Yes, Size Did Matter

February 4, 2012

The younger audience of today is probably having hard time comprehending the concept of sprite that pretty much defined real-time imagery for more than a decade or so between the 80s and 90s. Sure, we do still use the term to denote planar 2D images representing 3D objects in a 3D space, but it has a very different meaning today than back in the day.

In the era of 8 and 16 bit systems, like the Commodore 64, Super Nintendo or Neo Geo, sprite denoted specifically an independent, dynamic visual object (like a space ship or a race car) of which properties, such as size and number, related directly to the capabilities of a certain piece of hardware. So, for instance, the C64 could display no more than 8 sprites at a time which paled in comparison to the 96 sprites the more advanced Neo Geo was able to push to the screen at once. Put simply, sprites were Lego-like building blocks for the dynamic elements of the game, and very much of the visual outcome depended on them, whether one liked it or not.

As said, not only the number of simultaneous sprites varied between the systems, but so did the sizes of them as well. That is, how many pixels one sprite could consist of in maximum, which was relatively few in lower-end systems, such as the C64. This limitation made larger game characters and other dynamic objects that more fascinating at the time, even if the assets usually consisted of several sub-sprites to make an impression of a one large one.

An iconic example in my mind is The Way of the Exploding Fist (1985) originally developed on the C64 that was, in addition to the great gameplay, celebrated indeed for its seemingly massive characters, which, of course, consisted of a number of separate sprites. Nevertheless, the size of the characters in and of themselves bore so much aesthetic value that the technical side was secondary: big was big was big.

Since the fascination of real-time imagery is very much based on the recognition of technical limitations and, at the same time, pushing that envelope of what is considered possible, it’s not coincidence that some games, especially the ones released on the launch of a new hardware platform, exploit this frame of thinking. The thing is, there is this short post-launch window within which a game can make an impression employing merely the basic features of the freshly released platform.

One instance that comes to mind is Super Mario World (1990) that came bundled with the Super Nintendo as a launch title. So, I believe the sole reason why there was a huge Bullet Bill, aka Banzai Bill, right at the first level was indeed to impress new console owners, or people playing at stores, with the power of the SNES. And since the sizes of game characters were highly limited in the previous generation of hardware, it was only natural to put an oversized version of an already established character to mediate the point across: Kids, we can have this big Bullet Bills from now on.

It was the inevitable decline of sprite-based hardware that made the issue of size obsolete in the realm of real-time imagery. Once everything was constructed with polygons, the dimensions of art assets became totally relative, and thus a non-issue technically speaking. Which seems to escape people who marvel, say, God of War III (2010) as a technological achievement for its colossal characters. I can too scale up a 3D model in a 3D software environment as much as I please and technically it makes no difference whatsoever.

If, then, one “superficial” attribute has to be singled out that bears any technical meaning in art assets today, it’s definition instead of size.

From Photorealism to Corporealism

January 27, 2012

The history of simulated space, as I wrote in my thesis, basically consists of going through several stages of development, most of which relate to the level of spatial latitude. My observation was that the freedom of movement the player, or the “camera”, has within a game has increased one dimensional/rotational axis at a time over the years, starting from a fixed game space with no spatial freedom at all (think of, say, PacMan), to the current state of six degrees of freedom (think of any modern game).

So games like Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and Doom (1993) were positioned somewhere between the two extremes, in that they lacked, thanks to the ray-casting technique, the ability to tilt the view up or down. The vertical lines remained parallel however player positioned the view within the game, there was no escaping it.  Interestingly this restriction liberated developers worrying about something that came with the first-person view, which is as follows.

As Quake (1996) was de facto the first FPS to introduce the full six degrees of freedom which allowed the player to genuinely look up and down, it also brought forward one of the biggest issues with the first-person view by and large. It’s as simple as when looking down in a FPS, one should, according to all logic, see the rest of the corpus, or at least the legs, especially since there are usually other body parts visible, i.e. hands holding the weapon or what have you.

The issue here is that in most cases the rest of the body simply isn’t there for people to behold. Even such prominent series like Half-life and Call of Duty employ a first-person view that bears little of the feel of controlling a physical corpus, but a floating, massless camera with arms and a gun attached to it instead. Yes, Call of Duty games do show the body of the character aside from the hands here and there during some of the cut-scenes, but, to my mind, that just doesn’t cut it.

The thing is, the first-person view should be all about the illusion of being in someone else’s shoes, quite literally, so it surprises me to some extent that so many games of that genre ignore the rest of the body altogether. I know it’s mainly a technical thing and something which many people presumably don’t even care about so much. Nevertheless, I would argue that if FPSs want to move forward as a genre, the corporeal nature of the action has to be integrated more and more not only into the visuals, but core gameplay mechanics as well. I do acknowledge that such an endeavor probably isn’t as straightforward as when dealing with the third-person view, but pushing the envelope never is.

Much hyped Jurassic Park: Trespasser (1998) was an early, highly ambitious attempt to put some meat and bones into the FPS experience, failing miserably at almost every level. F.E.A.R. (2005) is worth mentioning as an endeavor to incorporate martial arts into the genre using a visible lower body, not to mention Dark Messiah of Might and Magic (2006).

To me, it was Crysis (2007) that showcased the impact a decent first-person body can have on the visuals overall. Indeed, to see one’s own shadow hovering over the sandy beaches while shooting at enemies was something of a breakthrough in my eyes, which would’ve not been feasible without the body casting the shadow. It still continues to amaze me whenever I pay attention to it, and boggles my mind why, for instance, the Call of Duty series still ignores completely this aspect.

Furthermore, Crysis earns extra kudos for the way weaponry and other movables are picked up using the character’s hands, and not just teleporting them into the inventory. Or, levitating objects at the center of the screen in the manner of Half-life 2 and derivatives. In Crysis, there really is a strong illusion of a physical connection to the game space through the character, and the brilliance of the system can’t be emphasized enough.

Then there are instances where the first-person view wouldn’t make much sense without rendering the rest of the body. Mirror’s Edge (2008), for one, is a great example of a first-person game which makes great use of the body when parkouring over the rooftops, or delivering kicks and punches. In addition, the corporeality manifests also through the gameplay itself in terms of inertia, mass, and momentum that each have to take account when jumping and landing with the character.

That said, I still wouldn’t go so far as Shift 2: Unleashed (2011) which featured so-called Helmet Cam that put the view inside, you guessed, a helmet. Sure, that sounds like a logical extension to what I’ve written about here that everything related to the game character should be modeled in the first-person view. However, for some reason, such a solution feels gimmicky and, moreover, wrong.

So what my position is regarding the first-person view is that when presenting a game from it, everything below the neck should be there visible to the player, not merely arms and hands like most games seem to operate. I guess I have to make a follow up post to open that “neck-line” dogma further, but it most probably has got to do with the fashion the player’s real head and body relate to the screen.

The Fourth Wall

January 17, 2012

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.

Understanding Light

January 8, 2012

There are a few developers in the video game space who go above and beyond the call of duty when putting a game together. I’m referring to developers who radiate deep, otherworldly understanding towards the medium in question, and possess enough ambition, technology, and talent to pull the developer’s vision off, more or less accurately.

One developer who qualifies as such in my eyes no questions asked is Polyphony Digital, responsible of the Gran Turismo series released exclusively on the PlayStation platforms. In short, GT series could be described as one long, meticulously calligraphed love letter to the automobile industry and everything related, or, conversely, an ultimate, yet affordable fantasy for car enthusiasts at large.  And while the people playing the games sometimes tend to cut corners, Polyphony Digital is definitely driven not to, which comes crystal clear when scrutinizing the newest installment in the series, Gran Turismo 5 released on the PlayStation 3.

Granted, GT 5 suffers from a few painful compromises, not least of which being the dreadful decision to include tracks and cars from the previous iteration only to bump up the numbers printed on the cover. Yes, I really hate the solution as it renders the visuals inconsistent, to say the least, and I’m all about consistency. I believe Polyphony Digital CEO Kazunori Yamauchi hated it too.

What wasn’t compromised in GT 5 was the simulation of light, which is, I would argue, very close to optimal the hardware in question can handle. The beauty of it doesn’t lie in the definition of the simulation per se (e.g. shadows in the cockpit can be quite jaggy), but in the profound understanding of how light interacts with various materials and optical apparatuses such as a camera or an eye in terms of exposure. Indeed, when simulating an entity or a phenomenon, everything is done in vain if one doesn’t grasp the core nature of the object being simulated, and GT 5 seems to avoid that shortcoming to a great extent. The lighting obviously knows what it’s doing.

Furthermore, the aspect that strikes immediately with the lighting is the extremely clean, non-obstructive look of it. The thing is, the extensive use of bloom, color grading, and obnoxious lens flares (there are good ones) are usually cheap strategies to salvage the image from the mediocrity. Bad post-processing is indeed like an old, wrinkled lady trying impress people by plastering her face with a tons of make-up. GT 5 stands on, in addition to the excellent modeling and texturing work, such a robust lighting solution, both precalculated and real-time, that it needs no saving make-up to look appealing and, above all, real.

However, the ultimate testament and benchmark for the GT 5’s rock solid lighting model is the Photomode with which one can produce near photorealistic images. The Photomode is like a window to the future and PD’s nod to the gaming community that “If we just had more horsepower available, this would be the level of realism we’d be dealing with now. We understand light. We have the technology.” Indeed, no other game comes even close to GT 5 as far as photomodes go, not even Forza Motorsport 4 by Turn 10 Studios.

As said, the beauty of GT 5 stems obviously from other factors too, such as the texturing and modeling work, but in the end, everything comes down to the simulation of light. There’s no way around it. And it’s exhilarating to see that there are developers who get that exceedingly well.

Getting Physical

December 30, 2011

I’m not particularly proud to admit that for a while in my youth I believed that pro wrestling (what a confusing term) was actually a real sport similar to, say, boxing. To my credit, pro wrestling is presented as such with “real” announcers, referees, and everything. Nevertheless, it amazes me how fake those kicks and punches that I once took for real now appear to me as an adult when occasionally watching pro wrestling, which is a testament to the fact how incompetent the judgment of a young mind can be.

Obviously the fakeness of the pro wrestling combat stems from the fact that the kicks and punches, even if showy, aren’t full contact, but merely soft landing slaps or ones that miss the target altogether. There is indeed very little actual physical interaction in play when the punches start to fly in pro wrestling, and the crux of such a show is, well, the show – the spectacle.

Then there are actual sports that include genuine physical violence but, in a way, don’t come across as violent as pro wrestling in terms of sheer scope of actions. Even the least holds barred sport Mixed Martial Arts include relatively little trading of (successful) kicks and punches per match, and more often than not MMA bouts reduce into unexciting unspectacles of hugging and squishing. The point of this is to say that actual violence is rarely as spectacular as fiction at large often depicts it to be. Only consider the contrast between a real boxing match experienced via TV and any of the Rocky movies, and you see what I’m after.

What then comes to violence found in video games, first of all, I’m not a fan of graphic violence per se. However, as I wrote earlier, I don’t have a particular problem with simulated violence. Some violence can actually add immensely to the overall gaming experience when done properly. Furthermore, at least one can be dead sure the violence in a video game isn’t real, in contrast to mediums like film or video which are more ambivalent towards that question.

That said, I remember finding the very first Virtua Fighter fascinating, as it represented for the first time credible full contact combat in fiction, instead of that obvious fakery found in movies or, let alone, pro wrestling. Thanks to the polygon graphics, kicks and punches actually did intersect with the opponent’s corpus, thus giving an impression of genuine physical impact. Of course, the game engine of VF was rudimentary at best and didn’t even include any actual physics simulations whatsoever. Yet, the combat in VF was not only more real and tangible than in other fiction, but at the same time, one could argue, more spectacular than real hand-to-hand combat.

However, the most intriguing aspect what follows from all this is the fact that simulated pro wrestling is, in a sense, far more real than the actual, live-action version of it. Indeed, wrestling games, such as WWE ‘12 by THQ, seem to be more truthful to the supposed frame of reference of the exercise in question, which is, presumably, defeating an opponent using violence in a regulated, non-fixed match. Actual pro wrestling neglects that premise altogether for the sake of the drama and the spectacle, which manifests itself as faked punches and fixed matches.

I wonder if this is the hyper-real (more real than the real itself) about which Jean Baudrillard so much talked? Is simulated violence some sort of hyper-violence? Does the title Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting finally make sense?

Of course everything said above applies also to computer-generated imagery at large, such as the very cool Assassin’s Creed trailer mentioned earlier. Video games just happen to add an extra layer to the mix, the interactivity, which makes the situation that more fascinating.

Remember that resorting to violence is never an answer,  outside video games, that is.

Lack of Character

December 16, 2011

It must have come across by now that my stance on scripted narrative in video games is somewhat ambivalent since on the one hand I believe predetermined stories are a direct violation against the very core of the medium in question, and on the other hand I find some in-game scripted events and machinimas fascinating nevertheless. I guess that’s one paradox I have to live with.

First of all, I am a huge proponent and fan of emergent gameplay (or emergent narrative), and it feels almost redundant to bring up Grand Theft Auto IV to illustrate once again what that means, but I believe it bears repetition. So, thanks to the sophisticated physics, decent Artificial Intelligence and other nuances, GTA IV is one of the few games that creates an environment (sort of an eco system of simulations) complex enough to allow the true spirit – the magic – of video games to take place, that is the unscripted, sometimes hilarious, random occurrences.

Emergent gameplay is precisely the reason why scripted narrative feels so out of place in video games. It, in a way, brings forward the core problems of the preconceived stories, as emergent narrative is the direct opposite of scripted narrative, especially those conveyed by cut scenes. In fact, the mere existence of cut scenes is the criminating evidence of the fact that scripted storylines don’t play well with games.

Moreover, characters on which scripted narrative is built generally fail more or less for the same grounds. Simply put, there is an irreconcilable conflict between written, “cinematic” characters, and the player’s agency on one. One way to deal with the problem is to minimize the character altogether, like the Half-life series did. Another way is to allow the player to create a character to his/her own liking, like, for instance, in The Elder’s Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Assassin’s Creed series is an illuminating example of, supposedly, character-centric games, or at least ones that are heavily marketed and perceived as such. For instance, Joystiq.com titled their piece on AC Revelations as “concluding Ezio’s story this November”. That in mind, consider the contrast between any trailer of AC games and the gameplay of the games itself, and tell me, which medium makes the characters of AC appear more serious and dramatic: the games or the trailers? Okay, the former example may be a bit unfair and purposefully selected, but it illustrates my point perfectly.

What, then, makes cinema, such as the aforementioned trailers, so effective at building characters is the medium’s total and utter control over how a character is exposed to the audience. Characters in video games, however, are solely in a mercy of the player, and no amount of carefully thought out backstory and other characterization will help when the player chooses to fool around and diminish all the mystique the character in question supposedly posses. Remember the mall scene in Heavy Rain how ridiculous the child-searching protagonist appeared when the player chose to hit repeatedly the x button to make him shout “Jason” just too many times to be a convincing worried father? The problem is, once again, choice – a choice to ruin.

In the end, characters in movies are more often than not idealized versions of the persons being depicted, which cinema as a medium allows. Interestingly, it seems that a video game character acts more as a mirror or a tool for self-expression than a vessel for an idealized person, which becomes apparent just watching the previously linked AC video. The one filmed with a camera phone.

After all, video game characters of today are nothing more than highly sophisticated action figures or marionettes of which strings are pulled via controller. And kids do play with their toys, not always as the toymaker thought and hoped they would, but how ever they feel like.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

December 7, 2011

Given the somewhat stalled rate at which consumer real-time imagery has been evolving the past half-decade or so, it’s hard to imagine now that there was a period of time when one could basically pinpoint a game to a specific year of release by the mere looks of it. Consider, for instance, the consequential jumps in visuals from Wolfenstein 3D (1992) to Doom (1993), and further on to Descent (1994) – all this in a span of 31 months.

For reasons beyond me, Quake released in 1996 is often attributed as the first commercial engine that popularized the full 3D paradigm in a first-person context even though it was Descent that did the same exact thing 18 months prior. Sure, the Quake Engine was undeniably more sophisticated in a number of respects, but Descent was de facto trailblazer of that short period of time between so-called 2,5D (aka pseudo-3D) such as Doom and full 3D such as Quake.

On a side note (and in all fairness), the Ultima Underworld games released in 1992 and 1993 did were very closely in par with Descent judging solely by the list of supported features. However, the UU graphics engine was simply so far ahead of its time that a) there wasn’t hardware available that ran it at aesthetically pleasing speed, and b) the engine itself was a bit of a mess and far from the robustness of the aforementioned games, such as Descent. Therefore, I feel the UU engine was a bit “cheating” its way to the avant-garde position it held a couple of years.

So, not only Descent expanded the simulation of (texture-mapped) space into six degrees of freedom and introduced actual 3D enemies instead of sprites to the first-person genre, Descent employed a dynamic lighting system that was rather mind-boggling at the time. In contrast to Doom and the like, in addition to the static lighting Descent allowed traversing light sources that rendered shooting lasers and missiles quite a spectacle, especially in narrow corridors which Descent was known for.

It was indeed the shadowy tunnels that really showcased the dynamic lighting in action, and I remember reading at least one review of Descent at the time raving about how impressive the setting in question was. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure the exceptionally dark and lenghty tunnels found here and there in Descent were included into the level design precisely to bring forward the then-novel lighting system, and as such, successfully so.

Sometimes there is a distinct moment when a new technology establishes itself and becomes an actual, tangible reality in one’s mind. For me, that dark tunnel in Descent that lighted up as the missile glided through was one of those defining moments, and even if the effect was rudimentary at best, it was a substantial step towards dynamic illumination in a real-time context at large. Light sources simply couldn’t be completely fixed anymore from then on.

As said, 18 months later Quake did ended up pushing both static and dynamic lighting forward making Descent visually obsolete. Funnily enough, it was this time around the static lighting that impressed me the most, particularly the unprecedented, if static, cast shadows in the environments. Interestingly it took in turn almost a decade to make such shadows move and react in real-time.

For me, following and contemplating real-time imagery, and technology in general, is all about moments of realization that something that wasn’t considered feasible is now just that. And it can be a darkest tunnel that shines light on that new reality.