Archive for the ‘Texturing’ Category

Smoother, Sharper, Duller

May 20, 2012

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.

Juvenile Textures

November 3, 2011

If I had to single out one game that has had the most profound impact on me merely in terms of visuals, I’d say Daytona USA by Sega back in 1993 when I saw it at the local arcade for the first time. I was 13 years old, and to describe the experience as religious to some extent isn’t that far-fetched. It rocked my world and irreversibly changed the way I perceive real-time imagery.

What I didn’t realize back then was the fact that Daytona USA represented the first title of so-called Model 2 lineup of games, many of which would follow more or less the success of Daytona USA. Model 2 was the first arcade system board by Sega which used filtered texture mapping to provide speed and detail never seen before in a mainstream real-time imagery. That meant the team behind Daytona USA had to consider texturing as an integral part of creative process for the first time. And it shows.

There is, in my mind, this carefree, even childish, sentiment towards texturing, in a sense that the texturing is more stylistic than realistic. Granted, the visual design of that era of games at large was generally more grounded in visual styles than a striving for photo-realism due to technical limitations which were compensated with immense artistic license. Still, considering the context of the game, which resembles real-life stock car racing, the texturing was perhaps more stylistic and fantastical than would’ve been technically necessary. In short, Daytona USA could’ve looked more (photo) real than it did.

For instance, the foliage textures are not only unrealistically inconsistent in terms of hue throughout the game, but far too bright and colorful to be taken as credible representations of vegetation – even by the 1993 standards. The next major Model 2 game, Sega Rally, released a year after was already far more coherent and convincing what comes to visual realism through texturing, which underlines the fact that the fantastic and stylistic nature of Daytona USA wasn’t something made out of technological reasons but by design (deliberately or not).

There are yet other examples of this rather creative and laid-back nature of texturing, such as the cliffs that look like moon surface in the Beginners Circuit, the yellow strobo-lights in the Advanced Circuit’s tunnel, and the surveillance monitor passageway in the Expert Circuit, to name but a few.

In the end, I believe the overall design of the textures in Daytona USA came down to two main factors.

The first factor, as hinted earlier, was the inexperience of the team, which manifested as lack of proper art direction in terms of visual consistency. It seems like each member of the texturing team designed their own subset of textures without seeing each other’s work until the end.

The second factor ­– and remember, this is me speculating – has to do with the technology itself, in a sense that back in 1993 when Daytona USA came out real-time textures, let alone filtered ones, were a subject of amazement in themselves, meaning basically any design would’ve been somewhat remarkable. So, I guess it was expected to see the developer to go a little crazy with the designs, which in fact happens with just about any novel technology that comes along.

But regardless of everything, I find the look of Daytona USA extremely charming in all its incoherence, even today. In addition, I really liked the Sega’s overall vision back in the 90s of one virtual parallel universe that its arcade games supposedly shared, at which heart Daytona USA undeniably was.

One of a Kind

August 26, 2011

I can go on record by saying that texture mapping is the best thing ever happened to real-time graphics, as far as pure technology goes. Therefore, unless something utterly otherworldly happens, we will never have another technological breakthrough of that magnitude in the realm of real-time imagery, which is kind of depressing.

Indeed, to witness hardware-accelerated texture mapping in Sega Model 2 games, such as Daytona USA and Virtua Fighter 2, for the first time at the local arcade was something of a life-altering event for the 15 year-old me. In addition, such sophisticated texture mapping got me thinking that it made real-time graphics finally rich enough visually to be turned into a means to make, for instance, feature movies, which they eventually did.

In this day and age most people probably take texture mapping for granted, but I don’t. I have indeed lived through the transition from plain filled polygons to texture mapped ones, and vividly recall the time when texture mapping was a rare commodity, and partly thus have this peculiar appreciation towards the said technology.

So, the way art assets, like textures and geometry, are primary employed in a video game is to reuse them as much as possible in order to conserve precious memory and ease the workload of the artists. This modus operandi dates back to the very dawn of the medium, thus the perception of today’s gamer is conditioned over the years to encounter the same assets again and again during the game, and, to a degree, accepts that reality. It is what it is.

Then there are delightful exceptions to that rule, like Street Fighter IV type of games (about which I wrote earlier) that provide highly limited spatial freedom, and are thus capable to provide almost completely unique art assets throughout the game. More freedom means more virtual space to fill. Of course, the above can be considered as the age-old quality vs. quantity dichotomy in which “quality” means in this case the overall diversity of visual content. And it’s rather safe to say that quality vs. quantity is an inescapable condition of any creative process, not just that of real-time imagery.

That said, to me it’s exceedingly captivating to come across unique art assets in a game with a relatively high-level of spatial freedom, which happened recently with Portal 2. Like said, Portal 2 is rather pleasant to look at in the first place, but it was the cool graffiti at the beginning of the game that really caught my eye and imagination. At this point, I have to bring up once again Walter Benjamin’s concept of the Aura of an art piece, and how the Aura diminishes when the piece is reproduced. Since real-time imagery seems to be inherently the most repetitive medium what comes to the visual building blocks, the rare and unique art assets really have a profound effect to the trained, or better, conditioned perception, like mine.

Scarcity creates value, and I would do like to see more unique assets, especially textures like the aforementioned graffiti, implemented throughout the games at large. It takes some extra work to do so, but I believe it’s easily worth it and people will appreciate the effort, if not directly, then at least at the unconscious level.

Miracle of Literacy

February 21, 2011

What comes to the history of human enterprises, there’s nothing like the one that involves conveying ideas through series of characters forming words and sentences, i.e. writing. Regardless that I love the concepts of reading and writing per se, and believe that the whole human existence actually comes down to the said practices, I’m not a huge reader (or a writer) myself. I’m more like a listener, or a spectator, who just happens to spurt every now and then something out onto the keyboard, for better or for worse.

Interestingly, regarding mediums in general, it seems to require a certain level of technological sophistication for a medium to uphold and convey legible information. Think about for instance the evolution of common paper, how much iteration it must have took before we had anything near as convenient and suitable for written communication as modern paper is.

In the same sense, when texture-mapping finally broke through into the realm of real-time imagery, the most mind-blowing aspect for me was indeed the mere idea that, for instance, in a racing game you could now read stuff out of other cars and trackside objects, instead of just watching solid rectangles to glide past. The ability to read words like “Toyota” or “Valvoline” out of objects was like an ultimate indicator that something profoundly subversive had just happened to the real-time polygon-based imagery as a medium. Stone tablets had now become, if not paper, then papyrus at least.

I’ll never forget the experience at the local arcade when I encountered for the first time Ridge Racer and Daytona USA, which were the first cases of real-time texture-mapping I had ever seen thus far in the early 90s. It was nothing short of surreal to see the graphics paradigm as you knew it to shift before your very eyes. And when I got my first texture-mapped game IndyCar Racing few years later, I remember constantly eyeing those billboards around the tracks, reading them and thinking how cool this new super-detailed “world” really was. And how there was no going back.

Yes, it really can’t be stressed enough how big of a deal texture-mapping was to real-time imagery at large. The sheer amount of visual details basically skyrocketed overnight in the wake of texture-mapping, and it’s hard to imagine a breakthrough of equal caliber happening again in any foreseeable future.

World of Papercraft

February 18, 2011

Polygons are fascinating things. Even though they are de facto building blocks for modern 3D imagery, they are in fact inherently 2D entities, bearing no structural thickness or depth whatsoever. Consequently, the logic of how polygon-based objects behave resembles more of an origami than actual, analog solid matter – even today. Only thing that has evolved in the end is the number of folds the hollow papercraft-like objects are being made of, the core nature remaining basically the same over the years.

Of course, polygons are only one side of the prevailing graphics paradigm, texture-mapping being the other one. Texture-mapping has basically had two main functions: One is to add color and, well, texture to surfaces, and second, to provide detail that is unreasonable to carry out with polygons.

Regarding the latter function, texture-mapping was indeed used for a period of time to depict relatively large details like door handles, air intakes, body seams, and headlights, instead of polygons. And since bitmaps can’t provide genuine depth or structure, such details often looked particularly flat and artificial, even if necessary, at the time. In fact, they often reminded me of those stickers on some of my childhood toys that tried to depict extra detail, like buttons or other gadgetry, but which appeared as a cheap strategy to save effort and plastic.

The evolution of polygon-based graphics naturally discarded decal-like approaches when hardware became capable enough to handle more than a handful of polygons on the screen at once. Finally at some point, it indeed became feasible to model most of the details with polygons, even though bump/normal-mapping is obviously still used to handle the most tiniest shape variations.

So, where I’m going with all this is to set up the somewhat anachronistic moment I had with imagery from Gran Turismo 5, which resonated with something I wrote earlier. See, NASCAR cars have these stickers on them that emulate headlights, grills, and other details found in civil cars, giving them more familiar, identifiably look. However, when that concept is translated into a video game context, such as GT 5 (or any other game including NASCAR cars for that matter), it comes across as a nod to the said dawn of texture-mapped imagery, when complex details were indeed pulled off without heavy use of polygons, like they are now.

All things considered, I can only imagine the oddness the artist must have felt creating such an “unrealistic”, “fakey” texture in the late 2000s at the Polyphony Digital offices. I wonder if there was similar out-of-placeness also present when someone modeled Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk for, say, Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. back in 2009.  Just take a brief look at it, and you must grasp what I mean.

Epic Castle

November 3, 2010

The original Unreal developed by Epic Games back in 1998 really was the second time when I was genuinely blown away by the mere visuals of a video game in home environment, first one being Doom in 1994. I believe Unreal was back then one of the first games to take every bit out of newly released 3DFX –card: Sophisticated lens flares, colored lights, dynamic reflections on some of the floors, multi-layered textures, volume fog, and so on. And not to mention the moment when I stepped outside of the ship and saw the breathtaking skybox with moving clouds for the first time, I’ll never forget that.

But as a game, Unreal was deemed as a glorified “tech demo”, and I have to agree with that to some extent. In fact, the demo at the Unreal’s start screen, in which the camera flew around this castle, demoing basically everything the engine had on its sleeve, was almost enough for me to get satisfied with.

So, does this sound any familiar?

Yes, Epic pulled off the exact same thing earlier this year when Cliff Bleszinski presented Unreal Engine 3 on iOS with Epic Citadel –technology demo at the Apple event. People, including me, couldn’t believe that the castle in Epic Citadel really was rendered in real-time on a tiny handheld device that iPhone/iPod Touch is, it simply looked too good to be true. But it was.

I think Epic Citadel is an interesting case in many sense.

First of all, it amazes me how Epic provided me almost the same exact sense of wonderment with two different titles 12 years apart, given the rapid progression of the industry. Ok, id Software has no bad track record either, but it breaks my heart to ask how relevant id actually has been lately? [update: RAGE HD on iPhone looks pretty awesome] Epic has become almost a synonym for high quality graphics, and such breakthrough titles under its belt like Gears of War, besides being the best looking title of its time and giving birth to a genre, really have proved Epic’s worth.

Secondly, Epic Citadel’s technology is out of this world. Of course, I’m saying this only because of the platform on which it is, but nevertheless, it’s pretty amazing that we can now run graphics on a device this small that are in some sense on par with of Half-life 2. And the fact that Epic Citadel uses a technology called relief mapping that renders some of the textures in pseudo 3D, which HL 2 lacked altogether, blows my mind the most.

Ok, Cliff Bleszinski could use some medium size t-shirts for a change instead of those extra small ones, I’ll give you that.

Those Hot Tail Lights

August 22, 2010

I have a special relationship to the Race Driver: GRID. I own a PlayStation 3 copy of the game with Codemasters’ signatures all over it (thanks to this animation), although I don’t own that particular console. Furthermore, I still find GRID exceptionally pleasing aesthetically in various ways, regardless of the extreme post-processing that felt a bit iffy at the beginning, and which I have criticized before.

But above all, what caught my eye right off the bat were the tail lights, and especially the supposed LED –ones. They just looked gorgeous under the darkening sky of the Yokohama docks, as if the old El Diablo himself was staring at you, spitting flames out of his exhaust-mouth.

So, the reason why the tail lights looked to me so impressive in GRID is two fold, I believe.

First, the modern LED –lights simply look cool even when encountered in real-life. LEDs usually make a car look more contemporary and in some cases, even provide this subtle touch of sci-fi (see Lamborghini Reventón).

Secondly, and more importantly, the tail lights indicate very delicately how far the texturing has come from the early days of texture mapping, in terms of resolution. If there had been LEDs in cars in the early 90s, it would have been impossible to make textures to represent them in a game; the resolution would had not just been there yet to capture all the necessary details.

So perhaps there’s a little destiny involved that LEDs appeared in cars in the time when we have enough resolution at our disposal to make textures of them.