Page 28, press hold, and reveal. Digitiser's founder speaks out
A tale of two Davids
Edge #140, September 2004
Art is subjective. One man's Picasso is another man's pissy old rubbish, which is precisely why most art critics contribute less to society than the average crack whore. Simply put, you can't win a debate about art. If you call a piece of art 'crap', the artist can argue: "Ah, but you're talking about it, therefore the art has served its purpose, and excuse me one moment while I insert this Polaroid of myself into my own bottom." It's a reasonable point, but does it apply to games, in an industry whose critics frequently credit a game's graphics with their own rating?
A wise man once remarked that he didn't see the point of paintings; why spend all that time trying to recreate a sunset when it'd be far easier and far less time-consuming to capture one in a photograph? See, the whole reason people from The Olden Times used to paint was because they were too stupid to have invented cameras, but would the reality of the Mona Lisa have had more worth than a painstakingly rendered portrait?
I had another PC die on me this week. I'm now on my third this year, and have finally given up on laptops due to the fact they either keep getting too hot, and bursting into flames, or I punch them until the screen breaks. For once, it wasn't too painful a purchase to make. I'd been meaning to upgrade ever since I bought the previous useless piece of badness, which first bust more or less the day I got it, and was barely powerful enough to run Minesweeper. This time around I bit the bullet, and went for a throbbing beast. With Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 en route, and having suffered the indignity of playing Far Cry with the graphics settings so low that it could've been An Exciting Adventure In Origamiland, I'd been getting jitters that I'd been left out of the fun.
Touch wood (matron!), but thus far it's proving a good buy. Apologies for stating what all of you already know, but Far Cry really does look as amazing as all those reviews said. Far and away, it's the most impressive recreation of reality ever seen in a game. I wasted about an hour on the carrier level just looking at the way the light played off a set of steps, and glimmered on the surface of a torpedo. I shot at light fittings so I could watch shadows bounce around corridors, refracting through hissing clouds of steam. I even invited my father round to show him the rippling water, gently waving foliage and the texture of rocks. I was profoundly entranced by the lush, tropical locale, the crystal-blue sea, soaring birds, darting fish and the glow bugs which glittered as night fell.
It was only when I called my 86 daughters in from the garden to point out the awe-inducing wonder of a mountaintop vista did I get slapped back into reality. Rather than be awed like myself, they were utterly unimpressed. And why should they have been otherwise? They'd just been out in the garden, where there were all the realistic textures and bouncing shadows and gently waving foliage you could ever want. Out in the garden were real birds, and real worms, and a real man watching them from the bushes. In the garden, things didn't ever slow down because too much stuff was going on. In the garden you could throw a rock, and shatter next door's greenhouse, and you wouldn't think to stop and admire the way the glass fell to the ground as the sun flared off each individual shard. Admittedly, because you'd be too busy legging it, but I digress.
The girls were thoroughly unimpressed by Far Cry purely because the whole thing did look so realistic. "It's like a photograph," one of them remarked. And she wasn't wrong (although technically she was, because photographs don't move, the stupid little idiot).
As gorgeous as Far Cry is, you can appreciate that perhaps more time went into programming the routines to recreate light and shadows, and wavy plants, as it did the look of the game. How designed was the game world anyway? No doubt the trees, the huts, the guns and the costumes were referenced from real-life counterparts. In fact, the least impressive aspects of the game were the elements not drawn from real equivalents; the monsters were all a bit uninspired. It's endemic of a problem at the heart of gaming's trajectory.
My colon whimpered when I saw screenshots of Nintendo's next Zelda opus. It may indeed look beautiful, but it's a different kind of beauty to Wind Walker. Though Wind Walker could've looked a little less bare, I respected what Nintendo was trying to do. I looked forward to the series being developed along similar lines, with the visual style being refined and built upon. Rather than stick to its guns, Nintendo has ditched the cel shading for a more realistic visual style. It seems that the days of genuine game artistry are already behind us.
Take a look at Jak II. It's a fun game, it looks good, but it's woefully un-designed. There's a bland laziness to the visuals, a sense they're merely serving a function rather than trying to impress. The examples of genuine gaming artistry - of worlds that have been designed for more than just functionality - are being outnumbered by the breathless race for simulation. Or, in the case of firstperson shooters, a campaign to reintroduce bland, 1960s concrete-block architecture. For every Viewtiful Joe there's a thousand Jak IIs. For every Ico there's a Full Spectrum Warrior. For every XIII, or Rayman, a hundred Special Ops: Red Mercurys or Goldeneye 2s or Grand Theft Autos.
Perhaps I'm woefully out of step with public sensibilities, but it seems a shame that fewer and fewer developers are investing in the visual side of things with any sort of coherent sense of design. Don't get me wrong - simulation has its place. You'd have trouble transporting yourself into FIFA 2005 if the players were super-deformed caricatures, while the whole point of the Gran Turismo series is that it gives you the opportunity to drive cars you're too much of an impoverished pleb to ever be able to drive in real life. But there comes a point where you have to ask: why? Why does everything have to look so real and homogenised all of a sudden?
We need some more David Hockneys creating the visuals in our games, and a few less David Baileys. Who's he?
Mr Biffo is a semi-retired videogame journalist. His views do not necessarily coincide with Edge's
Do you know of any important moments from the annals of Digi history that have been omitted? If so, then mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) right now, man. Credit will be duly given for anything that gets put up.