then, makes such an endeavor reasonable is the strategy to replicate the mere surface of the original and some of the functionality, which resembles quite closely the concept of simulation and its connection to the concept of toy of which I have discussed at length here on the site and in my thesis.

In some sense, a replica car is indeed something of an ultimate toy since it simulates, like a toy, ownership of something unobtainable that’s in this case an expensive luxury car, or in the case of a child, any actual car. What we want but can’t have, we fantasy of having, and owning a replica Ferrari is just that. In the end, though, replica cars, or pirated luxury items in general, are obtained for the glazing eyes of the Other, not just for personal enjoyment. The thing is, it’s pretty difficult to enjoy luxury items when there’s no-one watching.

However, my ultimate point here is that replica cars resemble conceptually not only toys but also very much their digital counterparts in the realm of real-time imagery. Indeed, a simulated car in a video game does exactly what a real-life replica does: copies the mere surface of the original without the underlying structure, and the functionality of the original to some extent.

One particularly fascinating and illuminating detail in some of higher-end replicas is the way the supposed engine is being realized when it’s visible through a glass hood. Since the actual engine powering a replica most likely doesn’t look anything like the original, a molded engine cover is put on top of it to make the engine appear something from a genuine exotic car.

As already established, this kind of visual mimicry is intriguingly similar to the principles found in the digital realm, in that a) it makes sense to model solely the parts visible to the casual observer, and b) the appearance and the function are two separate entities or layers. In a replica, functionality is provided by the base-car with its engine, chassis, hinges, transmission and so forth. In a polygon-based car, it’s the simulation algorithms, such as those handling the physics and car mechanics, that in the end make the vehicle tick. Polygons and textures are mere surface.

As oppose to replicas, however, simulated cars in video games like Gran Turismo 5 are more of a private fantasy than shared one since it’s quite difficult to fool and impress others with a collection of polygons and textures, in contrast to plastic and fiberglass. Or, at least not before 3D printing makes it possible to translate polygons to real-life items. Like exotic luxury cars.

It seems there’s an innate need for ownership in all of us, more in some than in others. In the case of financially unobtainable things, we tend to resort to all sorts of shortcuts like daydreaming or, in the most extreme cases, violent robbing and stealing. So in comparison, replicas and video games are pretty harmless an alternative for that kind of aspirations.

Necessary Evil

February 20, 2012

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.

Watch, Don’t Touch

May 20, 2011

It’s rather safe to say that video games are a visual medium first and foremost. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I consider myself substantially a visual person, as well. In fact, so much so that I find it sometimes frustrating to, say, watch a movie, as my concentration gears constantly towards the mere visuals of the film on the expense of the story, motives, and characters. Consequently, I don’t have a problem to go see a movie with a razor thin plot, as long as the visual department delivers.

Besides being significantly visual entities, video games are, by definition, a highly interactive medium, too, and to be able to give justice for video games is to play one. While video games are primarily meant to be played with, I for one have always found also pleasure in just watching someone else to play, or a game to play by itself, like in arcades.

The reason for this may stem from the period in my early childhood (long before the Internet era) when my prime source of novel video game experiences was my big brother, who understandably wasn’t all that excited about me continuously hanging out in his room, let alone playing with his computer. So, when I did was allowed to stay and observe from aside him playing, the moments were pure luxury to me. And I can’t count the number of times when I was blown away by some new game, sitting in a chair, trying to contain my excitement.

I believe this was a phase in my life when I learned, not to play with, but to watch video games, due to the limited access to them. There was like a force field between the games and me, which must have made them even more mysterious and intriguing to me. Later on, when I bought a gaming system of my own and started to follow the industry by myself, at least part of the magic was irreversibly lost. The force field was gone so now I could squeeze every bit out of the games I had in my possession, making them efficiently more mundane and less exciting in the process (which resonates with something I wrote earlier).

All in all, the most fascinating video games to me have always been indeed the ones that I have had a restricted access to, and I think it got to do with something Walter Benjamin called in a 1936 essay the Aura of a Work of Art. According to Benjamin, an object loses its charm when it’s mechanically reproduced and thus becomes more accessible to the audience.

In the era of instant access to everything the humanity has ever produced, we could use some of that big brother mentality (in a non-1984 sense) to keep artifacts more mysterious and thus exceedingly fascinating again.

Myth of 2D

December 21, 2010

From time to time, you encounter a discussion concerning concepts of 2D and 3D namely in the realm of animated movies, but also in computer imagery at large. General consensus of which imagery should be considered 2D and which 3D seems to be that if an image is drew by hand, it’s 2D imagery by default, whereas 3D imagery is always something realized with a 3D software like Autodesk 3ds Max. Simple enough, right?

So this may sound crazy, but that hand-drawn “2D” Bambi over there left looks pretty three-dimensional to me, and in fact, I don’t see any “dimensional differences” to the 3D rendered wireframe ball next to him. Notice how Bambi’s rear leg is behind the front one, and how the shape of his head, ears, and rest of the body are all properly aligned in perspective, no?

The thing is, the whole idea of 2D/3D division is inherently broken, which only distracts and limits our visual thinking in terms of representational imagery.

See, at the most fundamental level, it takes only two objects to overlap each other for image to become 3D – and I’m not just splitting hairs here, but illustrating how empty and misused the notion of 2D really is. Basically, if the use of perspective is considered as 3D imagery – as it logically should be – then at least 99,99% of any depictive imagery is in essence 3D, making the whole split meaningless. That Bambi is as 3D as any.

So, what people actually mean by “3D” in these days, besides the obnoxious stereoscopy, is really the process of how the perspective distortion is achieved in given image. If an algorithm from a 3D software or engine handles the perspective, then it is “3D”, but if the perspective is a result of a well-coordinated hand, it’s “2D”, which is of course a completely nonsensical train of thought.

Sure, 2D is a relevant concept in many fields, even within real-time imagery, like when talking about gameplay. But when discussing and evaluating computer-generated representations in general level, the notion often looses enough of its descriptive power to only confuse the discussion, not adding to it.

So next time, instead of asking:

Gee *drool*, is that two-dee or three-dee graphics I see?, ask:

Pardon me sir, but may I enquire how much of the perspective is conducted in this piece of art algorithmically, and to what extent artistically by hand?

That Pixelation Effect

October 3, 2010

One of the most fondest memories I have towards gaming must be the one summer day when my big brother and I played Narc (in free-play mode) for the first time at the arcade of a certain theme park we visited every summer back in the early 90s. The premise of the game was basically “Miami Vice on steroids”: two cops, white and black, cleaning up the streets using a sports car (equipped with machine guns) as transportation.

Narc was cool, brutal, had an attitude, and above all, absolutely beautiful to look at with all the digitized sprites and smooth animations. And that gruesome violence that gave a whole new meaning for war on drugs was something novel back then. Using the rocket launcher never got old, one of the reasons being the gorgeous smoke trail it left behind.

And furthermore, it had this cool transitional pixelation effect in it when the criminals were “indentified” on a computer screen at the beginning of each level. It lasted only about a second, but it made a lasting effect on me nevertheless.

So, after playing Narc in that arcade a few hours, it became something as an obsession to me to have somehow that same exact gaming experience in home environment, and I ended up actually buying the Sega Mega Drive (Sega Genesis in North America) for that very reason.

Remember those Sega ads with “true arcade experience at home” –promises? I sure do.

Only later I learned that games were in fact far from arcade perfect conversions, but compromised and downgraded versions of their arcade counterparts, and as a cherry on top Narc, the main rationale behind my Mega Drive purchase, wasn’t even available on that platform in any shape or form, which broke my heart a little.

But when I saw Super Mario World running on Super Nintendo at a gaming store and it had in it that same exact pixelation effect I had saw in Narc, something moved in my chest. This could be it, the ticket to the Narc –experience I had waited for so long.

Later I did sold my Mega Drive and bought Super Nintendo to replace it, but not so much anymore for the hopes for Narc – I had already given up that idea a while ago as unrealistic – but for the Super Nintendo’s more advanced hardware that was capable for so much more, such as the pixelation effect. Still, the effect in question took me many times back to the moments of me and my bro playing Narc in that arcade, and at the same time, made me ponder the slightest possibility for Super Nintendo version of Narc, which, of course, never happened.

People often pursue to recreate things from their past that are just not recreatable. Moments in time are sums of infinite variables, and trying to recreate those moments to happen again is a doomed task. When trying to do so, it’s feasible to address only so many of the contributing factors. So, even if I’d managed to acquire somehow an arcade perfect Narc into my home back then, it still wouldn’t necessarly have brought back that feeling we had at that day, me and my bro playing the heck out of that game in that arcade.

We have to cherish the moments as they are happening, since when they are gone, they are gone for good.

The More The Merrier?

August 25, 2010

It is my understating that the original Test Drive (1987) on Amiga 500 really was the ground zero for the civil car racing genre on which Need for Speed and Gran Turismo –series, among others, are based. And besides that, everything that was cool with the 80s yuppie culture just came together in TD so beautifully.

Car rosters have since TD days grown dramatically, from TD’s 5 cars to hundreds of cars. Gran Turismo 5 is set to have 1000 cars in it, although only 200 of them are so-called premium cars with dashboards and nuts-and-bolts-modeling.

So how many cars one really needs to enjoy a racing game?

I have this theory which I call “the pie of appreciation”. I believe that the amount of appreciation one can have towards luxury items is fixed to some extent. Indeed, one cannot increase one’s total appreciation by hogging more luxury objects, since additional items don’t provide more of the pie, but only slice the pie one already has into more pieces. Luxury is a zero-sum game.

This is why, I believe, it’s irrelevant how many cars one has in a racing game when the amount of cars goes beyond some reasonable number, say, 15. The higher the number gets, the smaller the piece of appreciation pie becomes per car. I remember having so much fun playing TD with only 5 cars, because back then you really had a chance to develop a special relationship to every each of the cars, in contrast to the sea of cars found in Need for Speed: SHIFT.

In addition, people in general don’t like to make decisions, let alone when there’re tens of options to choose from. Even a child gets frustrated when she has too much toys to play with.

Naturally, I’m not by any means against a huge number of cars in a racing game. It is pretty cool to have own virtual car museum with the possibility to take every exhibit for a spin at will.

Thoughts On Hardcore

August 13, 2010

A while ago there was – perhaps rightly so – a bit of murmur when I referred to myself as a hardcore gamer. According to comments, I’m not a hardcore gamer since I’m not playing games like NetHack or other games with an extremely high learning curve. Fair enough, but I’m still having a hard time describing my relationship to the gaming in any other manner than as hardcore. But me being a hardcore gamer or not isn’t interesting in the slightest sense.

What is interesting is the notion of hardcore itself. What does it mean? For starters, the term hardcore presupposes that there is a wider, more diverse spectrum of audience in which core the “hard ones” are. Indeed, one cannot be a hardcore if there’s no softcore to compare with.

In short, my understanding of the matter is, that a hardcore is an enlightened enthusiast of a particular field of culture that is also recognized by the mainstream, which is actually the ultimate paradox of any snobbery in any field: we need the mainstream in order to exist.

If we look at the history of spectacle, for instance the Magic Lantern, the medium, or picture apparatus, itself was more than enough to attract people, therefore the show was aimed basically for every demography who were only able to take part in the event. Since then, the same has recurred every time a new medium has been introduced. It takes time for people to see pass the medium and start to demand content that is relevant to their interests, which leads to the birth of genres. At that point, the audience starts to divide and subcultures start to rise. In a way, the appearance of a hardcore audience segment is a sign that the medium in question is starting to stabilize itself, which is a good thing. And at the moment, video games are right in the middle of that process, which makes the medium so exciting.

Of course, the term “hardcore “ is completely interchangeable with the term “nerd”, but who wants to be a nerd when you can be a hardcore?